Why the Minister for Education gets top marks from teachers
Former teacher Joe McHugh is popular with educators – but is he too close for comfort?
Minister for Education Joe McHugh speaks at the Irish Primary Principals’ Network’s annual conference in Citywest last January. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The reception which Ministers for Education get at teachers’ conferences tends to range from plain frosty to outright hostile.
So, when Joe McHugh – appointed Minister for Education last October – finished his first address to the annual gathering of primary principals earlier this year, officials were startled.
During his speech, McHugh, a former secondary school teacher and softly-spoken Donegal man, praised educators for their work.
He pledged to slow down the pace of reform. He promised greater certainty over funding announcements. He committed to giving more “release” days to principals to help them catch up with administrative work.
At the end of the 25-minute address, hundreds of principals in the Citywest conference centre stood up and bathed him in long and warm applause.
“It was the first standing ovation any Minister has received at the Irish Primary Principals’ Network,” says one long-serving principal.
“There was a sense of, ‘Here’s someone who understands our issues and is actually listening to us.’ He talks our language.”
This is one reason why McHugh is likely to receive a broadly positive reception from all three teachers’ unions during the Easter conferences week.
McHugh is less of a Minister on a mission – in the mould of Richard Bruton or Ruairí Quinn before him – and more of a“facilitator” between teaching staff and the Department of Education.
His empathy with and understanding of the teaching profession is one reason why he seems to connect with teachers.
However, there is grumbling among some reformers over whether he has the appetite to take hard decisions to help ensure our education system is fit for purpose for our children in the 21st century.
“Talk is fine and keeping education partners happy is one thing, but he is going to have to deliver on some urgent issues facing the sector,” says one seasoned education observer. “The jury is very much out on that.”
Generally speaking, McHugh has taken over responsibility for running an education system which is performing well in international terms.
Irish teenagers are among the best in the world at reading and significantly above average for maths and science.
Our 10-year-olds have the best reading skills in Europe and are among the top performers in the world.
However, the system is being run on a relative shoe-string compared with many other top-performing countries.
OECD figures indicate investment in education in the State as a percentage of national wealth languishes at the bottom end of the league table for wealthy countries.
The State also recorded one of the sharpest reductions in education spending between 2010 and 2015, though investment has been rising again in more recent years.
Many schools are forced to fundraise and seek “voluntary contributions” to help make ends meet. Irish primary schools are saddled with some of the largest class sizes in the developed world. The gap in outcomes for pupils between poorer and affluent areas remains stark. The question of how to fund a third-level system that is set to grow dramatically over the coming years remains unresolved.
The issues dominating teachers’ conferences this week, however, will centre more immediately on pay, conditions and workload for the profession.
Closing the pay gap for “new entrants” hired since 2011 remains a priority for the unions.
While the bulk of the gap has narrowed, unions still argue that new entrants are paid less, especially in the early years of their careers. A shortage of teachers is also an ongoing issue at both primary and secondary level.
“Initiative overload” and the volume of reforms are another bugbear for the profession.
Teachers’ unions now – for the first time in years – have a Minister for Education who is broadly on the same page as them.
McHugh has spoken of the fact that there is “unfinished” business in dealing with new entrant pay, while he is moving to slow down the pace of reform and pushing measures to help deal with teacher supply.
A skilled political operator who was previously Government chief whip, McHugh also has a habit of making a timely mid-conference announcement to help ease at least one of his audience’s key concerns.
There are some, however, who wonder whether performing the role of the “teachers’ friend” is what the system really needs.
Reformers point to the need for decisions on issues such as Leaving Cert reform, the primary curriculum and third-level funding as urgent and legacy-defining moments.
His stated preference for history to be made compulsory until the Junior Cert, for example, is popular with many teachers.
But it has dismayed policymakers who see it as a “populist” move with the potential to undo painstaking work to reform the junior cycle and make the system more engaging for students.
“It was naive, because it ignores the fact that history has never been compulsory in almost half of second-level schools,” says one senior education source.
“It would limit the freedom for schools to meet the needs of pupils. If it’s made compulsory, geography will be next, and who knows what else. Suddenly, schools will have no flexibility.”
Those close to McHugh, however, insist he can make tough, swift and unpopular decisions.
In a recent row involving Catholic schools being accused of spreading “scare stories” over the loss of patronage, McHugh was strongly critical of school authorities for issuing “misinformation”.
They also say his personal touch has been key in dealing with crisis situations, such as the controversy over structural problems facing “rapid build” schools constructed by Western Building Systems.
At one point there were concerns over whether dozens of schools would be able to reopen after the October midterm break.
“In those cases, his personal contact in the heat of the moment . . . really made a difference,” says a source close to McHugh.
“He was on top of those issues, keeping people informed and doing whatever needed to be done to support them,” says one official.
Broadly speaking, education partners have good things to say about McHugh, but there is acknowledgement that more challenging times may lie ahead.
“Richard Bruton had real status in the department and was able to make the case for record funding for education . . . We’ll see if McHugh is able to deliver in the same way,” says one.
Another says: “I think he’s visited about 50 schools so far in just six months . . . he might not have all the answers, but you get the sense that he is listening and trying to fund solutions.”