EDUCATION Minister Ruairí Quinn addressed the national teachers’ union annual conference in Sligo last night and later this week he will speak to delegates at the ASTI and TUI conferences in Cork and Tralee.
He will reiterate his determination to reverse declines in numeracy and literacy levels revealed in the recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment which dealt with educational achievement amongst 15-year-olds.
This survey infamously shattered long-held, and too often self-serving, beliefs that we had a world class education system. It recorded that one-in-four boys in that age bracket are illiterate. This is not only an indictment of our educational system but of our society as a whole.
Allowing any Irish citizen reach that point in their life without the basic skills needed to function in a modern society is almost a denial of their human rights and is utterly wrong and unacceptable. Not only is it nearly disastrous for the individual, it has negative consequences right across communities.
In reading skills, we fell 12 places to 17th amongst the 39 countries considered, and in maths Ireland dropped 10 places to 26th, the second steepest decline recorded. The OECD described our educational attainment as below average in maths and barely average in science. Figures like these define a failing society, not one with ambitions and capabilities like ours.
No matter what the reasons these figures are unacceptable and must be confronted with realism and energy if we are ever to rebuild an economy capable of supporting our needs and ambitions.
Mr Quinn is certain to tell delegates that these trends must be reversed using the resources to hand as our economic dependency on the continuing but expensive kindness of strangers means funding is more likely to be cut than increased.
This is not what the teacher unions, or anyone else, wants to hear but it is our new normality. Until Government income can match Government expenditure it will remain so. This is the situation for everyone, not just teachers, though some semi-state sector workers are, for the moment, an exception to the rule.
That we invest a smaller proportion of our national income in education than most of societies we wish to emulate is a terrible mistake but there is little enough we can do about it in the short term.
Some teachers may feel hard done by and unloved but from so many perspectives they enjoy enviable job and pension security. They also enjoy, even after the cuts, some of the very best education sector pay scales in Europe. They have made, and continue to make, an enormous contribution to the betterment of this country and its citizens.
How uplifting it would be for the whole country if at the end of this week a mood of possibility was created across the sector. How uplifting it would be if each of the unions accepted the urgent challenge of the OECD report and accepted too that it must be overcome without extra resources, for the moment at least.
Leadership is sometimes about giving example, and at this very difficult moment, teachers have an opportunity to inspire or divide. The choice they make will go a long way to determining our immediate future.
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