Archive for the ‘education’ Category

USi Protest Against Fees, TCD August 12th at 12pm

August 11, 2009

From the USI website, which doesn’t give the date, though Indymedia gives it as August 12th at 12 pm outside Trinity College.

Angry members of the USI will voice their strong opposition to education minister Batt O’Keefe’s proposals to implement a graduate tax or deferred loan system onthe students of Ireland.

This event will coincide with the release of the Leaving Certificate results, whenthousands of young people discover how they performed in the State exams.

USI President Peter Mannion said:

“This is a time when students should be excited about receivingtheir Leaving Certificate results and going to college to study their chosensubjects, but many thousands of young people will be signing up to a systemwhere their futures come with a hefty mortgage.

If the Minister of Education gets his way, these studentswill be liable to pay tens of thousands of Euros in future for a degree. It isgrossly unfair that these young people, who expected to receive a freeeducation just over a year ago, will now be targeted with fees.”

Support the USI and SAY NO TO FEES!


Economic Crisis? Forget that – what about the dinosaurs?

February 13, 2009
Artists' Impression of the DUP front bench

Artists' Impression of the DUP front bench

Extremely depressing news that the number of mortgage arrears in Northern Ireland has gone up 64% over the past year. Meanwhile, what is exercising our senior politicians? “Insidious propaganda” from New Labour suggesting – shock horror – that global warming might have something to do with humans, and the outrageous idea that the Ulster Museum is planning an exhibition on Darwin but not including Creationism. Glad to see that everyone at Stormont has their priorities right. This is the sort of political shadow boxing designed to distract from the incompetence of those elected to represent us. Expect this to accelerate as the next election approaches.

Educaional Apartheid: Mary Nellis, PSF, Class, and Sectarianism

February 6, 2009

I was thinking of calling this post “The Mask Slips”, but then again, it’s not much of a mask, nor much of a slip. Northern Ireland, it is often said, is an apartheid society, where the overwhelming majority of the community is separated in housing, education, work, and social life according to religion. This analysis is presented primarily by those progressive elements that seek to overturn the divisions within our society. It was with some interest then that I noted this opinion piece by the former PSF MLA and honorary president of that party in Derry, Mary Nelis, entitled Maintaining Educational Apartheid. Northern Ireland certainly does have educational apartheid. The absence of a secular, comprehensive education system ensures that children are divided by religion, and class through academic selection. Would this article then represent a genuinely progressive call by Mary Nelis for the abolition of both academic selection and religious education? Well, no. Of course not. Instead what we got was a rather weak defence of her party’s handling of the abolition of the Eleven Plus, and an example of the sectarian mindset that means that neither unionism nor nationalism can ever be a truly progressive force.

Martin McGuinness’ abolition of the Eleven Plus in 2002 was an extremely progressive move, for which he deserves a lot of credit. However he made a major mistake in not immediately replacing it with an alternative. McGuinness had pledged to remove the Eleven Plus in his manifesto, and ordered the Burns Report to examine the future of the transfer system. The Burns Report was published in October 2001, and recommended banning the use of academic selection entirely. Consultation was open until June 2002. McGuinness abolished the Eleven Plus just before the suspension the Executive in October 2002 amid allegations of a spy ring in Stormont being run by the informer Denis Donaldson. McGuinness’ failure to nominate a replacement system is partly responsible for the fact we are in the mess we are in today. McGuinness had the power to do what he wished, a power lost as the DUP ran rings round PSF in the negotiations that saw the Executive restored. The question is why he never implemented the alternative, something I’ll come back to.

