Unions less than impressed by education’s answer to Action Man

Quinn’s incendiary ‘highly feminised’ remark a foot-in-mouth moment


You have to give Ruairí Quinn credit for his pluckiness. Having opened up one front against the Catholic Church over school patronage, he sauntered into the minefield that is gender politics by announcing a new honours maths requirement for what he called the “highly feminised” teaching profession.

As battle tactics go for the teacher conferences, it was less Lao Tzu and more Brian Boru and he charged forth with reckless abandon.

Quinn was, as he explained afterwards, trying to pay “a compliment to young women”. Because there was no requirement to do honours maths – unlike honours Irish – trainee teachers would drop it even though they were well capable of excelling in the subject, he said.

Women teachers
But, as INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan explained, linking the high representation of women in teaching with allegedly low standards of maths in what she called “one equation” ran the risk of insult.

“Sisters – hell hath no fury!” was Nunan’s response from the podium, a call to arms which got thunderous applause from her members who had gathered for her union’s annual congress in Kilkenny.

While she was “quite agnostic” about the Minister’s proposal on honours maths, she remarked “the sisterhood knows . . . that 30 into one teacher does not go very easily”. As for the suggestion that they might be under-qualified, “let me tell you, the boys that did the honours maths led this country to ruination”.

With that, the roof nearly came off the Lyrath Estate conference hall. If this was the Battle of Clontarf, the Minister was now playing the role of a routed Silkenbeard.

Nunan was happy to downplay the spat later. There was an element of delegates seeking to let off steam at a Minister who had overseen cuts in resources and pay while heaping on new paperwork attached to his policy initiatives.

The Minister is on a crusade not just to make Catholic schools more inclusive but to boost professionalism through increased accountability and new teaching practices. But the trade unions are less than impressed with education’s answer to Action Man, with the INTO calling for a “moratorium on initiatives”.

This was quickly followed by the ASTI’s hostile reception yesterday to his Junior Cycle reforms, a plan that would see teachers engaged in giving more “feedback” to pupils and taking the focus off exams.

The jeering and boos that greeted Quinn’s speech to the secondary teacher unions in Wexford were somewhat predictable. But they were given added spice when Andrew Phelan, a Waterford man teaching in Lucan, produced a megaphone to drown out the Minister’s words with cries of “shame” and “rubbish”.

Despite handing over the device to the union headmasters at the top table, the interruptions continued, culminating in no less than two standing ovations laced with sarcasm when Quinn outlined the ASTI’s position on the Junior Cycle.

External agency
“Better, you say, that students should be ‘judged’ by an external agency indifferent to their [the students’] individual welfare,” Quinn said.

“Yes, yes,” came the reply.

The applause was so loud it drowned out the Minister’s next comment to the effect that such an approach, whereby students were “sorted into queues for the Leaving Cert” and subsequently for higher education, needed to be challenged.

The Minister may have been sweating yesterday but he believes he has right on his side, quoting Glenstal Abbey’s Mark Patrick Hederman on the need for educational reform. This came after references at the INTO congress to Catholic theologian Hans Küng and Pope Francis on promoting tolerance and fairness in education.

Though some delegates may feel they struck a blow on this Minister yesterday, it is clear he really believes in his reforms.

And conscious that his time may be short in the post, with a Cabinet reshuffle pending, Quinn told reporters, “I would hope to have pushed the boat out so far that it can’t be recalled.”