Year in, year out

It wasn’t a great year in Irish education, and things may get worse before they get better

It wasn't a great year in Irish education, and things may get worse before they get better. So who made waves in 2011, who is waving it good riddance, and who is set to make an impact in 2012? SEÁN FLYNN,Education Editor, makes 10 predictions


1 Ruairí Quinn will continue to dominate the agenda

Quinn has had a very good eight months as Minister for Education. He has been energetic and reforming, and has brought a critical perspective to Irish education, describing the disappointing OECD rankings as a “wake-up call” for the education system.

Critically, he has also encouraged senior Department officials to engage in some (long overdue ) “blue-sky’’ thinking on issues such as school patronage, exam reform, school admission policies and accountability.

There was very serious blip – that embarrassing pre-election pledge in which he ruled out fees – but otherwise Quinn has been one of the most innovative and impressive education ministers in a generation.

Many in education would like him to complete a full five-year term. He has already signalled he will remain in Marlborough Street until the mid-term Cabinet reshuffle, probably in the summer of 2013. Despite his age – Quinn is 65 – he still harbours ambitions of becoming the first Labour Party member to be appointed as Ireland’s EU commissioner. And it could happen.

2 We will find out how standards in our primary schools compare with abroad

Last April, the international assessments on maths, literacy and science took place in a number of randomly selected primary schools in fourth class. Results will be available sometime in 2012. Almost all schools invited to participate did so and there was also a very high return rate on the questionnaires. Results are eagerly awaited.

3 The new Secretary General of the Department of Education will be under pressure to deliver

The OECD ranking which tracked the steep decline in literacy standards in Ireland will dominate the agenda of the new secretary general. Those dismal OECD results (which also delivered poor results in maths and science) came after a decade of unprecedented investment in Irish education and the recruitment of thousands of teachers. The new secretary general – due to be named early in 2012 – will be under pressure to raise Ireland’s game.

4 Irish universities will continue to slide down the rankings

Six of the seven Irish universities slipped in the world rankings this year. For the first time Ireland has no university in the world top 100. Expect a further drop in 2012 as more cutbacks at a time of record student enrolment edges the system close to breaking point.

5 The following people will make a big impact

Aodhan O Riordan, labour backbencher who has the ear of Ruairí Quinn. Stephen Donnelly, Harvard educated independent TD, exceptionally well-informed on education issues. Philip Nolan, new president of NUI Maynooth, former deputy president at UCD.

6 Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act will come under increasing scrutinyGay and bisexual teachers feel threatened by this law which could allow school managements to dismiss teachers in order to protect their ethos.

7 Speculation will begin about Hugh Brady’s successor as UCD president

Brady is due to retire in 13 months. Early frontrunners to succeed him include; Mark Rogers, Registrar Deputy President; Ciarán ÓhÓgartaigh, head of the College of Business; and Des Fitzgerald, vice president, Research. But will any current university presidents apply?

8 The Easter teacher conferences will be uneventful

You’ve heard of a conference in search an agenda? That could be the case at the teacher conferences next year. With the Croke Park Agreement in place until 2014, there are no live pay issues and little else which will draw headlines.

9 Progress on a change in school patronage will be painfully slow

Ruairí Quin says he hopes 1,500 Catholic primary schools will be divested. But with public opinion to be canvassed and legal issues to be addressed we could be waiting.

10 Leaving and Junior Cert will be distracted by wild public celebrations

as Robbie Keane scores for Ireland against Spain in Euro 2012. The exams begin in early June just as the soccer championship kicks off.

Seán Flynn’s Winners in Education 2011 . . .

The Irish language lobbyFought a brilliant rearguard action when FG hinted at the abolition of compulsory Irish during the election campaign.

Student leader Gary RedmondUsed every opportunity to remind the public of that pre-election pledge by Ruairí Quinn in which he ruled out fees. Redmond's pressure pushed the return of old fashioned fees (of over €5,000) off the political agenda.

Educate TogetherThe multi denominational group won the right to establish second-level schools, and is now the fastest growing school patron in Ireland .

Parents of special needs childrenMarginalised for years by the education establishment, this group has emerged as a strong lobby. Managed to retain most SNA's in schools – despite pressure to maintain the "cap'' introduced by the last government.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA)The Hunt Report on Third Level was expected to see the HEA integrated into the DoE, but an energetic lobbying campaign by HEA chair Tom Boland produced a different outcome – the authority was given an expanded role.

And losers . . .

Guidance counsellors, disadvantaged schools and 23,000 primary school children studying modern languagesThese groups suffered the most controversial budget cuts. And there is no sign of any u-turn – yet.

The international reputation of Irish universitiesIrish colleges continued to slip down the world rankings, with only UCC bucking the trend.

Fee paying schoolsRuairí Quinn increased class size in the Budget for these schools. The media also raised awkward questions about the €100 million in State support and the admission policies of some schools.

Dublin Institute of TechnologyThe dream of a new DIT campus in Grangegorman lives on, but with a multi-million-euro hole in funding it may be difficult to realise.