So what then of Mary Nelis? In her version of events, “political unionism” (a new PSF favorite phrase, like rejectionist unionism and securocrats before it, but is there any other kind of unionism?) has been blocking the heroic and brave efforts of poor Caitríona Ruane for sectarian reasons. The desire to keep the Eleven Plus reflects the DUP’s “hankering after a return of ‘Old Lord Brookeborough’s golden days in a Stormont long gone. It is scandalous to say the least, to use children in the pretence that the retention of the 11+ favours Protestantism and that this gives Unionism a degree of privilege over Catholics.” The attitude of the two unionist main parties certainly does reflect elitism, and reminds us that they serve primarily the interests of the bourgeoisie. But in all honesty, I cannot say that I have heard them – or anyone else – argue that the Eleven Plus buttresses Protestant domination over Catholics. This is a nonsensical argument, especially when the weight not just of academic writing but of the experiences of those involved testifies that the extension of the Butler Education Act to Northern Ireland ultimately laid the foundations for the emergence of the Civil Rights generation in the 1960s. Rather than a support to religious discrimination and the Stormont regime, the Eleven Plus contributed greatly to their downfall. Mary Nelis is as aware of that as anybody.

Yet she must fit this whole debaclé into a sectarian narrative, in order both to justify her party’s failure and to continue to appeal to the dynamic of tribal confrontation and opposition on which both the DUP and PSF have climbed to their dominant position in NI. This mentality is made clearest in her attitude to the Catholic grammar schools who have been opposing an end to academic slection.

Indeed it is outrageous that some Catholic School principals appear to be working to a DUP agenda.

Put bluntly, Nelis is outraged that these people are betraying their co-religionists by putting their class interests before communal solidarity and refusing to support PSF. She regards Catholic principals asking parents to send standard protest letters to the Minister for Education as perhaps guilty of a form of blackmail. While she denounces unionist opposition to the abolition of the Eleven Plus as a result of their “1690 mindset”, she does have some awareness that this is a class issue. Ruane, Nelis says, has been opposed by powerful vested interests “as anyone listening to Karen Patterson interviewing Catriona Ruane, on the BBC Evening Extra programme last week would understand.” So added to Unionism, treacherous and manipulative Catholic principals, we now have the BBC, all plotting and scheming to frustrate brave Caitríona. A dastardly combination indeed.

Does Caitríona stand alone? Indeed not. Although Nelis is upset the lily-livered SDLP is not rushing to her aid against reactionary unionism, “all the Teachers Unions support the Ministers position. In addition, various reports since the decision to abolish the 11 plus, including Burns and Costello have recommended that no school should be permitted to use academic selection criteria for children’s admission to second level education.” This is true. The abolition of the Eleven Plus has significant support in the Assembly, from the SDLP, Alliance, and the Progressive Unionist Party, who recognise clearly the class nature of the question. The teachers’ unions have long been in favour of the abolition of academic selection, and the Catholic bishops until staunchly in favour, but have now panicked. How then has Caitríona Ruane ended up so isolated from these other progressive elements, and under such attack? This it seems is a question that Mary Nelis doesn’t think is worth asking, or more likely is afraid that she already knows the answer – a stunning combination of arrogance and incompetence.

This column is worthy of close examination by the left, north and south, for what it reveals about PSF’s attitude to religion and class. There is no doubt that, especially in the Republic, people with genuinely progressive politics have been attracted by the language of progress and equality spoken by PSF. There is no doubt that PSF has understood that the Eleven Plus discriminated against children in the working class areas where its support is strongest, such as west Belfast, and resolved to act. There is no doubt that credit is due. But so too is criticism for the failure to handle the issue properly. Many seek to blame Caitríona Ruane. Or perhaps Martin McGuinness for not striking while the iron was hot, instead seeking a consensus that was never possible, as Ruane has also done (and which Nelis also stresses was the right thing to do). Yet I think the issue is a much deeper one, and cuts right to the heart of the nature of their party, and the type of politics it practices and espouses.

I said above that I would come back to why McGuinness did not act as he had the power to do. There are I think two main reasons. The first is that PSF is well aware that academic selection is extremely popular in Northern Ireland, especially among the new middle class voters it has acquired over the past decade that have made it the dominant nationalist party. I suspect that McGuinness’ initial aim was not to abandon academic selection altogether, but to delay it until the age of fourteen. Thus he would have gained radical credentials for abolishing the Eleven Plus, which even many supporters of academic selection regard as traumatising for young children, while keeping the grammar school lobby and the middle class that benefits from our educational oligarchy onside. The Eleven Plus was also a useful bargaining tool with unionists, whose constituencies cared deeply for it. Trading selection at 14 for some concessions on something else was also I suspect in his mind. Indeed, for a while it looked like this compromise would most likely emerge, until the DUP succeeded at St Andrews in stripping much power from the individual ministers, meaning that they could now prevent what they did not like, such as the Irish Language Act, and the ending of academic selection. They comprehensively outmanouevred PSF in other words, who allowed their desire to exercise power to overcome their good sense.

