It’s all right to be wrong

I grew up in an era when if you made a mistake and realised it, the correct thing to do was to admit you were wrong, seek to correct it, apologise and move on.

I continue to be amazed at the media reaction to Minister Quinn’s admission that he got it wrong with his policy decisions regarding the allocation of teachers in disadvantaged schools. It appears that the story has moved from the original decision to implement the cuts, to criticism of him as an individual for having the temerity to admit he was wrong. In today’s Ireland it appears that we can have changes in emphasis or re-ordering of priorities but never an admission of getting it wrong!

To be honest, I think the Minister’s honesty is progressive and I would be critical of an outpouring of criticism which might discourage changes of heart on the basis that any move to change is perceived as a u-turn – apparently the greatest of all political sins.

School leaders make decisions on the best available information and I’m sure the same process was followed in education in shaping the budget. From the outset it was clear that unpalatable choices needed to be made and it is churlish to impute mauvaise foi to the decision-makers when, whichever choice was made, it was bound to be controversial.

If viable alternatives were available there was ample opportunity for the education partners to make suggestions but such is the reluctance of all concerned to think outside the box and volunteer ideas that it is not fair to heap damnation on those charged with making the decisions. Make cuts elsewhere but my section of spending should be sacrosanct…

Experience shows that in an economic downturn the first things to be considered for cuts are health, education and social welfare. As a country we didn’t learn from the experience of others that, on the basis that investment in education is a public good, we should have spared the sector and maintained or slightly increased the education budget. School leaders appealed to the Minister to protect the most vulnerable students in our schools. Maintaining the pupil teacher ratio is vital to maximising staff numbers in the system and protecting the most vulnerable students.

The second level system has an opportunity to do our bit to provide jobs for our students over the next number of weeks. Throughout the corridors of the financial world investment decisions are made on the basis of the OECD PISA studies.

Like it or not and flawed as they are, the PISA Studies are regarded as an international benchmark of educational performance. We remember the outcry last year when Ireland dropped down the literacy rankings and, if reports are to be believed, our education system became unfit for purpose almost overnight. In truth we probably weren’t as good as we thought we were in 2000 and we aren’t as bad as we were told we were in 2009.

However, 2012 is another important year in the PISA process and on this occasion Mathematics is the major domain. The tests will be administered in 200 or so schools over the next few weeks and all of us involved in education can pull on the green jersey and make sure that our performance in this round of tests reflects the benefits of our investment in Project Maths and shows Ireland as a Maths literate society ideal for investment by the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sectors.

An interesting feature of the Irish students in the last PISA study was the high number of skipped questions in the later sections of the assessments. Let’s encourage our students to give it their best shot by reminding that this study matters and our country’s performance in it will influence future investment in our country along with all the employment opportunities that come with it.

I am clear in my mind that one of the greatest resources our country has is the quality of our teachers. I know that there will always be adverse comments about underperforming teachers but that isn’t the norm and the vast majority of teachers do good work in motivating and preparing our students.

As we set about the reform of our initial teacher education, it is really disappointing that the starting salary for newly appointed teachers has been radically reduced. Is it fair to ask graduates to spend four years on their undergraduate degree, a further two years on their professional diploma (six years in total) before they can be registered for employment in the profession – and then expect them to start on a salary level which could be less than a Special Needs Assistant with a few years service in the system? This is what is indicated in the recent circular on allowances issued by the Department of the Public Service.

The teachers are one of the best resources we have in the system. Let’s not educate them for export as we did with our nurses by not realising that this circular is a mistake. You can see where I’m coming from in welcoming statements from our politicians that they may have got it wrong!

View all blogs by Clive Byrne

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