High on aspirations, low on funds


Ruairí Quinn has been the most reforming Minister for Education in a generation, backing change to the Junior and Leaving Cert, the CAO, school patronage and much else. But how has Quinn changed the culture of his department, and what are his chances of success?

ASK ANY SENIORDepartment of Education official about Ruairí Quinn’s first six months in Marlborough Street and they invariably reach for two words: “exhilirating” and “exhausting”.

It has been a extraordinary period in which Quinn has thrown out the rule book. Whereas many of his predecessors were content to cast themselves as cheerleaders for the education system, Quinn has been critical, sceptical and impatient, not least about the department itself.

There was already considerable history between Quinn and the department by the time he reached the Minister’s desk, in April. As Labour spokesman on education, Quinn had regularly criticised the department’s management of Irish education, describing it on one occasion as malevolently dysfunctional. In June 2009 he complained to the Dáil about his continued failure to get detailed information from the department about the number of primary schools owned by the Catholic Church. “Either officials in the department are members of secret societies such as the Knights of St Columbanus and Opus Dei and have taken it upon themselves to protect the interests of these clerical orders . . . or, alternatively, the minister is politically incompetent and incapable of managing the Department of Education and Science.”

Quinn threw some other brickbats. There were some caustic references in the Dáil to the department’s speed and efficiency. And there was a devastating critique of its management of higher education. He spoke of a perception across the sector that the department was the “department for schools and teachers”, with little engagement in higher education.


On his first day in office, Quinn gathered his top management group – secretary general Brigid McManus and the 10 assistant secretaries – in a conference room. He said, “I have said some harsh things about this department. They are on the record and I stand by them. But I want to work with you to change things, to build policy and to address the failings of our educational system.”

For his senior officials, the most striking feature of the Quinn era is his working hours. For years, there has been a well-established routine in the department. The minister would do constituency work on Monday and Fridays, and Cabinet on Tuesday, leaving only Wednesday and Thursday in the department. Much of this time would be spent dealing with representations about school buildings and the like, leaving little time for blue-sky thinking.

Quinn has drawn up new rules. He arrives every morning before 8am. He has signalled to senior officials that he is not much bothered about constituency work. He likes to have a full day to focus on the task in hand: reforming and reinvigorating the education system.

His timing could scarcely have been better. Last December’s OECD survey that showed Ireland tumbling down the world rankings in literacy and numeracy has transformed the landscape. It has shattered the complacency and self-regard that have clung to the education system and has provided an opening for transformative change.

Quinn has described the study as a “wake-up call for Irish education”. We have been codding ourselves in believing we have one of the best education systems in the world, he says. His message: the old ways are no longer good enough. Irish education must shape up.


Another key moment arrived when Quinn, during his first few weeks as Minister, visited the department’s building unit in Tullamore. He found many members of staff whose morale had been sapped by never-ending representations about school buildings. One official complained about a culture in which the unit would sign off on a decision only to be overruled by the Minister working for his political machine. Quinn said that a new era was at hand: he promised no more clientalism and no more Tammany Hall. The school building programme should be transparent and accountable.

Quinn had come into the department with a broadly negative view of its management capacity. While minister for finance, in the mid-1990s, he had picked up on the negativity towards the department among the political class. This bad press has persisted: the department is seen as a place that is defensive, reactive and inward looking, and is criticised for not being driven by policy. There is, say critics, a culture of running away from big decisions and giving in to teaching unions.

To his great surprise, Quinn found that many key figures in the department were also tired of the old ways and receptive to change. Shortly before he took office, he asked for a briefing from department officials on the growing literacy crisis. At 8am the following day, Harold Hislop, the chief inspector of the department, and Alan Wall, a senior official, gave Quinn and some Dáil colleagues an overview of the problem. Quinn was impressed that, far from defending the status quo, the officials shared his enthusiasm for reform. He told a colleague, “I can work with these people.”

Quinn has established a very good rapport with several other senior figures in the department, including assistant secretaries Martin Hanevy and Seán O’Foghlu.

Two other officials have been a key part of his kitchen cabinet: his special adviser John Walshe, the former education editor of the Irish Independent, and his communications director, Deirdre Grant, the former TV3 journalist.


