How little education issues have changed in Ireland in 40 years

A new book in honour of the former TD and ‘Irish Times’ journalist John Horgan includes this account of his time as editor of ‘Education Times’, in the 1970s

Hot press: John Horgan (right) checks the first Education Times with printers Harry Doyle and Tommy Butterly

Hot press: John Horgan (right) checks the first Education Times with printers Harry Doyle and Tommy Butterly

 

I first met John Horgan in the late 1960s, when he was a religion and education correspondent for The Irish Times. It was a time of foment and change in both areas, and his refreshingly forthright reporting contributed to a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. By the early 1970s education issues were taking up more and more column inches, and John suggested that the Irish Times board consider a weekly education newspaper, similar to the Times Educational Supplement in the UK.

The managing director of The Irish Times, Maj Thomas McDowell, called John to his office to discuss the idea. McDowell was clear that if John undertook the project he would likely rule himself out of contention for the future editorship of the paper. John indicated that this was a risk he was willing to take.

The first issue of Education Times was published in time for the teacher conferences at Easter 1973. At 10p, it sold for a price designed to make it self-financing. Initial sales were encouraging – about 20,000 copies per issue. (By the time Education Times was wound up, in February 1976, sales had dwindled to about 5,000.) Education Times would cover education issues north and south and involve all sectors and levels, from preschool to third level.

Its emergence coincided with the election of a new Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Richard Burke of Fine Gael was appointed minister for education, a portfolio he held throughout the lifetime of Education Times. In some respects he was a reforming minister; in others he was committed to the status quo, especially in relation to the role of the church in education. He objected to the removal of corporal punishment and was decidedly unsympathetic to the developing multidenominational and integrated-education movements. Neither was he interested in educational planning, and within a short period of his appointment he “effectively terminated” the work of the development branch of the Department of Education.

Burke’s term was well documented by Education Times. When John was appointed he was already a member of Seanad Éireann, a position to which he had been first elected in 1969 and re-elected in 1973, representing the National University of Ireland constituency. The board of The Irish Times did not have a problem with John’s role as a senator as long as he remained an Independent.

But, in 1975, when Education Times was in its dying throes, John joined the Labour Party. He knew he would pay a high price, and Maj McDowell duly told him that he had broken his contract and could no longer work for The Irish Times. John left in early 1976, and at the general election of 1977 he was elected to Dáil Éireann.

A contemporary reader of Education Times cannot but be struck by the similarities between the issues that dominated education in the 1970s and those of today. Whether one’s focus is primary, second-level or higher education, the headlines could easily relate to present-day Ireland.

Preschool education was firmly on the agenda, with the Rutland Street Project receiving regular coverage. At primary level, the new curriculum of 1971 was in its early years of implementation, and a weekly pull-out with advice for primary teachers and examples of lesson planning is as relevant now as it was then.

With the multidenominational movement emerging in the South and the integrated-education movement in Northern Ireland, Education Times chronicled in detail the controversy at St Patrick’s National School in Dalkey that ultimately led to the setting up of the first Educate Together school, the Dalkey School Project.

At second level, the future role of religion in education was challenged by the impressively prescient Fire – or Future of Irish Religious in Education – report, written by Fr Paul Andrews, SJ. The question of who should control the new community schools was a source of ongoing controversy; successive draft deeds of trust were regularly leaked to Education Times. Concerns about the “secularisation of education” were voiced.

The Ice – or Intermediate Certificate Examination – report, in 1974, recommended reform of junior-cycle assessment and the introduction of school-based and continuous assessment.

And readers were warned that “modern education cannot ignore the computer”. Under the headline “Tomorrow is not cancelled”, a full page by a young architect and Labour Party activist, Ruairí Quinn, called for the inclusion of futurology in the second-level curriculum.

Inadequate financing for higher education was a major issue. The newly established Higher Education Authority drew attention to the danger of a “money shortage putting university standards at risk”, the Irish Federation of University Teachers called for more funding for research, and University College Dublin moved to counter a £1 million deficit.

The Union of Students in Ireland added its voice to the clamour for better funding for higher education. Richard Burke’s reply was succinct: “Unless one takes the irresponsible attitude of asking for more all around, with no thought as to where the money is to come from, one has to realise that more expenditure in one direction means less in another – an inequitable allocation to the third-level sector would be at the expense of the second- and first-level sectors.”

Education Times provides a fascinating overview of educational issues in Ireland 40 years ago. Rereading it now reminds us of how perennial many education issues are and how difficult educational change can be.

Aine Hyland is emeritus professor of education at University College Cork. This is an edited version of her piece in The State in Transition: Essays in Honour of John Horgan, edited by Kevin Rafter and Mark O’Brien, published by New Island

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