Too Cool for School

Ireland and the UK are slacking off in the education sector.


Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private operating foundation that promotes reform processes to build a future-oriented society, published an Index Report 2017, the Social Justice in the EU. According to the report, the UK and Ireland are among the countries that spend the least on pre-school education, and the UK has one of highest rate of early school-leavers.


The Irish Department of Education treated the report’s unpleasant findings like a bad penny: brushed it aside. In their opinion, the report can be disregarded, as it is not “internationally recognised”, omits vital factors and gives an overall “misleading impression”. Investment in education remains a “key priority” for this government.

Despite pointing out the obvious flaws in the education system, the report does say that Ireland has one of the highest PISA (school exam results) scores in the EU.


One wonders if this score holds for the next year, as during 2016/2017, over 3,600 unqualified people were hired as teachers to fill in for short-term absences. On the whole, they covered over 32,000 teaching days. As a last resort, schools are entitled to employ individuals without proper qualification. Although they may be paid from public fund for a maximum of five consecutive days, which means a constant rotation if the teacher does not come back.

The shortage of the registered and qualified personnel is due to career breaks in most cases. Also, those who graduated from Science or Language faculties have better paid job prospects in other sectors of the economy. Joan Burton, a member of the Irish Labour Party, said: “I talk to principals who are constantly at the end of their tether in relation to being able to access qualified staff when they need replacements for cover. The Minister for Education seems to be in denial about this. I think they only now appreciate there is a major problem – but we need a plan to address this, and we need to do so urgently.”

Of course, such a kaleidoscope of teachers hinders quality of education. Every new teacher needs to catch up on the programme, then comes the adjustment period. Children don’t even have time to get used to the new pedagogue, although establishing a personal relationship with the class is essential to successful teaching.


The class bias in Irish schools is another serious problem criticised by the report: “The fee-paying schools are socially exclusive and achieve higher academic results and higher progression rates to tertiary education than non-fee-paying schools . . .The resources allocated per pupil or student increase steadily the higher up the educational scale one goes, but access becomes more dependent on social class,”- it says.


This is also true for the UK education system. In her recently published book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes (21st Century Standpoints), Diane Reay, Cambridge University professor of education, explores just how deeply ingrained the inequality is in the English schools. She uncovers the difficulties the working-class children are confronted with when they aspire to achieve more. A daughter of a coal miner, she also faced discrimination and had to work twice as hard as the middle class children to obtain the same result: “When I did show ambition – to go to LSE [the London School of Economics and Political Science] to be a political researcher – I was told it wasn’t appropriate.” 40 years after her graduation, Ms Reay notes that the situation in the education sector has not improved in the slightest. “This government is making inequality in education worse, not better,” she says. Masses of money are taken out of the comprehensive school system, and the quality of education worsens. There are clearly middle class comprehensives and working class and ethnically mixed comprehensives – the latter get less qualified teachers and higher levels of teacher turnover. In the same school, the working class children are sent to lower sets, and their teachers mainly focus on “practical” disciplines – reading, writing and arithmetic. Which certainly isn’t bad but at the same time, they hardly ever have any art, drama or dance classes, like any schooler is supposed to. Ms Reay conclusion is quite depressing: “The most important thing I found out was that we are still educating different social classes for different functions in society.”


Ms Reay voices the concerns of many English and Irish parents who are not happy with the situation at all: they openly complain about incoherent, expensive and unaccountable education system. Meanwhile, Robert Bruton, the minister for Education and Skills, promised to make Irish education the best in Europe by 2026. With the current narrow academic curriculum and enormous teacher turnover, this is a hard goal to reach. Let us hope the the Minister is up to the challenge.

Natalia Ilina
Natalia Ilina

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