Quinn questions school emphasis on Irish, religion


THE AMOUNT of class time devoted to Irish and religion in primary schools has been questioned by Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn.

He said teachers had told him how up to 30 per cent of all contact time in some primary classes was taken up by these two subjects. “If we are worried about literacy and numeracy and this figure is close to being correct . . . then we have to ask ourselves questions.”

In an Irish Times interview, he recalled how some educationalists had labelled Irish-language policy as the “biggest single policy failure in Irish education”.

Last year, Fine Gael proposed the abolition of compulsory Irish after Junior Cert; it later abandoned the proposal under pressure from the Irish-language lobby.

Asked if he would revive such a measure, Mr Quinn said: “I am implementing the programme for government.” (This proposes no change in Irish-language policy.) He said he had “enough fronts” open at present, including the drive for major reform of the Junior and Leaving Cert exams. Mr Quinn said he would be happy to get some of these reforms “over the line”.

He stressed his own support for religious education. “I think religion is absolutely essential if you want to understand modern civilisation. But there is a difference between teaching religion and faith formation in schools.”

Mr Quinn said he had some concerns about faith formation in the new community national schools established by the VEC.

Last week , it was revealed that the Department of Education in 2008 gave a series of commitments to Catholic Church authorities in relation to religious instruction in these schools.

He hoped this issue would be addressed in a forthcoming report from the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage in primary schools.

On the general issue of school standards, the Minister said Irish people had “talked up’’ their education system when there had always been very high levels of functional illiteracy, especially among young boys. The most recent OECD report indicated that up to 25 per cent of young males are functionally illiterate.

While the system was not as good as it was cracked up to be, Mr Quinn said the overall performance of the education sector compared well with other aspects of the public service.

“Over one million people are involved every day in full-time education . . . and you don’t hear about trolleys in the corridors and you don’t hear about disruption. The business gets done.”

Asked about the department’s overall management of the education system, when Ireland’s rankings were falling in both literacy and numeracy, he said: “I can’t answer for the past. What I can say is that I am encountering no resistance from within the department to my reform plans.”

Mr Quinn said his priority in office was to overhaul second-level education, which, he said, “did not encourage independent thinking”. He hoped the new Junior Cert would be implemented from 2017, with a revised Leaving Cert being rolled out shortly after.

But he stressed he would preserve the integrity of the current exam system. The public still had faith, he said, in the impartiality of the Leaving Cert and the points system. He would be very reluctant to do anything to undermine the integrity of the Leaving Cert and the points system.

On teacher underperformance he said new powers given to the Teaching Council – the regulatory group for the profession – would transform the current situation.

He wanted to abolish the notion that “parents are powerless and that they are reluctant to complain for fear that it will do damage to their children going through the system. They now have a say that they never had before.”