This in itself tells us something about the PSF approach to politics. What then of the column? It represents in miniature the balancing act that goes on north and south between the competing instincts with that party. The progressive instincts present among many wanted to get rid of the Eleven Plus, which they recognise damages all the children in NI, as well as society as a whole. As Nelis points out, the Shankill area reputedly has the worst Eleven Plus results in NI. The natural course therefore is to make the argument on these effectively class grounds, whatever language is used. This would prove popular with many of their traditional voters, though not all as the Eleven Plus retains a lot of support among working people who have benefited from it. And yet, the absence of a clear progressive or socialist ideology dictates that this course cannot be pursued. Instead, it is safer to retreat into old certainties, to portray this as an issue of us versus them, of progressive nationalism against reactionary unionism. Thus the Catholic principals are not following their own class interests, but a DUP, Protestant, unionist agenda (even when this agenda has to be made up, as with the idea that unionists have argued that the Eleven Plus cements Protestant domination). Exposing the class reality of the DUP and UUP’s opposition to the Eleven Plus would mean confronting the fact that nationalism too is riven by class interests, and that it is not possible to magic away the class nature of society by the invocation of the old tribal mantras and references to unionist supremacism, even in a society as twisted as Northern Ireland. This is all the more the case when it might risk the electoral progress made among the Catholic bourgeoisie. Ultimately, PSF has come down – as it must – on the side of access to power, and of maintaining the sectarian nature of our politics.

An organisation built on and defined by a populist, communalist agenda is limited in the progressive moves it can make by that agenda, whether it is the DUP or PSF. There are examples of both parties acting in a progressive way. But they cannot escape the shackles of populism. So it is that in the south, Gerry Adams and the leadership overturns an Ard Fheis policy on taxation just before the election. So it is that the interests of our children must be sacrificed to sectarian power politics. The whole Eleven Plus debaclé is a reminder that the left can look to organisations like PSF for progressive moves on a small number of individual issues, but we must not and cannot look to them to consistently pursue a left agenda. The eagerness to form a coalition with Fianna Fáil in the Republic is one example, the adherence to communal politics in the North another.

Mary Nelis finishes her column by asking “Who wants to perpetuate educational apartheid?” The answer Mary is that you do, just as you wish to perpetuate our voluntary religious apartheid in all areas of our lives, and especially in our politics. And the people who suffer the most will be the workers and their families, Protestant and Catholic.

“A Slow Motion Car Crash”

February 3, 2009

Great metaphor from Sluggerotoole’s Mick Fealty here about the transfer disaster. I think that the show podcast where he makes it will be well worth listening to.

Caitríona Ruane, Provisional Sinn Féin, and the Transfer System: A Definite Fail

February 2, 2009
Caitriona has a cunning plan

Caitríona has a cunning plan

This blog has taken an interest in the ongoing debate over the replacement of the Eleven Plus (click on the education category on the right hand side if you are interested). And now we have the, ahem, definitive statement from Caitríona Ruane to the Assembly, and the issuing of the new transfer guidelines.

But wait. These guidelines are in fact not definitive. They are for consultation until April 27th 2009. So what do they actually say? Apparently their aims are to ensure that each child can fulfil his/her potential; that the arrangements for admissions are clear and understood; and that decisions on admissions to post-primary schools are robust and accurate. Robust and accurate decisions? I suspect the clear element of the aim is already in danger of failing on page 2. The first recommended criterion is that the proportion of applicants from those entitled to free school meals admitted is the same as the proportion that applied. The other recommended criteria are a sibling, eldest child, attendance at a feeder/named primary school, parish, catchment area, nearest suitable school, and finally random selection as a tie-breaker. The guidelines do not give full information as to how the first criterion should be applied, another example of the ill-thought-through nature of this whole debaclé.

