Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Education Policy and Teacher Conferences

An intelligent child participating in class, yesterday.

The second week of the Easter Holidays is conference season for the three main teachers’ unions. This year, the INTO meets in Belfast, the TUI assemble in Cork and the ASTI meet in Killarney of the lakes.

Your faithful correspondent’s crystal ball can predict the coverage of the difference conferences right now and save everybody a lot of gas. The biggest single topic will be money, of course. There will be stories about school divestment, all focusing on the urgency of the thing and none trying to figure out how two sides who want something to happen can’t make something happen.

And there will be earnest thought pieces about the need for greater emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in both secondary and primary schools. STEM advocacy is so popular now that it wouldn’t surprise your correspondent if the only thing stopping some advocate form suggesting STEM subjects be taught in the womb is the fear of raising a hare in the matter of the Eighth Amendment, and we’ll get plenty of that in days to come, thank you very much.

All of these motions will be discussed by mostly earnest people who have an interest in their profession and are trying to make it better. But there is an elephant in the room that is seldom discussed, and that was only drawn to your correspondent’s attention over the weekend.

While browsing in the top floor of Hodges Figgis bookstore on Dublin’s Dawson Street, your faithful quillsman got talking to a maths teacher, who was in there because, he told me, he likes to stay on his game and ensure he has fresh questions with which to challenge his students.

We got talking about maths in general, and the nature of the subject. I half-expected a jeremiad against Project Maths, a recent initiative of the Department that is roundly despised by any maths teachers of my own acquaintance, but no. This man told me that the single biggest problem that he sees in his classes is that the poor standard of verbal reasoning among the children means that some of them struggle to understand the question itself, to say nothing of being able to answer the thing.

Stephen Leacock wrote a much-loved essay called A, B, and C: The Human Element in Mathematics, in which he speculated about the real lives of those mysterious characters who appear in maths questions – A can dig a hole at twice the speed of B, who himself digs holes at half the speed of C. If C digs three holes an hour, how long does it take A to dig five holes?

A glance at current Leaving Cert papers suggests that these sorts of problems are all over the shop, as part of making maths more “relevant.” But what it’s actually doing is making maths harder, because the child doesn’t have the skills to read the question. It seems nobody was paying attention to that one.

It’s very hard to get to the truth of these things. Teachers can feel a little paranoid about people always having a go at them, and journalists find divestment so much more box-office than dull educational theorizing. But if this anecdotal evidence is generally reflective of the current state of affairs, this is a time bomb that can fracture the state even further when it blows.

It seems the notion of the homework-less school is more and more in fashion at the present time. And that’s fine, for those who realise that, while one agrees with it at supper in Sandymount, one has been reading to Meadhbh and Conchobar since they were toddlers and making damn sure they were literate before they even got to school.

But what about the kids whose parents don’t read, and aren’t literary, or well-educated, or even educated at all? The State education system is meant to provide a safety net for them, so that they are given the one and only shot at escaping a poverty trap – education. But the State is failing badly in this remit and politicians who claim to represent the disadvantaged and marginalized in society are too busy making jackasses of themselves time and time again over water charges and other nonsense rather than trying to do something, anything, useful for once in their careers.

Class doesn’t matter. This isn’t the 19th century anymore. Education is what separates haves and have-nots now, and it is legitimate to wonder who is shouting for the have-nots when it comes to education. Not one damn person from what I can see.

Enjoy the teachers’ conferences. I am not looking forward to the 1,500 word think-piece in tomorrow’s Irish Times drawing a shrewd parallel between the divestment delay and the Tuam babies cover-up, but I am grateful that I would be able to read it if I wanted to. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for that ability, and my heart breaks for those who will never get the opportunity to learn as I learned. God help them.

FOCAL SCOIR: One hour and forty minutes, of course.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Irish Politics Summed Up in Seventy-Seven Words

"The hospital was proposed in 2002/2003. One of my daughters was going into secondary school at the time. At the same time, there was a hospital proposed in Perth. That daughter of mine went through secondary school, went through medical school, went through internship and, two years ago, went out to Perth to work in the hospital. By the time she was working in the hospital, not a block had yet been laid for the Irish hospital."


Gerald Flynn, speaking about the projected cost overrun for the National Children's Hospital on RTÉ Radio One's Late Debate last Thursday, February 23, 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tribes and Chieftains Are the Only Things That Count in Irish Politics

An article in yesterday’s Irish Times made a bold prediction about a change in direction of Irish politics:

Political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump not only redefined what their party stood for but redrew the lines of political competition in their countries.
A Leo Varadkar leadership of Fine Gael potentially presents a similar realignment of the Irish political system in a way that none of the other declared or potential candidates at this point appears to offer.

