Teacher's Pet


An insider's guide to education

After that gruelling round of three teacher conferences in three days, Ruairi Quinn took the train to Dublin from Tralee on Wednesday night. He was back in his office early last Thursday morning, ready for the next phase of his reform agenda.

Quinn can count his first tour of the Easter conferences as a major success. Despite his grim message about cutbacks and austerity, he still managed to draw a warm response from over 1,500 delegates; no mean achievement given the cutback culture in education.

Quinn will have been encouraged by the apparent willingness of the two second-level unions to co-operate with his plans to overhaul the Junior Cert exam. The leaderships of both unions know there is no percentage in being seen to oppose change – especially after those dismal OECD results exposed a crisis in Irish literacy and numeracy standards.

The Minister’s challenge now is to assess just how far he should go with exam reform. Should he push for a radical package involving more continuous assessment, oral exams in all language subjects and new measures to boost science – or should he just tinker around the edges?

Our guess is that Quinn is ready to be very radical. But will the rank-and-file in the teacher unions be willing to assess their own students in a new continuous-assessment environment? And how can the recast exam enjoy the same level of public confidence as the Junior Cert? These and other questions must be teased out by Quinn and his band of officials over the next month.

- Why are theteacher conferences held in some hotels which have seen better days when so many luxury hotels have spare rooms?

Apparently, the INTO, ASTI and TUI will only gather in hotels where trade unions are fully recognised. That said , there were no Fawlty Towermoments – and no sign of John Cleese at the three fine hotels which hosted this year’s teacher conferences: the Silver Springs (Cork), the Radisson (Sligo) and the Mount Brandon (Tralee).

- Father Michael Hayeswas appointed last week as the next president of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, one of the largest teacher training colleges in the State. Apparently, Professor Hayes is an internationally renowned academic in the field of Theology and Religious Studies. The Chair of Mary I, Very Rev Fr Tony Mullins said the college was extremely pleased with the appointment.

But will Ruairi Quinn join in the good wishes? Many Labour activists are unhappy about the situation in which most of the State-funded teacher training colleges are controlled by the Catholic Church.

Quinn has stayed silent on the issue since his appointment but major change is coming. The forthcoming reform of teacher education gives the new Government the opening it needs to restructure the teacher training colleges. Our guess? Quinn will grasp the opportunity – sooner rather than later.

- Is the ASTIcoming back from the dead? After a bruising period in its history, there were clear signs of life at the ASTI conference in Cork last week. Impressive new general secretary Pat King appears determined to push through radical change which will see the union refreshed and re-invigorated. King wants to shake up the creaking branch network in which a handful of activists can represent hundreds of members.

If he gets half a chance, he also wants to move on some of the old-timers – and retired teachers – who have hogged the ASTI spotlight for far too long.

But – having faced down the old-style militants in the union – King is now challenged by a new wave. The ad hoc ASTI Fight Back campaign gained a good deal of attention at the conference. It includes several luminaries of the left including Mark Walshe and Ruth Coppinger. The group only attracted about 30 members to a meeting on the ASTI fringe last week.

But its members are articulate and well-informed. Expect this group to become a major force – if the Government backs away from the Croke Park deal.

Got some education gossip? Send an email, in confidence, to teacherspet@irishtimes.com