During a frenetic first six months in office, Quinn has rolled out a dizzying array of reform initiatives, almost on a weekly basis. These include a forum on school patronage, a national literacy initiative, reform of the Junior and Leaving Cert exams, changes to the CAO and college admission system, reform of school enrolment policies, changes in the structure of vocational education committees, proposed changes in teacher training and the establishment of Solas to replace a discredited Fás.

At times, some senior officials have urged a more measured approach, but Quinn has paid no heed. Within the department, some eyebrows were raised when he demanded that no less than half of Catholic primary schools should be transferred to new patrons.

But his tactic of setting ambitious targets for change – and working fast to achieve them – appears to be working. One department official says, “After a long lazy period, he has set the bar very high. We are working flat out to drive change.’’

Quinn has been different in other ways. Whereas some of his predecessors used only honeyed words about the education system, Quinn has been remarkably candid. The Leaving and Junior Cert exams are “no longer fit for purpose”. Junior Cert students, he says, “go through this chicane, a kind of shrinking thing . . . where you are really relying on what you can remember rather than what you think”. He has accused farmers and the self-employed of manipulating the third-level grants system. He has told the teaching unions and the school management groups not to waste his time with special pleading for more money. There is nothing in the kitty; Ireland is in receivership, he says.


All of this activity has given Quinn a high profile and won him a fair measure of public approval. But these are early days. Already, he has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn on college fees. And the increase in class size expected in the budget sits uneasily with talk of reform and renewal. He also has difficult decisions to make on special-needs assistants. Should he stick with the Fianna Fáil-Green ceiling of 10,400 or adopt a more generous, some would say compassionate, approach?

Quinn has also been sending mixed signals in public spending. He told the MacGill Summer School how education’s share of the national cake has contracted in recent years: fifteen years ago, 19 per cent of the exchequer’s gross expenditure went on education, 21 per cent on health and 22 per cent on social welfare; today, only 16 per cent goes on education, 25 per cent on health and 36 per cent on social welfare. He said this “dramatic shift has taken place without any real discourse about our national priorities”.

But Quinn has also promised he will “deliver for [Minister for Public Expenditure] Brendan Howlin” when it comes to cutbacks. While this message may have been intended for Labour colleagues, it is a reminder of the challenge of driving a reform agenda in an age of austerity.


Quinn spent much of his summer break in Roundstone, Co Galway, reading John Coolahan’s history of Irish education. It convinced him that the education system can be fundamentally changed relatively quickly. Donogh O’Malley, the great reformer of second-level education, was minister for education for just two years in the 1960s. Quinn is likely to be in education for another two years, until the midterm Cabinet reshuffle: there is already speculation he could be our next EU commissioner.

There are significant hurdles to overcome in education. The second-level teacher unions could act up on exam reform. A squeezed middle class has no stomach for higher college fees. The Catholic Church could dig in on patronage. Parents of children with special needs will not tolerate cuts.

Critics are already sniping that Quinn is high on aspiration and low on achievement. But the Minister appears to have an unshakeable confidence in his ability to enact change. Recently he told one senior colleague, “I have a background in architecture. I am not like an economist or an engineer who, when confronted with a problem, requests more data. Architects are given a problem and asked to find a solution. That’s what I am doing in education.”



ObjectiveTo have a school management system reflecting modern Ireland - basically, an end to Catholic control of 90 per cent of primary education.

Prospect of successGood. Report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, due in the autumn, should herald change.

Quinn wants 1,500 schools to be divested. That won’t happen. But the landscape has changed.


ObjectiveTo consign these old-fashioned exams to history, end rote learning and produce modern independent thinkers. Phew.

Prospect of successUncertain .

Much will depend on the second-level teacher unions, still uneasy about school-based assessment and fuming about education cuts. Can Quinn face them down?


ObjectiveTo provide a sustainable funding base for higher education. The colleges need hundreds of millions of euro to compete internationally and to cope with record numbers.

Prospect of successFair. Quinn has still to commit to third-level fees. If they return he will be accused of a U-turn and unleash an angry response. But the status quo is not an option as underfunded Irish colleges slide down the world rankings.


ObjectiveTo end the subtle practices used by some schools to cherrypick the “best” students and exclude less able, the disadvantaged and foreign nationals.

Prospect of successUncertain.

This could be the most controversial reformon the Quinn agenda. Schools don’t like being told how to run their admissions. And some parents, especially at the most prestigious schools, will not countenance change. Quinn will have to push hard - and use a big stick - if he wants to deliver real change.