There is an elephant in the room here, tapping its foot impatiently.

The elephant is the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that leadership or ideology matters a hill of beans in an Irish general election. There are no general elections in Ireland; there are forty-something local elections, depending on the constituency count, with a government being formed as an afterthought to those individual local wars.

Two things matter in Irish elections – tribes and chieftains. Anything else is either a bell or a whistle.

Discussing the presence of Jim O’Callaghan and Stephen Donnelly on the current Fianna Fáil front bench, the author makes a point based on “my experience in the UK.” Experience in the UK is as much in Irish politics as experience on Mars, the Red Planet. Irish elections are utterly different from British elections.

The British House of Commons has 650 seats. There are four Independents among those 650 MPs, three of whom were elected on party tickets and either resigned or lost their party whips. The only Independent elected as an Independent in the 650 constituencies is Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP for South Down.

Dáil Éireann has 158 seats currently. Fourteen of those seats were won by Independent Candidates, possibly more depending on how exactly you count them (are the Independent Alliance or Independents 4 Change “Independent”?). This is a situation unthinkable in the British system, but it is par for the course in Ireland. Ireland has a completely different way of doing things. Completely different.

Those fourteen Independents got two hundred and fifty thousand votes in the last election. The Labour Party, worried about the “face on the poster,” changed leader after the 2014 local elections and ended up with 140,000 votes, slightly better than half that of the Independents, and with less than a third of the Independents’ seats.

So the crystal clear lesson here is that it doesn’t matter if it’s Leo Varadkar’s, Simon Coveney’s or JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy’s face on the poster. Irish elections are local elections for local people. Irish governments are formed by backroom deals on “issues” like Waterford Hospital, Stepaside Garda Station and flood barriers in Athlone, and have nothing on God’s green earth to do with “liberalism, globalism, equality of opportunity, enterprise and greater personal liberty and responsibility.”

And this is exactly the way the people like it. The system is set up to reward our lesser angels, and the current crises in the HSE, the Guards and the absence of any sort of contingency planning for Brexit is the result. The boys at home get sorted no matter what, and let the country take her chances with what’s left.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Due Process, and the Dogs in the Street


Whenever someone in authority in Ireland is under pressure for perceived wrong-doing, it is the done thing for whatever flack has been sent to RTÉ to defend him or her to insist that he or she is “entitled to due process, just like any other citizen.”

Where Aughrim is lost in so many of these things is that the interviewer invariably accepts this notion. But the interviewer should not. The interviewer should instruct the flack to hold it right there, and tell the flack that the creature in question isn’t entitled to “due process, like any other citizen,” because the creature in question isn’t any other citizen.

If the creature in question were any other citizen, we wouldn’t be talking about him or her on Morning Ireland or the Six-One News or whatever. We wouldn’t give a fiddle-dee-dee what was done, by who, to whom. It would be the very least of our concerns.

The reason we’re interested in the actions of public figures is because those public figures have a considerable impact on the life and well-being of the community as a whole, and because of this, public figures must be held to a higher account than private citizens. It’s a necessary stop against corruption, jobbery, cronyism and many other evils, and God knows such a notion never caught on around here at all, at all.

Reader, have you heard that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion?” It’s a two-thousand-year-old phrase that sums up the Romans’ attitude to people in public life. That not only must they themselves be models of probity, but those around them must be as well.

Contrast, this, then, with standards in Irish public life. For the past week, the media have been in a tailspin trying to chart who said what, to whom, and when, in regard to Garda whistleblowers and to what extent can we pin them on this. Because it’s only when pinned down that an Irish public figure will put his or her hands up and admit it’s a fair cop. Otherwise, the tradition is to say nothin’ and tough it out.

