Kenny is learning slowly on education


A long time ago, when Ireland was a Catholic country, most people would have been familiar with the concept of an epiphany. It’s a sudden moment of revelation. The Magi had one when they saw the baby Jesus. Archimedes had one in the bath when he shouted “Eureka!” James Joyce had one on Dollymount strand. And Enda Kenny had one a short while ago.

Last week, the Taoiseach spoke of how the scales fell from his eyes as he performed the official opening of a school in the west of Ireland that had cost €1 million to build. There he was, being his usual affable self, when something “struck me forcibly”.

It wasn’t a solid object hurled by a desperate citizen but rather a blinding revelation. A great truth was made known unto him: if this school cost €1 million, then we could build 3,000 schools every year for the money we were burning to pay the debts of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. Eureka!

Seamus Mallon once referred to the Belfast Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. This moment of blinding insight was the promissory note for slow learners. Presumably if we wait long enough the Taoiseach will be granted the great insight that, if the deal on the promissory notes saves a third of their cost, we could still build 2,000 schools a year for the money. Or, more broadly, make the investment in education without which Ireland will revert to being a backwater economy.

Chinese teenagers

As it happens, around the same time as the Taoiseach’s, I had an epiphany of my own and it too was about education. I was walking, as I do most days at the moment, through the pretty campus of Princeton University in the United States. I was suddenly struck by something I had seen on virtually a daily basis – yet another group of Chinese teenagers taking pictures on their iPhones of each other in front of one of the neo-Gothic university buildings.

This is one of those events so regular that you cease to see it. But on this particular day, it hit me with the force of its obviousness. These kids are tourists. But they don’t go to Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. The places they want to gawk at, the images they want to capture and send home to their parents, are famous universities. Their idea of glamour is not Hollywood, it’s the Ivy League.

And this is the world into which we will send our children. For a long time, we’ve drifted smugly along with the notion that there’s nothing like an Irish education. The Chinese and the Indians and the Indonesians may work hard and work cheap but they’ll never be as well educated as we are. It is an illusion as stupid and scarcely less toxic than the belief that property prices could only go up.

Investment in education isn’t an option, it’s a double imperative. It’s a moral imperative because, if we’re dumping a historically unprecedented load of debt on our children and grandchildren, the least we have to do is to make sure that they’re smart enough to survive in the world they will inhabit. And it’s an economic imperative because, as report after report has shown, countries that are not going forward in educational achievement are not staying still. They’re going rapidly backwards in the race for global competitiveness.

Smart societies

Smart societies grasped this a long time ago. Finland, for example, responded to its banking crisis of the early 1990s not by putting all available national resources into bad banks but by investing to make itself a world leader in education. But, as Enda Kenny finally saw in his moment of epiphany, we are doing the opposite. Even though we have a remarkably young population (and therefore a greater need for educational investment than most other countries), we are one of the very few countries in the developed world that is reducing spending on education.

This is part of the “common sense” approach of bank bailouts plus so-called austerity. And it is both reckless and self-destructive. The most insane aspect of the policy is the decision to turn teaching from a high-status profession to a low-status, insecure, casual job. Large numbers of highly experienced teachers have been stripped out of the system. They are being replaced by badly paid young teachers with no security. More than half of secondary teachers under 30 are on contracts of a year or less. Many are also part-time.

Around the developed world (and also in developing countries) there is a realisation that making teaching into a job that attracts only losers or saintly idealists is a disaster. Every study of Irish education has argued, to the contrary, that we need a huge leap forward in the skills, confidence, creativity and professionalism of teachers. Instead, we’re telling those who want the job that they’d be much better off working in a shop. Perhaps in 20 years’ time a taoiseach will have another epiphany and realise how stupid this was.

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