Senior Cabinet meeting within Leinster House: Lads we need a sound bite to distract the people from the kicking they got in the budget. Umm … we could give the teachers another kicking I suppose.
Brendan Howlin, Irish Minister for Public Expenditure, has recently come out in the press – not like that stop sniggering – to deliver another kicking to a section of the public service. The objects of his ire on this occasion were teachers, more specifically, bad teachers and the necessity to remove them from their positions. Full disclosure here folks as I am a newly qualified teacher and as such, am fully in support of the removal of ‘bad’ teachers.
I support this on a purely selfish level, as the savage public services cuts have made it almost impossible to get a job in the career I returned to education in my mid-twenties to qualify for and also on a broader professional level. The position of teacher is far too important a position to be left to those who, have either lost whatever love they had for what is a vocation or who got into the job for all the wrong reasons. They are the same reasons which make public servants, teachers in particular, such easy targets for politicians hoping to score points after another savage budget. Job security, five-day work weeks, long holidays and general ignorance about what is required to survive and flourish in the field are the usual suspects that rear their heads when it is the teachers’ turn in the firing line.
I could bore you to death with the same arguments you’ll hear from any teacher defending themselves and their positions. We are in loco parentis for eight hours of the day; we are actors, counsellors and so much more. There are however a couple of elements of Minister Howlin’s statement which particularly grate.
The decision to send one’s children to ‘grinds’ (extra tuition outside of school) in an effort to improve their results falls on parents alone. To blame teachers for students taking grinds is a blatant example of ignoring a huge number of variables just to support your argument. Perhaps Minister Howlin has suddenly had selective amnesia and forgotten the last three budgets. Larger student teacher ratios and the removal of special needs assistants may also have had an effect. Perhaps it was the political culture whose short-term thinking saw them throw money at people instead of introducing the systemic and structural changes when we had the money to pay for them. Minister Howlin expects teachers to do more, for less and in more difficult circumstances. No problem Brendan, is there anything else while we’re at it?
The Teaching Council, to which I a pay a sizeable chunk annually to regulate my profession, has already put in place procedures, which are less than 2 years old, to deal with under performing teachers. This includes more visits to schools and more paperwork, such as detailed lesson plans and schemes of work, which teachers are required to provide at a moments notice to show just how prepared they are to take on the difficult task of educating children. This of course only scratches the surface of what teachers have to face, there are students for whom a full day of attendance in the school can be seen as a major victory. So what is so wrong with these provisions that would require a Minister of State to launch another attack? What exactly is it that he requires from teachers to justify their position?
My fear is that this is going to turn into a race to the bottom. The ‘data management’ style of brass tacks numbers will see teachers being judged on the results their students get. This is one of those things which seems very reasonable on the surface but, once delved deeper into, is the type of policy that ruins the lives of teachers and students alike. As I stated in my opening paragraph I am a newly qualified teacher and as such am in a prime position to impart how teachers are being taught in Ireland. One of the words that popped up with regularity during my training was ‘holistic’. Previously the utterance of this word would have sent my eyes rolling back into my head with a sharp intake of breath. This of course is because the word has been co-opted by individuals who believe in Homeopathy and other such hokum but as my course progressed the word was reclaimed and in the end I ended up defending my use of it to friends when talking about the education system in Ireland. We are being asked to help create well-rounded individuals, to focus of literacy and numeracy, to find ways of making our subjects relevant and interesting, to create an active and inclusive learning environment in an effort to move away from rote learning during which cross curricular links are forged, and all this with one eye on the needs of the economy. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So a result driven system where judgements are made on a final grade do nobody any good and run directly in the face of how teachers are trained.
One would almost believe that the statement made by Minister Howlin was just an effort to distract the nation from more immediate problems. I am not alone in finding this political culture tiresome and insulting. The statement spurred me to write this piece on the difficult role teachers face, those that can get a job that is (grumble grumble), but perhaps the real issue is the inherent disrespect the government has for teachers and the difficult jobs they do, and indeed for everyone else in society; that they think taking a swipe at easy targets will distract us for a period while they muddle on in corruption and ineptitude serving their real bosses. This is the same political culture which sees people on social welfare squeezed and investigated while corporations pay minimal tax: the same culture which sees outrageous stories regards budget cuts leaked before the budget so when the cuts arrive they don’t seem so bad. I am not expecting miracles from our politicians just not to have our intelligence insulted.