Academic admissions criteria – i.e. an unfair test system that privileges the children of the bourgeoisie – are not prohibited. And, in fact, the Department of Education can only “particularly” urge grammar schools to adopt the first recommended criterion of matching the proportion of applicants entitled to free school meals as the proportion accepted. Even that basic and fundamental plank of Department policy cannot be enforced.

Or, to put that another way, Caitríona Ruane, Martin McGuiness, and the entire PSF leadership – hang your heads in shame. You had a golden opportunity to transform the lives of all the children of NI, especially those of the working class. And you blew it. Blew it due to your own incompetence, arrogance, lack of preparation, and pursuit of party political advantage at the expense of your professed principles and the interests of our children. Still, will help you keep those recently-acquired middle class votes, and won’t hurt you that much in the working class areas either if you can produce a suitably timed outburst of anti-unionist hostility. Could be worse, eh?

As for the left. It has long been realised and argued by The WP that local democracy would expose the reactionary nature of both unionism and nationalism, and that a space for progressive politics would open as a consequence. Here is such an issue. Let’s hope the truth begins to dawn on people.

British students get off arses to sit on them for Gaza

January 30, 2009

A wave of student occupations – much underreported it seems to me in the media – has been occurring across the UK in solidarity with Gaza. These occupations are being coordinated by the Stop the War Coalition. A website giving details from all the occupations can be found here, and it looks like each individual occupation as got its own blog, linked at the general site. Among the institutions that have seen occupations (many of them shortlived) are Essex, Nottingham, Manchester Metropolitan, Susssex, Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College London, Queen Mary London, the London School of Economics, Warwick, Birmingham, Bradford, and Sheffield Hallam.

The demands raised by the students vary from the unrealistic – e.g. King’s College London revoking Shimon Peres’ honorary doctorate, and taking up general positions on the Israel/Palestine situation – to the more practical – calls for the establishment of scholarships for Palestinian students, given the harassment and degradation of university facilities in Palestine, which seems to have been agreed by Sussex. Although the numbers involved appear to be relatively small in each place, the occupations and accompanying meetings have certainly served to raise consciousness of the situation in Gaza, and should be applauded.

Surprising that nothing similar has been happening this side of the water, I’m sure though we can expect something soon. Hardly the rebirth of serious student politics, but a good sign all in all.

UPDATE: CNN has a story reporting that the NUS, in a very lily-livered move, has called for an end to the occupations.

Pure, Unadulterated Cheek

January 19, 2009
Would you buy a transfer system from this woman?

Would you buy a transfer system from this woman?

Caitríona Ruane is angry. Very angry.

“I will not stand by and watch while our children are failed,” she said.

Stop looking in the mirror then.

PS Apologies for not blogging for the last month. Work just piled up, Christmas etc. I hope to provide more substantial posts in the near future, but could not let this go. Thank you to all those who continued to look in.

The End of History?

December 16, 2008


Couldn’t resist that title/groan-inducing pun for a post about the precipitous decline in the numbers of schools teaching history at A Level, and even at GCSE in Northern Ireland, as reported by the Irish News (link will probably soon require subs). In a country as obsessed with its history as Northern Ireland, it seems incredible that a quarter of all secondary schools are opting out of A-Level history, while 20 schools, around 10%, are not offering GCSE history. Although history remains a strong subject – about 8% of pupils sit it for A Level – its future (and the future of those who teach it at both secondary and tertiary level) is obviously endangered if schools continue to cut it. There is also a class divide emerging, with history weakest in the non-grammar schools, where it seems students are being encouraged to take vocational qualifications and perceived softer subjects, like media studies.

