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 www.educationmatters.ie/2010/12/14/pisa-study-results-an-urgent-call-to-action

  • Turgon

    I am unsure just how “left wing” or “democratic” the initial statement by the first Dail was.

    Quite a few parents of children would have been opposed to Ireland being “free” in the terms which the Dail was using that word (ie leaving the union). Those parents (and children’s) views were not being accomodated by “proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.’

    Furthermore to appropriate all children to being citizens of a “Gaelic Ireland” is also not necessarily democratic: clealry no real place for minorities or other points of view.

    Rather than the ideals being left wing they look rather like what we would now regard as national socialist which is not really left wing is it?

  • Dec

    Turgon

    Leaving aside the reductio ad Hitlerum over a single word, you may wish to investigate infant and child mortality rates in Dublin (within the Union) at the turn of the 20th century. Within that context, the aspiration that ‘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’ is as Andy says extremely noble.

    http://www.ucd.ie/economics/research/papers/2002/WP02.28.pdf

  • Turgon

    Dec,
    Undoubtedly the childhood mortality rates were woeful. However, the “War of Independence” did not do much to help that and the Free state and later RoI’s record on caring for children especially those in institutional care is less than perfect.

    The noble stuff must be set against their woeful record. Helping people in a practical way does not seem to have been important. The idea of making children and everyone else accept Sinn Fein’s version of a “Free and Gaelic Ireland” was clearly much more relevant.

  • Dec

    Turgon

    It’s odd how you appear to imply that ‘Gaelic’ is a perjorative term and resent the fact it was imposed on all yet appear perfectly happy that ‘Britishness’ was imposed on the vast majority of the island’s population against their will for 120 or so years before that. That’s some notion of freedom you have. I don’t expect you to sahre my politics but I do expect a shred of consistency.

  • Turgon

    Dec,
    It is unclear just how unhappy mots people were with being British. However, I take you point. By your logic, then what you would call Imperalism was replaced by National Socialism.

  • 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’

    There could be areas where UK/ROI cooperation could be beneficial eg following the lead of countries such as Germany/France in teaching a common sourced “version” of history.

    But in raising levels of literacy and numeracy?
    How on earth does that work better on a N/S basis?

  • Turgon

    oneill,
    I wondered that as well but I was just being a bregrudger as usual.

    Without wanting to play the man the issue here is that Mr. Pollak is professionally employed to promote North South cooperation. As such one has to understand that something which could be done on a north south basis Mr. Pollak tends to say should be done on a north south basis.

    We have been here before with Andy. At one stage he promoted the idea of an all Ireland organ transplantation scheme until it was pointed out that there already was an all UK and indeed an all Europe scheme. Hence, an all Ireland scheme would have resulted in longer delays for people awaiting transplants and, hence, more deaths.

    When some time ago Mr. Pollak asked for ideas for what would be useful on an all Ireland basis a number of people proposed not an all Ireland but an all British Isles mobile telephone network as many of us get roaming charges when near the border and most of the RoI mobile phone companies are actually UK ones. The problem seems to be that something which is both north south and also east west seems for some reason less exciting than northsouthery.

  • Turgon,

    I’ve no problem if he or O’Dowd has proof how such *cooperation* can improve literacy and numeracy.

    The fact that both NI and ROI are performing comparatively so badly makes you think they’d be better looking outside the island for ideas for improvement.

    That school in Widnes might be a good start.

  • Dec

    ‘By your logic, then what you would call Imperalism was replaced by National Socialism.’

    I believe the term ‘Self- Determination’ is accurate.

  • Mark McGregor

    My favourite bit of the Democratic Programme is the part O’Kelly removed:

    The Republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society
    which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation
    but gives no useful social service in return and in the process of
    accomplishment will bring freedom to all who have hitherto been
    caught in the toils of economic servitude.

  • As Mark and Andy have rightly pointed out, the 1919 Declaration of Independance was a very radical assertion that the people and NOT imperialism, foreign or domestic had priority!

    If the struggle for liberation of all of Ireland had have been successful the nation envisaged by the majority of elected representatives would have been much more people orientated than the ‘Free State’ and ‘Republic’ that were created because of British, Unionist & Irish imperialist intransigence to democracy!

    I’d also like to state that the above declaration is a cornerstone of RNU’s policy!

  • Turgon

    <i."the above declaration is a cornerstone of RNU’s policy"

    Unsurprising. Clearly RNU do not have any interest in non Gaelic persons in their new Ireland. As I said before the combination of nationalism and socialism: truly delightful.

  • Nunoftheabove

    ArdEoin Republican

    You have no way of knowing that that would have been the case had the liberation struggle succeeded on your terms and I’d challenge you in any case on what precisely you mean by ‘people oriented’ in this context.

    If this is indeed the cornerstone of your policy can you lead me to some detail on how it can be made to work in straightforwardly practical terms, particularly with respect to the financials please.