Encouraging signs for Minister's reform agenda


ANALYSIS:Ruairí Quinn appears determined to push through a radical programme of reform for education

SENIOR OFFICIALS in the Department of Education are still coming to terms with the work rate and ambition of their new Minister.

Whereas most of his predecessors spent three days a week in the department (nurturing the constituency on Mondays and Fridays) Quinn is virtually ever-present in Marlborough Street.

Unencumbered by routine constituency work, Quinn arrives before 8am each morning. He has a full day to focus on the task in hand – reforming and reinvigorating the Irish education system.

In some respects, his timing could scarcely be better. The recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey – which showed Ireland tumbling down the world rankings in literacy and numeracy – has changed the entire education landscape. It has shattered the complacency and self-regard that has clung to the Irish education system – and provided an opening to achieve transformative change.

Quinn has described the OECD-Pisa study as a “wake-up call for Irish education”. We have been “codding” ourselves in believing we have one of the best education systems in the world, he says. His message: the old ways are no longer good enough, Irish education must change and adapt.

During a frenetic first six weeks in office, Quinn has stirred controversy and promised fundamental change almost on a daily basis. At times, some senior officials have urged a more measured approach – but he has paid no heed.

Within the department, there was considerable unease when he demanded that no less than 50 per cent of Catholic primary schools should be transferred to new patrons.

But his tactic of setting ambitious targets for change appears to have worked. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in schools is already up and running and expected howls of protest from the Catholic Church have not materialised.

Quinn has been blunt and forceful in other ways. He has questioned the amount of time spent on religious instruction and preparation for the sacraments in schools.

The Leaving and Junior Cert exams are “no longer fit for purpose”. Junior Cert students, he says, “go through this chicane, a kind of shrinking thing . . .where you are really relying on what you can remember rather than what you think”.

The primary schools and primary teachers have been showered in praise while he has been harshly critical of the second-level system. He has told the teacher unions, school managers and other vested interests to forget about the customary special pleading for more resources. The country, as he has already pointed out a dozen times, is in receivership.

He has openly accused farmers and the self-employed of manipulating the third-level grants system.

His tactics on proposed cuts in the Vocational Education Committees (VECs) also represent a break with tradition. The last government proposed cutting the number of VECs from 33 to 16.

Whereas previous ministers might have spent months – even years – in discussions with vocational school managers, Quinn has adopted a very different approach. Earlier this month, he told vocational school managers to stop pleading on behalf of this or that VEC. Instead, he instructed them to come up with their own proposals on where the axe should fall.

Quinn has come into the education portfolio with a great deal of knowledge gathered during his three years as Labour education spokesman.

Critically, he also knows all of the main players in the education sector, having met many of them for “off-the-record ” discussions for breakfast at Buswells Hotel, opposite the Dáil.

The question now is whether Quinn can maintain his early momentum.

Bedding down major change in any education system is notoriously difficult and slow-moving. The immense power of the teacher unions make the challenge still greater.

The key may be whether the three teaching unions buy into Quinn’s reform agenda.

So far, the signs are encouraging. The leadership of the INTO, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland have signalled an appetite for reform. Last week, Pat King, ASTI general secretary, said: “We are very concerned about the decline in standards. When it comes to educational reform we are up for it, provided the necessary support structures and funding is in place.”

But will the rank and file be as accommodating? The cuts in teachers’ pay and the embargo on promotional posts have left many teachers angry and disillusioned. Many resent the manner in which an already underfunded education sector has had to pay for the sins of the bankers – with cuts to special needs and Traveller supports.

This is not a propitious time to be asking many of them to co-operate with an ambitious reform package – especially at second level.