Are we failing to provide a basic education?

Are we failing to provide a basic education?

AT this late stage of the festive season, I should be out decking the halls with boughs of holly, but, instead, I’ve decided to copy the ancient Druids and stick the holly in my hair to ward off whatever alien spirit it is that seems to have taken hold of the country.

You see, I’m in defensive mode this week because Richard Bruton won’t stop raving about the joys and benefits of coding in the classroom, while spellings and tables are gone out the window and teachers are stuck in Lansdowne limbo struggling to survive. How diplomatic is that, may I ask you? But Merry Christmas anyway.

Now whatever about the overburdened, underpaid teachers, it’s totally unnerving for people like me to think that there are five year olds out there who are smarter than us. This is not the natural order of things, Mr Bruton. Five year olds would be better off learning their three times tables - by rote, as we all did. That way they might be able to do mental arithmetic when they’re 12 and realise when they’re being conned in a trade deal.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes Arts Minister, Heather Humphreys, espousing the joys and benefits of music in the classroom. This is all very well for people born with an ear for music as well as a grand piano in the drawing room. But it’s not music to my ears. For kids like my young self, who had to sit at the back of the class learning my spellings while the rest of the class sang patriotic songs and fervent hymns, it could be a nightmare. I was told to keep my mouth shut because I hadn’t a note in my head, and there was a real danger that I could put the whole class out of tune. But whatever about passing exams, I was traumatised at the prospect of never being able to get into Heaven because I might put the angels off their stride. Come to think of it, I can’t have been much good at spellings either. But who would want to inflict that on any kid?

But then, this is the age of inclusivity and maybe music is for everyone, tone deaf or not. But if that’s the case, the classroom cacophony could well be a nightmare for the teacher – worse even than the reverberating horrors of the Lansdowne agreement. But, if we’re lucky, Bono might even win the next Nobel Prize for Literature.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more bizarre, education wise, I was shown a sample of the New Junior Cert English Paper, which students will sit for the first time next June. When I read it, I fell around the place laughing uproariously, dislodging - in the process - the holly in my hair, and leaving myself open to all kinds of alien influences. The Paper looked ridiculously like the old EU Area Aid Application form which drove farmers to despair, with boxes to be ticked, multiple choice questions to be answered and characters and scenarios to be matched up. “This isn’t English,” I gasped, “this is pure officialise”. Shakespeare, who obviously should have put the holly in his hair instead of the halls, has now become possessed – by Humphrey Appleby.

Now, I’m the first to confess that I’m no pedagogue. And since I only got a glimpse at the Paper, maybe I’m being unfair to its purpose or I could even be exaggerating its crassness. I also have to admit that it isn’t all bad. But there is nothing in it, as far as I can see, to challenge a very able student or to test the flair and style of anyone with a literary bent. There is not even enough room in the space allocated, although you can apparently use extra space if you have to. You’re not encouraged though. Precision is everything.

On the other hand, the same Paper would present an incredibly daunting challenge to someone like me who hates filling in forms and ticking boxes, and who never approaches any official form without a Tippex pen in my hand.

Obviously it was devised to meet the demands of industry and commerce rather than testing a pupil’s appreciation of, and response to, great works of literature.

In my jaundiced eyes it’s not just dumbing down English: it’s infantilising the subject. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Junior Cert pupils of the future, studying the mystic elements of Kavanagh’s ‘Childhood Christmas’ were asked to write a letter from Kavanagh to Santa Claus telling him what he wanted for Christmas.

But while I’m not an expert on either literature or pedagogy, there are people out there who are, and they should be challenging the new Junior Cert English, with holly sticks, if necessary, before it takes a hold of our souls. Apart from teacher and columnist, Breda O’Brien, nobody is questioning whether it is right or wrong or why other countries which tried the same kind of ‘discovery based’ learning, with the teacher as just a facilitator on the side line, are now abandoning the system and reverting to the old way of being taught facts. We seem content to trust the academics, who, in my paranoid thinking, could very well have been funded in their research by the same industrial moguls who think that education is all about responding to their commercial agendas.

At the very least we need a ‘conversation’, as they say, on the way our educational system is developing. God knows we’re quick enough to talk about everything else and tease it out ad nauseam. But if we don’t have a conversation soon about education, we may not get a chance to do so in the future. Judging by the sample test Paper I saw, we could all be stuck for words and good for nothing anymore only ticking boxes.