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 “A specially commissioned Irish Times poll in 2014 revealed most people had no idea the bulk of government spending went on social welfare payments, including pensions, and public service pay. Most people believed politicians’ pay accounted for more spending than either of these items.” – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stephen-collins-ireland-not-immune-to-virus-that-spawned-donald-trump-s-success-1.2747037

The media, according to the author of the article, Stephen Collins, must take some responsibility for this ignorance. He’s wrong. For once the media cannot be responsible. Ignorance – no, let’s be blunt, monumental stupidity – on this scale wasn’t caused by media. The survey result suggests a spectacular and basic failure in the Irish education system.

Regularly a citizen hears it said or reported in the media something along the lines of, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …” Average intelligence and slight education should prompt reaction, “Hang on, that can’t be true!”

Right, let’s admit intelligence for all. That means turning attention to education. It is unacceptable that the majority of respondents in a properly conducted survey are incapable of participation in a basic public controversy. That such mass incompetence has been found should prompt a rush to research in order to find the root of the failure.

Ok, let’s not over-react. It was one survey and its purpose was not to measure educational attainment, but it does accord with my experience as a lecturer, a consumer of media and a citizen who engages in casual conversation at bus stops.

Apart altogether from the concern that a significant number of citizens cannot participate in a public controversy, there should also be concern among those who view education as training for work. That is to say, there is little point in fussing over the proportion of students taking higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate or the general maths needs of industry, when it would seem that perhaps the majority have no grasp of numbers and quantity.

Returning to the degree of blame for public ignorance which journalists should bear, it may be that they are as much victims of a failure to educate as the citizens whose views they report. Consider the possibility that many journalists think it makes sense when someone says, “If politicians weren’t paid so much, there’d be plenty of money for …”

I’m supposed to be lecturing on politics but in reality I’m teaching remedial English.” It would be comforting to report that this was heard recently but it was decades ago. A basic failure in Irish education is now long standing and anyone active in social media can see that it is extensive. It’s in the news again because an OECD report bears out what university teachers see daily and talk about constantly.* It is in stark contrast to the belief in Ireland that the education system is basically sound.

Decades of remedial teaching at university point to a fundamental failure and right now that failure is in particular need of clarification because it is becoming entangled in a more complex set of concerns over 3rd level student performance.**

Here’s a proposition: There is no point in admitting to secondary education someone who is not literate and numerate, and is without a good level of general knowledge.

Here’s a second proposition: There is no point in admitting to university someone who is not literate and numerate, lacks extensive general knowledge and a good grasp of science/technology, and who is incapable of independent study and thought.

The two propositions are based on the simple belief that it is futile to ask someone to do something which they are clearly incapable of doing. It is ludicrous at 2nd level to set out to teach, say, literature or maths to someone who cannot spell, punctuate or cope with numbers. It is equally ludicrous at 3rd level to attempt higher education with someone who is not already educated to quite a high standard.

Almost everyone teaching at 3rd level talks of illiteracy and they regale one another with fabulous examples of lack of general knowledge. Many realise too that their students cannot do basic maths and – while proficient domestic computer users – have little scientific or technical knowledge.

Of course the problems are not universal; there are many students well-prepared to thrive in higher learning. However, the difficulty is not that an occasional unprepared student slips in but that they are not at all uncommon. It is tempting to ask how someone lacking the skills mentioned above could possibly have been awarded a Leaving Certificate of any kind, never mind one carrying the points required to gain entry to the next level of education.

Part of the answer and an obvious partial remedy lies at the transition between primary and secondary school. Thanks to technology it is now relatively easy and inexpensive to ensure that no one can enter 2nd level education who is as yet incapable of benefiting from it. A basic test of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge is required. There is no question of grades; it’s a matter of ready or not ready and it’s certainly not the reintroduction of the Primary Certificate. The test could be on-line and inexpensive. It could be taken any time a teacher thinks a pupil is up to it and it could be re-taken as many times as required. ***

Having taken steps to ensure that primary education fulfils one of its functions the foundation exists for secondary education to perform. If doubts remain, however, that the holder of a Leaving Certificate may still be unable to profit from higher learning, it would be open to the HEA to require all applicants to pass an on-line test which too could be re-taken as required.****

By neglecting basic education Ireland is creating significant inefficiency in the entire education system. Remedial learning is being pushed higher and higher. Unless similar is happening in comparable countries, Irish education risks becoming a laughing stock. Our own education professionals are laughing already; that’s how they cope.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/oecd-finds-literacy-an-issue-among-university-students-1.2515918

** student retention rates, the mistaken belief that students of modest ability are not suitable degree candidates, the effect of reducing students to mere consumers, managerialism leading to reliance on on-line lecture notes and reaching “learning objectives”, lack of reading etc.

