— By Phyllis Mitchell
Carysfort College of Education has had the axe hanging over its head since 1985, when Mrs Gemma Hussey was Minister for Education. The final beheading is to take place in June of this year, when the last group of Bachelor of Education students will leave the college, and the academic staff of fifty strong will face empty halls.
It is surely the end of an era, and must be an occasion of considerable sadness for the Mercy nuns who, for generations, have given their life’s efforts to the building, nurturing and expansion of this beautiful aesthetic Centre of Education.
Leaving such considerations to one side, the practical and urgent issues to be addressed at the present time are what will happen to the staff, both academic and non-academic, and how is the college which belongs to the Sisters of Mercy and has hitherto been placed by them at the service of the State, rent-free, and which is equipped to accommodate up to one thousand students, to be effectively and economically utilised in the future service of Irish education.
It is clear that there is considerable anxiety abroad regarding the possible failure of the Minister to make immediate and wise use of either staff or building.
This anxiety is certainly not without foundation when one considers the Government’s uneconomic administration of Carysfort over the past two years.
A full quota of staff has been maintained in the college and a workforce, which in the past catered for 850 students is now forced to busy itself with less than 200. Such absence of planning on the part of the Government is worrying indeed for those who are concerned about their future or the future of Education in general.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers acting on behalf of the academic staff have now managed to secure an assurance from Minister Mary O’Rourke that their members will be redeployed throughout Third level or within the Department of Education. However, no individual package has been yet worked out, and in the light of cutbacks already operating within Third level institutions, it is difficult to visualise any of them being in a position to take on extra personnel, however desirable an asset such an addition to their ranks might be.
The ASTMS are negotiating on behalf of the non-academic staff who are involved in maintenance, catering and administration.
With regard to the college building itself, there has been no indication yet of a Government strategy regarding its utilisation.
Sister Regina Durkin has been President of Carysfort College of Education since 1974. A native of Co. Mayo, and a member of the Mercy Order, she lives in Inchicore and commutes to Blackrock every day.
Her deeply-rooted loyalty to Carysfort College and staff is obvious, and one cannot fail to admire her unrelenting efforts, against all odds, to maintain the college as an educational centre which will continue to reflect the spirit of her Order.
The Mercy Order
The original objective of the Mercy Order, founded by Catherine McAuley in the 1820’s, was to serve the poor. To that end the nuns set to work to teach children at a time when there was virtually no education available. It soon became clear to Ms. McAuley that it was necessary to train teachers for effective classroom work.
Having studied the systems in France and England she introduced the monitorial method of training to her school, at that time located in Baggot Street, Dublin.
The best final-year pupils were selected and trained under a teacher, then going on to become teachers themselves.
This was the system of the day, and it continued right on down through the 19th century.
State Recognition and Expansion
As the 19th century progressed, Baggot Street as a teacher-training centre was becoming widely known and was very much in demand.
By the 1880’s it had received State recognition as a Training College and was entitled to State grants. The location at Baggot Street was no longer adequate to meet the rapidly increasing demand for places within the college.
In 1901 the college was transferred to the salubrious setting of Carysfort Park, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Building began and in 1903 Carysfort College was officially opened.
It continued to grow and flourish in its new location as a widely acclaimed teacher-training college for women.
Despite this apparent growth in affluence, the Mercy Order did not feel they had deviated from their original objective to serve the poor. They considered they were doing that indirectly, by training teachers to educate children throughout the country. In their training programme, they sought to emphasise qualities of compassion and caring as well as to inculcate a high level of professional competence.
The Teacher-Training Programme
The teacher-training course at Carysfort was of two years’ duration, and was an intensive, instructional type programme, very strong on method, on pedagogy and on how to present the lesson in the classroom.
The emphasis was on analysing and imparting the primary school curriculum as laid down by the Department of Education. The teacher’s task lay in the thorough presentation of that curriculum in the classroom, and the successful imparting of its content to the pupils.
Criticism or innovation with regard to the curriculum itself was seen to lie outside the scope of the teacher. Examinations within the college were set and corrected by the Department of Education, and college staff were obliged to teach in accordance with the Department’s regulations.
In the 1960s a more open system developed, whereby the college staff set their own examinations and corrected them themselves, with the co-operation of the inspectorate.
Teachers’ Resource Centre
In 1971 a Teachers’ Centre was opened in the college at the request of the Department of Education. The Centre was to operate independently from the college, and the courses it provided initially were aimed to prepare teachers for the introduction of the New Curriculum into primary schools. During the early 1970s the college itself also began to provide in-service courses for teachers at night, at weekends and during summer months.
It had been hoped by some that the proximity of the Teachers’ Centre would have a bracing effect on the life of the college, and the staff, students and teachers would benefit from mutual interaction. In practice the Teachers’ Centre had little impact on college life, and both college and Centre tended to continue to conduct their affairs separately.
Degree of Bachelor of Education
In 1974 the traditional two-year teacher-training course was replaced by a new three-year course, leading to the Degree of Bachelor of Education.
Another major innovation was the admission of male students in 1975 to the hitherto female domain of Carysfort.
The introduction of a three-year Degree course was a very positive step in the preparation of Primary Teachers for their profession. The training was more academic now, but a fine balance of the practical and the intellectual was still maintained. As well as subject-education, both theoretical and curricular, students now had the opportunity also to stretch their own minds in a given discipline. In First Year students chose two subjects, and then carried one of these through Second and Third years to Degree level.
