Ireland north and south has two different education systems. Patrick Walsh looks at how providing free school books in the Republic could be one step in bringing them together.

BARNARDOS has launched a campaign to remove the bulk of current costs paid by parents in schools here.

Our organisation argues that the Department of Education should fully fund schools to ensure essentials such as school books, classroom resources, and transport (for those who need it) are provided.

The initial focus will be on the primary sector, and a recent in-depth report has established that it would cost only an extra €103m annually to deliver free primary education.

To put this into context, the Department of Education’s overall budget exceeds €8bn per year.

One hasn’t far to look to see what such a system might look like. Since the post-war Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947 (closely modelled on the Westminster ‘Butler Act’ of 1944) books and educational equipment have been provided free in the schools of the North.

The Irish education system has a strong tradition, dating back to the foundation of the National School system in the 1830s, of overseeing the content, publication and supply of books to its schools. And in the first years of their existence — between the early 1830s and 1860 — the books that the New Board of Education commissioned especially for the schools were provided free.

The contested relationship between Ireland and the British state was the defining influence on the shape and content of the Irish education system and on the books that emerged to service it.

The recasting of these relationships after partition in 1921, and the different contexts of the two Irish states that emerged, resulted in gradually diverging practice in the two jurisdictions: Both states were anxious to produce school systems that matched the ideologies of their governing elites.

In the Free State ( later the Republic) Padraig Pearse’s ‘The Murder Machine’, although more a polemic than a manifesto, articulated a conception of Irish Ireland that was nevertheless influential in forming educational policy in post-independence Ireland where the governments vigorously began to promote nationalist versions of history as the orthodoxy in its schools.

Whilst these governments began to jettison much of the radical rhetoric of pre-Independence nationalism in their social policy, vestiges of that radicalism endured longest in educational policy, particularly in regard to the position of the Irish language within the system.

And new school books emerged to service the system.

The two big players in this respect were the Educational Company of Ireland (Edco) and Browne and Nolan.

The voluminous Edco archive in the Irish National Archives provides evidence of the tensions that often resulted between the commercial publishers and the educational officials to whom they were striving to respond as they developed books that were compliant with the new educational policies.

For example, correspondence shows them ditching extracts from a reader that could be described as of an international character — mostly adventure material from empire locations — in favour of extracts by Irish writers or material connected with Ireland.

EdCo and the government were two big players in a small commercial pool and their favours were often finely balanced on a quid pro quo that was evolving into a new symbiotic relationship.

The following acidic exchange about a request from the Government Publications Branch to bring out one of EdCo’s children’s books in an Irish translation for schools ‘without payment of any fee’ demonstrates this vividly: “If it had been any private person who had asked for a similar concession we would have fought our claims to the last ditch and would have won; but of course it is different when you write such a nice pleasant letter as you have.”

While the Free State entrepreneurs and policy-makers were working through this new relationship, the same issue was exercising politicians and educational officials in the northern state.

In the two decades after partition, the North struggled to both detach itself from the Irish school book publishing trade on which it had depended, like any other part of Ireland, and to produce or procure books that reflected its new educational priorities.

Producing books locally required traditions of publishing expertise, but Belfast lacked such in-depth expertise and also faced problems associated with economies of scale.

The North’s education system would eventually come to rely mostly on the much larger British school book trade but this was not always completely satisfactory.

The contradictory processes by which the North gradually evolved its own particular priorities is best perhaps exemplified by the man who in 1927 became Permanent Secretary at the new Northern Ireland Ministry of Education, Bonaparte Wyse.

Wyse was a Catholic — the only one in such a position until 1969 — from a rather patrician background (the prominent 19th century parliamentarian and educationalist, Sir Thomas Wyse and Lucian Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, were ancestors).

A senior civil servant on the old all-Ireland National Board of Education he was persuaded by Lord Londonderry, first Northern Ireland Minister of Education, to join the new Northern Ministry. Until his permanent return there on retirement in 1939 he maintained his residence in Blackrock, Dublin, which he commuted to each week.

Éamon de Valera was a near neighbour.

The educational files in the Public Record Office, Northern Ireland (PRONI) show him as a suave and accomplished Sir Humphrey in the face of frequently irate suggestions that flowed in from the Unionist heartlands, e.g. The ‘National Schools’ became ‘Public Elementary Schools’ — although some correspondents demanded further action such as the hacking out of the offending stones over the many old school porticos from the Victorian period bearing the legend ‘National School.’

Wyse’s memos usually advised in smoothly reasonable tones against proceeding overhastily with such impractical suggestions.

Here he is in 1935, replying to a minister in the in the NI cabinet office who had received representations from a member of a “deputation from Derry” who stated “that it appeared to him to be very unfair on the part of the government to print their educational works in Dublin instead of having the work carried out in our own province”.

“The Dublin people referred to above have a market for many of these publications in the Free State as well as in Northern Ireland and they naturally find it necessary for economical reasons to centralise their production in Dublin, where, of course, their works have been in existence for a very long time before 1922.

"I am afraid that I do not see what useful action we could take in the matter, though, of course, we should like everything used in our schools to be produced locally, if it were at all possible.”

So, up until the Second World War, the two systems were largely comparable in how they managed the supply of books to their primary school systems — the only part of either system at that time that was compulsory for all children.

And books were not universally supplied by government or local authorities free of charge in either state. But the post-war Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947 extended free second-level compulsory education to all children.

Hitherto, second-level schools served only a minority and consisted mostly of voluntary grammar schools, mostly for the wealthier in society, but even these would be opened up to a broader range of pupils through the access to state-financed academic education by way of the new 11+ selection examination.

The act created a system that was dominated by two tiers — academic grammar schools and ‘secondary schools’ for those not selected for admission to the grammars.

As might be expected, the social make-up of both sets of schools was sharply differentiated, working class pupils making up the vast majority of those in the new secondary schools.

The North has maintained this system up until the present, in spite of the fact that it was abandoned in England and Wales in favour of all-ability comprehensive schools in the 1960s, and in Scotland in the 1970s.

Thus, alongside the religious demarcation that divided Northern Irish schools was added yet another social one that was duly reproduced on either side of the religious divide.

The new act necessitated a huge building programme and, for the first time in the North, in line with practice by local authorities in England before the war, the universal provision of free school books to pupils attending both primary schools and the new system of post-primary schools.

Many in the Republic, we are told, would like to see a united Ireland. So, could I make here a modest proposal in that direction? Let’s start providing free school books to all children in the Republic’s schools.

Barnardos children’s charity has investigated the cost and legislative framework required to make primary education in Ireland truly free. Dr Patrick Walsh spoke at Barnardos Seminar — Making Primary Education Truly Free on Thursday, September 1.

Dr Patrick Walsh was a senior lecturer in Education at the School of Education, Queen’s University, Belfast, and is co-editor of the Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume 5: The Irish Book in English, 1891-2000 and author of its chapter, ‘The Political Economy of Irish School Books.’)


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