Carl O’Brien’s Irish Times piece on the OECD report is published with a companion piece which muddies the water: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/universities-offer-literacy-clinics-for-students-1.2515864

*** There is no point in pretending that this does not have profound ramifications for children with learning disabilities and for children who do not speak English. The point here, however, is that no one should be asked to do that which they cannot. Indeed it might be argued that sending a child to secondary school on the basis of age alone is abuse.

**** Clearly it could be argued that the pre-3rd level test obviates the need for the earlier test. This however would be to suggest that entry to 3rd level is the only purpose of education and fails to share the responsibility for good basic education between primary and secondary educators.

The 3rd level test also opens the possibility of a significant 3rd level access sector.

I’ve been talking with secondary school teachers. The dominant topic was opposition to grading their own students but it quickly became clear that many grievances are hidden by this dispute. The refusal to grade is based on two arguments. Firstly, it is argued that this approach would undermine the integrity of certification, would be unfair to students, would destroy the pupil-teacher relationship, would invite confrontation with parents and would put particular pressure on teachers who are employed on insecure contracts. Secondly, it is argued that teachers simply cannot take on any more work.

I have challenged the first argument many times and I don’t intend to offer a repeat here. The essential flaw in the argument is the assumption that teacher grading would have no support or supervisory process. Once that is addressed, the argument falls.

The second argument requires evidence. The teachers to whom I spoke were convincing in describing a working life of long hours, frequently interrupted by minor emergencies, almost futile attempts to teach students whose level of education falls far short of that required for the class in which these students find themselves and in far too many instances little or no parental support. They are overstretched and unable to devote sufficient effort to teaching in a workplace that is frankly chaotic. In short, there is a compelling argument that grading performed by teachers should not go ahead because teachers cannot take any more.

The odd feature of the public debate – and I’ve been a participant in this peculiarity – is that attention has focussed almost exclusively on the first argument (That teachers grading their own students is unthinkable.) to the virtual exclusion of the second.

It is a mystery how teachers and their representatives have contrived to focus public attention on an argument that is risible while a powerful, compelling argument is available to them.

It is possible that what I’ve heard is unrepresentative, confined to a few problematic schools, that the teachers’ union representatives know this and that there has been a decision to avoid talking about teachers’ workload, workplace and job description. If that is the case, then grading by teachers should be accepted and a great deal of effort should focus on these schools.

I don’t, however, believe that this is the case. I believe that secondary school teachers are in real distress, that their condition cannot be relieved by pay increases and that the system is now in jeopardy. This is happening while citizens and media talk about and the unions strike over the efficacy of teachers grading their own students.

The following is the truth as it appears in the Sports section of the Irish Times.

“The work was simple. I used to go around the small towns and villages and these estates going up left, right and centre. Cootehall! Tulsk! Frenchpark! Where were all the people going to come from? I remember saying to someone around 2004: ‘this thing is going to fu**ing blow up sometime. But hopefully not in the next 12 years and we will get a good touch out of it’. – Shane Curran, Veteran GAA goalkeeper quoted in The Irish Times Oct. 4th 2014 http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/colourful-nonconformist-shane-curran-always-ready-to-think-outside-the-box-1.1951420

This man like thousands of others is not stupid. He could see the evidence of the property scam all around him and he knew damn well that it would end badly. He discussed it with lots of other people who like him were perfectly capable of interpreting the evidence that was all around them. However, most commentators these days would have us believe that Shane Curran was remarkably perceptive and almost alone in reading the signs.

Why is this lie so frequently promulgated? Well, it’s like this. Unless the majority is prepared to believe the lie, a large number of people face a fall. The truth is that a person would have to be monumentally stupid or to have been willfully blind to have failed to see what Shane saw. The next question may be shocking but it needs to be faced. What jobs in Ireland are suited to the monumentally stupid or the willfully blind?

The answer of course is few, if any. Certainly stupidity on this scale should rule out journalism, broadcast presenter, teaching and certainly employment in any part of banking or financial services. Our problem is that those proven to be too stupid are still in place.