Moreover, as well as having thoroughly studied techniques for imparting the curriculum, they were also encouraged to have a critical and analytical approach to the curriculum itself. The Bachelor of Education graduate, therefore, combines an excellent pedagogical training, with a healthy and innovative approach to the curriculum, and has also studied one subject to Degree level.
A Predominantly Female Profession
The lack of balance in the ratio of male and female teachers seems to be a universal phenomenon. The high proportion of females in the profession in Ireland has become much more noticeable since the EEC Equality Regulation in the 1970s.
Up to then in the competition for entry into the Training Colleges separate quotas and lists were operated for male and female students. Consequently male students got into teaching much further down the line of achievement than females, to keep the quota as arranged.
Now there are much fewer males in primary education, for those males who reach the required points seem to opt for other careers.
This is especially true since the Higher Education grant system gave them a choice of going to university.
The reason for this is probably rooted in a combination of factors: the comparatively modest salary of teachers, their poor promotion and career advancement opportunities and also perhaps some sexist conditioning with regard to male role stereotyping.
In 1976 a new College Restaurant was completed and opened, and the approval of the Department of Education was secured for an extension which would provide a new library, auditorium, educational technology resou7rce centre, and student communal facilities for the college.
The cost of this grant-aided extension was approximated at one million pounds.
A mere six years later, in 1982, the Board of Carysfort College, aware of certain changing trends in the birth rate, set up a working party to examine these trends in detail.
The findings of the working party were as suspected – the birth rate had already dropped and would continue to fall, with a consequent decrease in the requirement of primary teachers. In view of this information a College Committee was established to draw up a plan for diversification.
The new plan suggested branching out into other areas within the social services, while maintaining a small core group of B.Ed. students. It also incorporated considerable in-service training for teachers.
It was the intention of the college authorities to utilise existing staff for the fulfilment of this new plan and possibly to employ some further staff if required.
In submitting this carefully thought out plan to the Minister, Sr. Regina and the college authorities were seeking to ensure the continuation of Carysfort College as a Centre of Education for the Irish nation, and to pre-empt any possible problems which might arise through lack of adequate advance planning.
Government’s Long Silence
The letter containing the proposed plan was sent to Mrs. Gemma Hussey in April 1984.
In December 1984 there had still been no reply.
Sr. Regina was on sabbatical leave during the academic year ’84-’85, and the acting President sought a meeting with the Department of Education, and was finally granted one.
Mrs Hussey did not attend the meeting. The part of the plan which dealt with in-service training was discussed, and the rest of it was ruled out.
The Department seemed in general terms to be favourable to in-service training but stated that it would be difficult to find money for it. They could not foresee any possibility of teachers being released for such training, and substitutes being paid.
A Second Draft
When Sr. Regina returned in September 1985 no progress had been made, and apprehension within the college was clearly rising.
The College Development Committee was reconvened and an updated version of the Plan was submitted to the Department of Education.
Although worried, Sr Regina felt confident that a strategy for the future would be reached through discussion, for the staff of Carysfort were accustomed to being consulted by the Department of Education on a wide variety of issues, and to a high level of co-operation in matters of curricular development.
It was without warning or prior discussion, however, that on February 4th 1985, Sr. Regina received word from the late Archbishop McNamara to the effect that Carysfort College was to be closed down. It was the first of the present spate of closures, to which we have now grown accustomed, and it came without any consultation or assurances to the staff. As well as outrage and anger, many staff members suffered the most profound anxiety with regard to their future financial situation.
Sense of Grievance
The members of Carysfort College and especially the Mercy nuns felt an acute sense of grievance at what they saw as the chopping off of one member of a small system. They felt that the burden should be shared between the three bigger Colleges of Education, and that each of them should be allowed to retain a small number of B.Ed. students and at the same time to diversify.
Faced by strong opposition to the decision to close Carysfort, the Government eventually set up a working party to consider the future fate of the college. It was to Minister Cooney that this working party finally reported, and the suggestion was made that Carysfort be used more or less as an extension of UCD.
The Mercy nuns, the owners of the college did not take well to this suggestion. It would mean the end of their own involvement with the college, and if it were to happen at all it would have to be accomplished on a purely business basis, with the State renting the premises, and the nuns using the proceeds to further their work within the social services.
When the Fianna Fail Party came into Government in February 1987 there was a revival of hope within Carysfort.
The college authorities and staff had had the sympathy of that party when Mrs. Gemma Hussey announced its closure, and the present Minister Mary O’Rourke had helped with the campaign.
She was at that time very much in favour of retaining the college as a public education facility.
So far there has been nothing but silence on the part of this Government also. However, Sr. Regina is hopeful that a favourable announcement regarding the future of the college will be made in due course.
Need For Expansion at Third Level
Sr. Regina is very much aware that, while the target number of schools at First and Second levels has been by and large reached, the level of provision of Third level education in Ireland falls far below the EEC average. Since the building programme has been stopped it seems to her highly uneconomic to fail to use a very fine existing building.
Projecting imaginatively into the future, she and the College Board have had a vision of a new Carysfort in the form of a polytechnic, where different but related disciplines would interact with each other to their mutual advantage.
Sr. Regina is aware of disadvantages in training teachers in isolation from other professions. Disciplines such as psychology, social science, childcare and youth leadership are para-educational, and the provision of one and two year Diplomas in the above areas is a much needed service in this country.
Since this idea of a polytechnic has not as yet found any favour with the Government, Sr. Regina has most recently submitted her own plan for the future of the college to the Minister.
She does not feel it appropriate to discuss the contents of this plan at present, but daily awaits a phone call from Mrs. O’Rourke to set her mind at rest.
Will the Minister find a suitable channel for such unusual and invaluable dedication?