Those sagacious observers, the dogs in the street, couldn’t give an empty tin of Pedigree Chum who said what, to whom, and when. The doggies are convinced of the following facts:


  • Maurice McCabe was ballaragged scandalously, and he was not, is not, nor will he be alone in that.
  • The ballaragging didn’t happen by accident either. It’s not what you’d call an Act of God, like.
  • The doggies don’t care how much the Garda Commissioner knew or didn’t know about it.
  • The Mutt-ocracy do care that the current Garda Commissioner was brought in because of the scandal surrounding her predecessor and, rather than cleaning that up, she’s made it worse. Therefore, these debates about her stepping aside are pointless. She’s got to go. If she won’t resign, fire her and put someone else in charge, and keep firing people and appointing new ones until the screw-ups bloody stop.
  • Katherine Zappone made a career from talking about children’s rights. How ironic, then, after a children’s referendum and the setting-up of a Ministry for Children, that the only thing Tusla seem to have done is played a part in a scandalous smear campaign. Goodbye, Katherine. Thanks for nothing.
  • Frances Fitzgerald. What are you for, exactly, Frances? You’re for the door, that’s one thing we can settle straight away.
  • Enoch Powell, that Wolverhampton wanderer and former UUP MP for South Down, once remarked that all political lives end in failure. Penny for your thoughts, Taoiseach.


As for an election not solving anything, whatever about the doggies, your correspondent is willing to give it a try, just in case it does solve something. Maybe, after the clown cabinet of the past year and the horror-show currently unfolding in the United States, the parties might be in a mood to behave in a vaguely grown-up fashion this time and present their plans like adults speaking to adults, rather than the usual rhetoric of orderlies in a mental home telling those fellows who think they’re Martians that the flying saucer will be here tomorrow to take them all back home.

As for our, the electorate’s, part, let’s all try to stop believing in flying saucers and get real while there’s still a country left to save.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ireland's Failure as a Sovereign State Summed Up in One Photograph



This is a photograph of Coombe Hospital, taken yesterday. You’ll notice two big signs – one on the building itself, and one to the left of the gate.

This is the sign on the wall:


And this is the sign beside the gate:


And what you then notice is that the genitive case of the Irish word for “university” is spelled correctly on one sign, and incorrectly on the other. For “ollscoile” to have been spelled incorrectly on both would have been bad. But for whoever is in the charge of these signs to have two different versions up and either not notice or, worse again, not care that those signs are not the same is symbolic of the way we do things in this country. Badly.

Irish is hard language to spell, for different reasons. It’s a broken language, that wasn’t able to develop its own written tradition due the invader’s attempts to stamp it out. And Irish would be hard to spell anyway, because it’s an inflected language. The spelling of words changes according to what a particular word is doing in a sentence.

However. The existence of the language is one of the strongest reasons for their being an Ireland independent of the United Kingdom in the first place, and the place of Irish as the first language of the state has never been seriously questioned.

In the light of this, for so glaring an error to exist so prominently in so historic a location says a lot about the state, its values, and how its governed. And none of it says is good.

Signage costs money. The wording on those signs should the same – how did they end up getting spelled differently? How did the signmaker not notice? How did the buyer not notice? And most of all, how is it that not one of all the employees going in and out of the place every single day never thought: hold on, those signs don’t match up. One of them must be wrong. Let’s do something about it.

The most likely thing, of course, is that someone has noticed, and the issue went up the line until it met that most important person in any branch of Irish government, Fear an Oighir. Fear an Oighir, or The Ice Man, isn’t the man who gets things done. He’s the very opposite, actually.

Fear an Oighir is that fellow at the end of the line in an escalating problem. He’s the man who can look at a problem, sniff, and decide that nobody around here needs to bother his or her arse with this old shite. Fear an Oighir then opens a special drawer in his desk that is in fact a space-time portal to a cold and bottomless pit, and into the vasty deep goes the issue, never to be seen or bothered about again.

This is what you see on the other side of the street, as you look across from the gate of Coombe Hospital:


A wasteland, in anyone’s language. Prime retail area in a less-than-worthless condition in a city with big problems to do with rent, housing and homelessness. But reader, Ireland is a state that can’t even spell a sign correctly – what chance have we of tacking urban renewal, or climate change, or the end of post-Cold War order?

We yak on about how much the language means to us. What do those signs tell any schoolchild who notices on his or her way to school in the morning? It tells him or her that they’ll never, ever learn how to spell Irish words correctly, but worse again, it tells him or her that it doesn’t really matter, because the whole thing is only a cod anyway. It’s just for show. Nobody’s meant to take it seriously.

Twenty-first Century Ireland faces huge problems requiring profound political skill, vision and no small amount of selfless patriotism on the part of the public in general. But we’re either too lazy or too stupid or too uncaring or too much of some other damn thing to even manage to put up a sign without humiliating ourselves and any aspirations we ever entertained, in harder times than these, for Ireland to finally take her place among the nations of the Earth.