Innovation & Identity in the Irish Education System

The GLF discusses how the Minster for Education cannot deliver on his rhetoric without addressing much broader issues in the education system itself.

Having watched a very interesting RTÉ programme on Monday 3rd of September entitled Back to School: Inside the Department, it gave me a very interesting insight into the thinking behind the scenes at the Department of Education and Skills. Minister Ruairi Quinn TD be- gins the show by making his own coffee and giving off the impression of being a very down to earth person, to let people relate to him. And relate to him we should, as decisions he is making now will affect the lives of our children for many years to come.

Mr Quinn’s most noble aspect throughout the programme is that he constantly refers to the improvement of the schools’ curriculum and building of new schools as his priority. Looking at the developments in school curriculum contained in the new Junior Cycle Curriculum, which preach innovation and identity as its mantra for development of students, would satisfy even the most sceptical of education pro- fessors as the way forward for education. Innovation and identity are about creating people who are good critical thinkers and have a sense of their place in the world – as well as having the life skills to maintain a sound mind and body. To this, I applaud the minister. Truly, his relationship with National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and the Department, which he previously referred to as ‘malevolently dysfunctional,’ has improved for the good of the nation’s students.

One recent aspect of the education system that stirred my thoughts was the introduction of Bank of Ireland’s student loan schemes as an alternative option for people who did not have the means to pay the increased student contribution for third level education. This con- tradicts the thinking of innovation and identity. For a person to be innovative they have to have the freedom of thought and expression that is protected by our constitution. There’s one problem though: people who are in debt are never people to break the mould, they will just fit in and try to survive. As Albert Einstein put it, ‘we can’t solve the problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’

By saddling college leavers with debt when they finish their educa- tion, they are forced to get in line with the economy by getting a job quickly and quietly lest they bring the wrath of Ivor Fitzpatrick and company (Bank of Ireland’s solicitors) upon them. For students to develop new ways of thinking, they cannot be forced to conform to a career for the sake of it, but they must be allowed to choose their own way as an individual. Another point is the impact that being in debt has on a person’s mental health; we can only look at the vast increase in suicide since the recession left a great dint in most of our pockets. Why would we invest in our youth’s sense of identity and innovation if it is only to cripple is mentally and physically with debt when they leave the education system?

Behind the minister’s desk on the programme in his library was a book called Lines of Most Resistance by Edward Pearce. This book is about the political struggle in Westminster surrounding Irish Home Rule. As a political science book it give lessons that not everyone will be happy with tough decisions in politics, nearly a century of strife and unrest in Northern Ireland is testament to that. The Minister, af- ter going back on his pledge not to increase college fees simply stated, ‘that’s politics.’ That is the game politics, but if I could urge Mr Quinn to add another book to his collection, it would be The Age of Revo- lution by Eric Hobsbawm. Mr Hobsbawm reflects that the middle classes are the main instigators behind revolution. When they were denied property rights and the vote throughout history they consis- tently rebelled and protested for it.

Looking at the current third level grant system, parents who earn €50,000 p.a. are put into the same bracket as a parent earning €250,000 p.a. and if they wish to send their child to college this fall they both have to fork out €2,250 in registration fees; less than 1% to the wealthier of the two families, but 4.5% to the other. This is quite a difference, and when you factor in accommodation, food, books and travel, etc. the gap only grows larger and forces the less fortunate fam- ily to sue for a loan while they are already being hit by the household charge, income levy and increased energy costs, while a family with an income of approx. €20,000 p.a. will receive a grant for their child and not have to worry about the capital cost. History has shown us when the middle class are suppressed they will take to the streets; December’s budget could hit harder than the Government thinks, lest history repeat itself.

Mr Quinn rightly states that his main mission in education is to pro- vide for the population boom and not have a time where a child goes to school expecting to see a schoolyard but finds a field. No one can dispute this, but let us give the children a future where, through cul- tivating their innovation, and providing for it, both before and after the education system, they can develop the new ideas and industry to help get us out of this financial turmoil, rather than let the next generation become a victim of our mistakes, by straddling them with debt and worry; stifling their identity we so love to cherish.