The Teachers' Union of IrelandThe union backtracked on its opposition to the Croke Park agreement after the DoE threatened to sack lectureres. There was also a civil war among executive members and controversy about a Bangkok conference attended by general secretary Peter McMenamin, who retires shortly.


The following were the most popular articles on Education Today this year

1 The 50 most influential in education

Ruairí Quinn topped list which also included the Troika, Colm McCarthy, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD and the US multinationals. Only five women made the list.

2 "I was lectured on my sexuality''

An article for the To Be Honest column drew an extraordinary response from readers. The following is an extract: " I write as one of a large group of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people who works as a primary teacher in a Catholic school in this country. Given my sexual orientation (about which I am open), I am subjected to the following on a daily basis.

"I must participate in and teach a religion I don't believe in. I must uphold the Catholic ethos of the school by not discussing my sexuality beyond close friends on the staff. As the teachers' representative on the board of management, I must partake in prayers at the start of each meeting, which goes against my own belief system."

3 Who are the top earners in higher education?

Two-page survey drew a strong response from readers – both positive and negative. The survey showed the top earners in the sector are virtually all senior administrators or medical consultants. Many of the consultants also run private practices, a situation prohibited in Britain.

4 'Still waiting for a classroom'

My Education Week by Maria Brett (below) a fourth-year student at Coláiste Mhuire, Marino was a big hit with readers. Maria wrote: "All I know is, I didn't get into teaching because I wanted moneymoon or summer holidays or sick leave. I want to be in a classroom with a load of kids and I want to try out all that I have learned in the past three years. I want the fun and challenge and satisfaction of teaching. I want it now, and it's frustrating that I can't have it.

"I am not the only graduate out there looking for work in uncertain times, however. Being a teacher doesn't make me any different, I suppose.

"Tonight I will put it all aside for a few hours at Culchie Central, otherwise known as Copper Face Jacks. It will be full of unemployed teachers like me, spending the few pence they haven't already committed to envelopes and shoe shine. I won't be talking about the redeployment panel or the cost of a stamp.''

5 George Hook: In defence of fee-paying schools

Hook wrote: "Is the system elitist? Yes it is. But the world is based on elitism of talent, intelligence, hard work and willingness to sacrifice. Every day, parents are making monumental sacrifices to give their children the best education possible. Quinn and his fellow travellers want a system that is doomed to failure.''


110,000The estimated number of unemployed graduates in Ireland

400The number of applications for one full-time teaching post in a Dublin primary school this year

191The number of academics in higher education who earn over 150k per year

26The percentage of teachers in Ireland who have not received any appraisal or feedback in their schools, according to OECD.

16The percentage of students who took higher-level maths in the 2011 Leaving Cert – the lowest figure since records began



Educating Essex(Channel 4) Honest, unobtrusive view of life in a modern secondary school.


UpstartEd Walsh's perceptive, often very funny memoir on the making of UL.

To Miss With LoveBritish teacher Katharine Birbalsingh controversdial take on what she regards as the damage done by the liberal agenda in British schooling.

Finnish LessonsBrilliant analysis by Finnish academic Pasi Salhlberg on the best education system in the world.


Now principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, occasional Irish Timescolumnist Ferdinand von Prondzynski's blog ( remains essential reading.


HighlightBraving a stormy drive cross-country to visit Coláiste Chiaráin in Croom, Co Limerick. A successful, vibrant school, driven by a real sense of fairness and a can-do attitude.

LowlightProbably seeing that, hidden among all of the cuts, the hugely successful Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative has been given the axe. Its a massive blow to what should have been a huge step forward. We talk about science and maths, but fluency in other languages is a massive skills gap in Ireland.

Wish for 2012That patronage and enrolment issues can be sorted out for once and for all.

Gráinne Faller qualified as a primary school teacher in Froebel College of Education and completed a masters in journalism in DIT. She juggles journalism and research with looking after her gorgeous toddler and a neurotic dog called George. She enjoys knitting and is one of (presumably) very few people who can speak both Irish and Swahili.


HighlightRuairí Quinn in the Department of Education.

LowlightSNA provision under pressure in schools.

Wish for 2012A school patronage solution that works for everyone. Progressive change to the constitution on the issue of childrens rights.

Louise Holden is the mother of two primary school children, Ruben and Lucille. She sings and writes music with roots band I Draw Slow, who released their second album,Redhills , in May. Louise has a Masters in Education from UCD; her research interests include the influence of the media on Irish education discourse


HighlightHow e-learning is finally making major inroads in Irish education, and the long overdue decision to scrap Fás.

LowlightThe insistence of some top academics and senior administrators in quangos that they deserve salaries of €100,000, €150,000 or more, when the most vulnerable students – travellers, dyslexics, and other special needs children – have had to endure cuts that in some instances will damage or destroy their chance of a decent education.

Wish for 2012An end to a rote-learning Leaving Certificate that completely fails to prepare students for the independent thinking and critical reflection required at third-level.

Opportunities for PhD in the sciences. The majority of recent graduates have little or no opportunity for meaningful work here, despite government rhetoric. The brain drain continues.

Peter McGuire is a freelance journalist. He edits and writes for, a food blog. He is also a lecturer in Irish Folklore at UCD.

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