O'Reilly calls for radical reform of education


A REORGANISED education system could transform Ireland’s economic situation but a radical shift in middle-class culture would be required, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said in a speech last night.

Ms O’Reilly said Ireland’s economy could not compete until the State’s declining OECD literacy and mathematics rankings were significantly improved and the management of education remained within domestic control.

“When everything else is stripped from us, we can still produce a generation of children that can excel academically,” she said.

“Our brains cannot be downsized, controlled by the IMF, mortgaged by the ECB, levied by the Government or put on a cattle boat and sent packing.”

Delivering the Hennessy lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ms O’Reilly said Finland had developed a first-class education system.

The Finns were not obsessed with church control and other issues, but there was no streaming and the focus was on helping weak children in the belief that strong ones could help themselves and others in turn.

While doing better than others was not considered hugely important, the average standard was extremely high.

“In middle-class Ireland, outperforming your neighbour has a near sacramental value attached to it. Inter-school and inter-college competitiveness creates the expensive crammer school industry that in turn further widens the divide between the academically advantaged and the rest to the detriment of all of us.”

Ms O’Reilly said achieving Finnish standards would “take monumental leadership and commitment from the Government and buy-in from many sectors that have a major stake in retaining the status quo”.

She added: “We can never return to the island of saints that we once declared ourselves to be but we can certainly be a nation of innovative, ground-breaking scholars once again.”

In 2004, Ms O’Reilly delivered a controversial speech to the Céifin conference on social change in Ennis, Co Clare, which she referred to last night.

In that speech, she had bemoaned the “vulgar-fest that is much of modern Ireland” and suggested people consider “tip-toeing” back to the churches.

Last night she said the absence “centre stage” of any significant Catholic Church presence throughout the events around Queen Elizabeth’s recent visit meant the Irish appeared to be “an increasingly secular people”.