This raises a number of issues for the Left. The first relates to the question what is an education for – is it, or should it be, mainly for the production of technologically proficient and compliant workers who never think about broader societal issues, or should it be to create more rounded individuals who can function as good citizens. There is also the issue of how young people come to political consciousness. In this day and age, when politics is presented purely as managerialism, when political, let alone class consciousness is low, and the left has difficulty getting its message across in a culture saturated with the likes of Lindsey Lohan’s sex life and the X Factor, it is less likely than it has been for decades that young people will think seriously about politics. The study of history – of issues like the Russian Revolution, Hitler’s Germany, the French Revolution, and Irish history – exposes them to the ideas that have motivated progressive forces in the past, and often gives young people their first introduction to the political and social factors that have shaped the world they grew up in. If large numbers of young people – especially working-class young people – no longer encounter these ideas during their education, then the left will suffer for it in the long run. In a place like NI, where the left already struggles desperately, this is a very worrying trend.

No-One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

December 8, 2008

There was an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 on the battles between church and state over the spread of secularism in Spain, which is being repeated tonight at 8.30pm. The Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been promoting a secular agenda, legislating for gay marriage and speedy divorce. His government has also introduced new classes called Education for Citizenship, which have provoked a great deal of resistance from the Catholic Church and its schools, because they deal with issues like sexuality, divorce and abortion. These are the same battles that have being going on in Europe, on and off, for the past two centuries, since the Enlightenment raised the demand for the separation of church and state.

Here we have the words of one of the Catholic parents opposed to the new classes

“If you are able to lead kids to a certain way of thinking, you can have full control of them – that’s what I think the government is trying to do now,” complains Agustin Losada, a parent whose formal objection to the new classes is supported by Madrid’s Conservative regional government.
Mr Losada adds: “The right to educate children in moral principles does not belong to the government, it belongs to the parents. It’s a principle that’s recognised by our constitution.
“By forcing everybody to study this kind of subject, the government are trying to impose a view which is not in line with what some parents could think.”

Here’s the rub. The Catholic Church is of the opinion that the state should leave the moral education of its flock to the Church, regardless of the fact that people live within society, and that if society is to work, people must behave according to its norms. This is of course a fundamental clash in views of what forms government and national identity should take in Spain. Should they reflect Spain’s Catholic heritage, or should they reflect the civic ideals of modern democracy? The Bishops are clear. The effectively warned people that they shouldn’t vote for the Socialist Party, but it was re-elected, and is pushing ahead with its programme.

The response from the church and the opposition Popular Party has been guerrilla warfare, with schools teaching their own versions of their classes with the support of local governments controlled by the opposition. My personal favourite was in Valencia, where they are teaching the classes, but in English so that the pupils cannot understand them. Viewing the opinion polls and listening to the programme, it seems that the church is doomed to failure on this issue, but the fact that the Popular Party is lining up behind it means that that cannot be taken for granted. While the situation is reminiscent of other European struggles over the past two centuries, it also calls to mind the struggles over Darwinism and secularism in the United States.

Of course these are themes not unfamiliar to people in Ireland, north and south. The southern Irish constitution as originally written by Fianna Fáil embodied Catholic social teaching – as did the policies of the Treatyite government before it – and the effects are still felt to this day. In the north, religion remains the overwhelmingly most important factor in social and political relations. Although great progress has been made, the fight for our own secular democracies and politics north and south go on. Still, if Spain can change, so can we.

Good Riddance

November 21, 2008

And so adieu to the much loathed 11 Plus, the final test of which was sat today. I for one will not be mourning its passing. Now if we only had a replacement set up. The issue of transfer from primary school to secondary school was noticeably absent from the deal to get the NI Executive up and running again. Or, in other words, once again our politicians have ignored the real issues in order to pose to their respective communal bases. Policing and Justice is important. But, unlike the transfer system, it is taking place regardless of what happens in the Assembly, and we all know that. The politicians need to get down to serious business, so this shambles does not continue.
One other quick point. Once again, the DUP has run rings round the Provos in negotiations to get the Executive up and running in not naming a date for the transfer of Policing and Justice. I wonder how long that Adams and co can preserve their reputations with their voters as the shrewdest politicians around.