Making the Island’s children our first priority

There is a wonderful statement in the 1919 Democratic Programme of the First Dail  – which was eventually sidelined by Sinn Fein leaders as being too left-wing – that ‘it shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.’

Over 90 years later we are still a very long way from that noble aspiration: all Irish children are certainly not provided with the means and facilities for a proper education in 2011. Those lines came back to me recently as I was editing a speech by Sir Tim Brighouse, the inspirational former London Schools Commissioner, for the annual report of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), the dynamic all-Ireland network of teacher educators which is managed by the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

Sir Tim was the keynote speaker at the 2010 SCoTENS conference under the title ‘Teacher Education for Inclusion’. He believes that there is no such thing as a child who is a failure, unless teachers and others in authority decide that he or she should be a failure. For him there is a huge difference between children ‘failing to learn’ – which is OK, and can be dealt with – and ‘learning to fail’ because of poverty or class or race or gender, which should be completely unacceptable in a fair and democratic society. He also stressed the importance of teachers believing in intelligence as multi-faceted and always evolving – Howard Gardner’s notion –  rather than as inherited and predictable, and therefore amenable to testing and categorising as failing/succeeding from an early age. He noted that there was a school in Widnes in Lancashire that performs six times better for children from poor backgrounds than any other school in England. Are there any schools like that in Ireland? he asked.

We tend to be a bit smug about the excellence of our education systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the disadvantages caused by class and poverty here are, if anything, worse than in England and Scotland. The keynote speaker at this year’s SCoTENS conference, another leading British educationalist and literacy and numeracy expert, Sir Bob Salisbury, said the view that Northern Ireland has the best education system in Europe is an ‘enduring myth’. ‘There is a marked difference between the highest and lowest performing students and a significant long tail of under-achievement,’ he stressed.

Sir Bob pointed to Northern Ireland’s poor performance in the PISA international tests for reading and maths among 15-year-olds: 19th out of 30 OECD countries in reading, and 27th out of 30 in maths, ranking the province behind England, Scotland and Ireland.1 However Ireland is not much better: 17th in reading and 26th in maths, rankings which have deteriorated significantly in recent years (as recently as 2005 Ireland was 6th best in reading).2

Maybe it’s time for North and South to start working together to tackle this common failure to teach a large proportion of young people how to read and use numbers properly, with the result that they are unable to play a full part in either the economy or wider society, with all the wasted talent and frustration and unhappiness that implies. The new Northern Education Minister John O’Dowd said in June after meeting his Irish counterpart Ruairi Quinn that ‘raising literacy and numeracy levels is a key priority for North-South cooperation’. We must hope that this declaration of intent is followed by real cooperative action in this area of such importance to the island’s children.

For there is no doubt about the value and benefit of cross-border cooperation in education in the minds of the teachers and children of Ireland. In a study I did for the Department of Education (NI) and the Irish Department of Education and Skills last year, I estimated the number of children and young people who had crossed the border for school and youth exchanges or had been otherwise involved in cross-border inter-school contact programmes over the past decade or so at over 200,000. Around 70,000 have participated in the European Studies Programme; 30,000 through Dissolving Boundaries; 16,500 through Wider Horizons; 14,000 through Education for Reconciliation; 9,000 through Civic-Link; 8,000 through the International Fund for Ireland’s KEY programme, and so on.

This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. Even at this time of severe financial cutbacks, there remains a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s education systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North-South educational cooperation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?

Andy Pollak

1 BBC News NI, 27 September 2011

2 Education Matters