Thirty years ago, in 1987, Phyllis Mitchell established Education Matters, a specialist publication for educators across all levels.
– By Brian Mooney
Phyllis had perceived a need for a specialist publication which would bring together the various significant news stories across the education sectors, thus making it possible and easy for educators to keep abreast of all relevant developments, as well as providing them with a voice and opportunities for expressing themselves. There was no such vehicle in Ireland at that time.
The first edition, in A3 newsprint format, featured Gemma Hussey talking to Phyllis about her three-year term as Minister for Education. Reading this interview from a 2017 perspective, along with a range of others with people such as Christina Murphy – a predecessor of my own in the Irish Times education pages – and a youthful Pat Kenny, it seems to me that the issues facing educators never really change, but that they renew themselves in every generation. This fact is alluded to by Gemma Hussey also in that first edition of Education Matters.
Hussey referenced her initiative to combat sexism and sex stereotyping in textbooks, and her initiative in establishing a working party to examine the position of women in Irish higher education. Today, these two issues of the unequal power relationships between women and some men in educational and other working environments, and the position of women in higher education, are at the centre of both national and international attention. On 6 November 2017, the Minister of State with special responsibility for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, announced the establishment of a Gender Equality Taskforce and appointed this high-level team to prepare a prioritised three-year action plan.
In that same 1987 interview with Phyllis, Hussey defended her most far reaching decision as Minister for Education to close Carysfort teacher training college on the basis that the three [unnamed] teacher training colleges had been half empty for some time. Irish primary school teacher training has never recovered from that grievous mistake on her part.
Since 1987 the remaining teacher training colleges have seen CAO points rocket for the remaining available places and these colleges have had to provide eighteen months graduate conversion courses to make up for the loss of training places resulting from Carysfort’s closure.
Furthermore, Hibernia College has established itself as the biggest provider of high quality postgraduate trained primary school teachers, training more teachers than the other colleges do collectively, and still there are no teachers currently available to provide substitution cover for normal absenteeism in our primary schools today.
Following on from that first edition of Education Matters, I have identified a small selection of my personal preferences from profiles published over the years. Amongst those is the profile of Christina Murphy.
Cut off in her prime, Christina Murphy was a giant in Irish education journalism, serving as education correspondent for 12 years, in whose footsteps I have been honoured to follow for a similar period as Irish Times education columnist and analyst. I was privileged to work with her on a three-part series on Irish education for RTE in the mid-eighties.
Christina’s energy and enthusiasm are well captured in Phyllis’s representation.
“I love the challenge of a daily newspaper, sussing things out, researching, digging for news.”
This verbalises exactly the driving force behind those of us privileged to write on education for the Irish Times.
“I like to think that we set the agenda for education coverage.”
As with the Hussey interview, the themes identified by Christina are as relevant today as they were in the eighties.
“One H. Dip year is not enough by way of training.”
“The Junior Cert is limited by lack of in-service training and the absence of classroom based assessment alongside the written exam.”
She supports the CAO points system as the best working system we’ve got as opposed to the subjectivity of interviews in a small intimate society such as ours.
Christina had a somewhat rocky relationship with teachers, seeing them as a bit defensive and under-appreciative of the privileges of the job such as short hours and long holidays. And yet she acknowledged the enormous difficulty of being a good teacher.
On one issue, in my opinion, she got it totally wrong: “seeing teaching as lonely and isolating, lacking the compensation of the give and take and interaction among colleagues”. After over forty years as a teacher from September to June each year since 1976, I cannot describe how supportive and collegial teachers are towards each other. The staffroom is a place of laughter, banter and mutual support.
Working in the Irish Times at a desk in August-September each year, devising the story that will appear under one’s name the following morning concerning this year’s Leaving Cert CAO College offers, is by far the most isolating experience you can imagine. As you look around anxiously for inspiration, every colleague is in the exact same place as you with their head buried in their screens, and with deadlines only minutes away. Back slapping banter and mutual support is nowhere to be seen.
Another excellent encapsulation of a giant in Irish education is Phyllis’s profile of my good friend Ray Kearns. She captures the sheer energy of the man. Leaving school after the Inter Cert to work on the railway, he was a docker in the North Wall when, in his own words, “he came to the use of reason.”
Studying Maths as part of an Arts degree in UCD by day and working the night shift in the docks, Ray still managed to win the trust of his student colleagues and was elected president of the student council. From there to the H. Dip, to James Street as a maths teacher, at which point most men would have rested on their laurels – but not Ray Kearns. He went to Pittsburgh on a scholarship to achieve his Masters in Mathematics, three more summers in Fordham and Boston College, and from there to Gonzaga as head of the Maths department.
What a journey Phyllis describes, but that was only the beginning. In 1969, he rented the old Sacred Heart School building on Leeson Street, and thus was born the Institute of Education. I walked through that door in September 1971, after a day’s work in an insurance brokerage firm, to add Latin to my Leaving Cert to enable me to register as an Arts student in UCD. Every evening he stood inside that door, hand outstretched to welcome the students, smiling broadly as he encouraged us, while at the same time finding out how we judged our teacher. Thus started a friendship that has lasted a lifetime.
What Phyllis did not capture – because he keeps it well hidden – is Ray’s innate generosity and decency. I cannot recount the number of times he has responded to genuine need that I encountered and brought to his attention by providing totally free education and support. On one occasion, following a request from me, he fulfilled the wish of a dying Leaving Cert student to secure a place in Law in Portobello College, and a few weeks before the student died, Ray organised a half day one-to-one immersion experience for him in the content of the Law programme.