For a celebrated secular society such as the UK, why do religious leaders automatically get media air time when they have an opinion they wish to express? What is it about ‘men of the cloth’ such as Rowan Williams that the media find so worthy of attention when they wish to wade into an issue in the public domain? Williams’ most recent foray into the public sphere is his concern over any potential “downgrading” of religious education in schools. One can argue that it makes sense that his view be reported on since this is a public issue that directly relates to the perpetuation of religion. I, for one, have no problem with religion being taught in schools, but it must be taught honestly. If the likes of Williams want religion to remain in schools it is only reasonable that any such class should teach every belief held within that religion and every ‘word of God’ should be mulled over. There is no room for cherry picking information in an educational situation. So, not only should children be taught about how Jesus was a super guy (with super powers) but children should be told about how Jesus’ father (who was also himself) thought it was perfectly reasonable to burn two children to death for the lighting of incense against his wishes (Leviticus 10:1-2). If it is to be taught, then teach it all, no holds barred, with the obvious caveat that it should not be sold as fact but rather ‘This is what this religion believes’ and of course there is never any room for creationism being touted as an alternative to evolution.
Getting back onto topic, Williams has a track record of getting airtime for his political opinions, despite not being an elected political figure but rather an appointed theological one, which, might I point out, doesn’t make him an expert in any realm other than the word of his ‘God’. His opinions are often as progressive as is likely to be found in any leader within a religion, for example he defends equality for women and homosexuals (both the favourite piñata of the religious zealot) in the sense that they should be allowed to hold positions of influence within the church. Naturally this does not extend to a potentially gay bishop having a partner. Even Williams’ liberal sensibilities have their limits. Beneath these almost reasonable positions lies less acceptable opinions in a secular society such as the UK. Williams advocates the introduction of sharia law in affairs of marriage, in effect having separate laws for one segment of society, while he simultaneously holds the view that the UK is fixated on ‘identity politics’ – things such as gay rights and feminism – and now is the time to focus on what is “good for all of us” . To me it looks like he wants two things at once. Separation and unity. Perhaps this is merely being consistent with the contradictory nature of the bible.
So here we have a man getting airtime for his opinions on subjects as diverse as sharia law (despite not being a representative of the people who wish to see it come into effect) gay rights (where he has also been reported as saying the government have no right to change the law to allow gay marriage; see here for a rebuttal to anyone who agrees with him), feminism and what gets taught in the classroom. Again the question has to be asked. Why? Is he an expert in political theory regarding the rights of minorities such as Muslims in the West or the gay community? Is he an expert in the struggle of women seeking equal and fair treatment in a patriarchal society? He gets air time for none of these reasons. It seems he gets airtime because of tradition. The tradition of the religious advisor. This hails back to the time of total rule by the monarch where a ‘man of the cloth’ was always on hand to advise the ruler. This was a time when it was believed that Kings and Queens were chosen by the God of the land and appointed to rule and therefore it was quite natural to have a representative of God on hand when making decisions. Somehow this tradition of valuing the opinion of the church has carried over into current society, but perhaps for more than traditions sake. It is likely that as the UK has become more secular there is a vocal religious minority that kicks up a fuss when there is any indication that their biased, religiously fuelled views are not being taken seriously. In essence the media is almost afraid of being accused of being discriminatory or unbalanced in their coverage by not including the likes of Williams in reporting of an issue. It all seems so utterly insane and arbitrary.
Now that Williams has stepped down from his role as Archbishop he will likely slowly fade into the background scenery and his replacement will begin to pop up in any realm to rant about his position on any issue that piques his interest and so the circus of taking seriously the opinion of a man who is informed by a Bronze Age book as the source of moral guidance in 2012 continues.