Still in the 1980s, Phyllis interviewed a youthful Pat Kenny titling her profile “That Mega-Man”. Pat’s Late Late Show years were still in the future, but he had already presented the Eurovision song contest. I have worked with Pat in RTE since my UCD student days, during the summers in the early seventies, as Pat’s TV and radio career was taking off. We have become good friends over the years as we worked together on various programmes, and I feel that I now know the essence of the man. However, Phyllis’s profile of Pat Kenny has given me a totally fresh insight into the forces that shaped him into the giant of Irish media that he is today.
The O’Connells years and the experience of arbitrary and unjust punishments, with leathers and dusters flying in all directions, is an experience lived through by most boys of my generation who served our apprenticeship in Christian Brothers schools in the sixties. The brilliance of his academic achievements is captured in her piece, winning scholarships three times – on entry to secondary school, following the Inter Cert, and into university – all by the age of 17. He won a further teaching scholarship to Georgia University following his UCD Engineering years.
Perceptively, Phyllis captures Pat’s detached and analytic mind perfectly. To this I can attest from experience. When you prepare a set of briefing notes for Pat Kenny, you know that he will cover every salient point in the interview and will do so within the allotted time slot. In contrast, the late lamented Gerry Ryan would get into the first paragraph of your interview briefing notes and then take off in a completely uncharted direction, leaving you wondering what he was going to ask you next, and his production team frantically hand signalling through the glass wall in an effort to get him to return to the topic and keep within the allotted time.
Another star of stage and screen profiled by Phyllis was the late great Mick Lally of “Miley Byrne” fame. One of my 95-year-old mother-in-law’s favourite photographs is of her walking into her daughter’s wedding in the Old Ground in Ennis on Mick Lally’s arm. Phyllis interviewed him after a morning’s filming of Glenroe in Kilcoole in Co Wicklow. She vividly chronicles the filming of a scene from the show, bringing it to life in her colourful description. She had to drive into RTE a few days later to complete her interview with Mick.
Born in the Mayo Gaeltacht of Tourmakeady, Mick went to take his BA in Galway and from there spent six years as a teacher in Tuam. In a sign of things to come, Mick became deeply involved with his pupils in the writing and production of plays. From there onto armature theatre productions in Galway and in 1975 the birth of Druid Theatre, at which point Mick decided to go full time into the theatre. From there he soon emerged into the giant of Irish theatre he became. To me Mick will always be the unassuming host who, along with his beloved wife Peggy, would welcome you back to their warm and welcoming home off the South Circular Road after a night’s performance in “Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme” in the Abbey.
One of Phyllis’s own favourite interviews was with the great Kerry teacher and writer Bryan MacMahon. I am of Kerry stock myself, my grandfather was born on a small farm outside Killarney, went on to teacher training in Waterford and eventually to become a Principal of a small school outside Tralee. He passed the teaching gene onto three of his children and onto me in the next generation – so I read the MacMahon interview as an insight into my own roots.
Having read it and reread it, I find it impossible to summarise in a few paragraphs. I cannot do justice to Phyllis’s capacity to bring this writer, lecturer, poet, sage and great teacher to life in a short synopsis. So I have decided to use my prerogative as Editor of Education Matters Yearbook (now renamed Ireland’s Yearbook of Education) to reproduce the Bryan Mac Mahon interview in full in this year’s edition, as a celebration of the first thirty years of her stewardship of Education Matters.
In addition to the series of profiles which Phyllis created in the early years of the publication, several now-famous people, then third level students and recent graduates, cut their teeth on Education Matters back in the late 1900s, including Pat Leahy (Sunday Business Post), Cormac O’Keeffe (Irish Examiner), Dara O Briain (famous comedian and mathematical genius), and others.
In 1997, Education Matters and the Sunday Tribune entered into an arrangement by which the monthly publication would be distributed as a supplement within the national Sunday newspaper. This involved a print run of more than 100,000 and had the effect of bringing Education Matters to a far wider audience and embedding the publication as a significant news medium in the entire education establishment.
A couple of years later Education Matters moved on from the Sunday Tribune to enter into a similar type of arrangement with Ireland on Sunday. This lasted until the end of 2000 when Phyllis decided to transfer the publication to the internet, a medium which at that time was beginning to penetrate the Irish market.
EducationMatters.ie was very successful – but there remained a yearning for the print medium. In 2006, alongside the website, Phyllis established Education Matters Yearbook. This was a 250-page book that chronicled the key events of the year in education in Ireland across all sectors. Six years later the value of this unique annual publication was recognised by NUI Galway. The endorsement and support of this long-established and highly esteemed university was immensely important in increasing the credibility and raising the profile of Education Matters Yearbook.
I have been writing the executive summary for Education Matters Yearbook since 2007 and three years ago I accepted the offer of the position of Editor. I have been supported by many great teachers in shaping the emerging style and structure of the publication, who value what Education Matters Yearbook is and can be into the future, particularly by my good friend and initial main sponsor over the past three years, Brian Mac Craith, President of DCU.
I cannot conclude this overview of the first thirty years of Education Matters without stating that it has been an immense privilege to have worked with Phyllis Mitchell for the past ten years. She has brought a rich vein of insight and scholarship to the world of Irish education, and has more than fulfilled her initial ambitions for Education Matters and Education Matters Yearbook (renamed this year Ireland’s Yearbook of Education).
In addition to the Yearbook, www.educationmatters.ie continues to thrive, offering blog space to people interested in expressing themselves on education related subjects, a free download of the current edition of the Yearbook, highlights from down the years, and – to pay the bills – advertising space.