See also:
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/they-are-known-to-be-useless-and-they-are-all-still-there-a-reminder-from-eddie-hobbs/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/

In Ireland it is rare that particular classes of wrongdoers pay a penalty for their actions or inaction. When crime from dodgy dealing to hideous violence is dragged into the light, the clichés begin; establishment voices call for a line to be drawn under it and for new regulation to ensure that it can’t happen in the future. The anodyne call to forgetfulness is, “We are where we are.” Less popular are, “We must avoid the blame game”, “It was the culture of the time”, “Everyone was at it” or “We must avoid a tendency to demonise”.

What this nonsense means is that with a handful of sacrificial exceptions the elite in Ireland can avoid being held accountable. The political party responsible for the building scam which brought the country close to ruin is once again popular. Those in education, media and management who lacked the ability to see the property/lending folly or lacked the integrity to speak out at the time are still in place. The c.e.o. of Allied Irish Banks considers it a firing offence for managers to take out loans for speculation but no one who did it in the past will be fired. There’s a gunrunner sitting in the Dáil surrounded by colleagues who supported civilian slaughter for years but it is now considered “not done” to scoff at their concerns about inequality and suffering. Indeed looking to recent violent history is considered detrimental to the “peace process”. It would appear that no one guilty of assault or keeping slaves in laundries will face prosecution. Likewise teachers who ignored the rules in regard to corporal punishment can enjoy retirement. Then there are the auditors and board members …

The list can seem endless but around it is the protective, “We are where we are.” It suggests a new verb: “to go wawa”.* Like so many things, going wawa is not a method of escape for everyone. It’s reserved to protect the pillars of our establishment. While citizens will be asked to go wawa when it comes to managers, politicians, teachers, journalists etc., hell will freeze over before a judge says to a car thief, “I’ve agreed to go wawa on your offences. You may leave.” ___________________________________________________________________ * http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Wawa&defid=6964261

I wrote recently about how concern over commercialisation of the universities was masking the larger problem – and frankly, the scandal – that is the usurpation of conventional management. A relatively new elite have changed the objectives of the universities to their own interest. In doing so they have used a familiar lexicon to disguise their efforts, to make them appear efficient and business-like. They have misused access to information systems to invert the relationship between management information and management objectives.*

My reason for returning to the topic so soon is that reaction to the original piece, while oddly favourable, has missed the point. Many of those who’ve spoken to me about the piece assumed that it was taking sides in the entirely bogus debate that is frontline workers versus administrators. It’s worth emphasising that what has been done to university management is common to many – perhaps most – organisations. I’ve had lecturers and post grad workers say to me that I was right to comment on the growth of admin. staff and the decline in academic staff. I made no such comment.

With the rise of electronic and the decline of paper systems three things were inevitable. Firstly, many of those who operated the paper systems would have to go or adapt. Secondly, the electronic systems would require technical and user support staff. Thirdly, the increase in data production would create a need for more administration. In short, it’s not in the least paradoxical that more efficient systems would demand staff increases. All of this can and should be managed. Change is not a recent phenomenon and has always had to be managed. The contrived specialisation of the likes of “change management” is as much a fetish as the production of management information for its own sake.

Setting frontline workers – be they doctors, firefighters or academics – against administrators suits those who are the real problem. They will side with the frontline workers and condemn administration in the language of efficiency. If successful, they are so well entrenched that it is they who will decide which administrators will go and what is best done by contractors. Thus, aided by their apparent critics in academia, their grip on universities will tighten at the expense of poorly paid staff and those remaining managers who might have offered some opposition.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/cui-bono-the-commercialisation-of-universities-is-more-complex-and-durable-than-many-critics-imagine/

Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/culture-shock-stark-lesson-of-imposing-market-values-on-third-level-1.1766771 It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/change-one-thing-bureaucracy-is-strangling-third-level-education-1.1708345

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.

A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.

The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.

In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.

This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.

Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***

On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.

The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.

We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/catholic-schools-should-remain-true-to-ethos-despite-challenges-1.1708941

** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/faith-schools-and-the-teaching-of-values/

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/net-results-digital-economy-begins-with-teaching-kids-coding-1.1340843
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/could-inaccurate-use-of-the-term-tech-sector-be-misguiding-education-policy/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
***** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0209/1224329821083.html

** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

**** The two are discussed here:https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/

All the indications are that the McAleese report on the Magdalen Laundries is a disgrace. Criminals are hiding behind the familiar device of highlighting the formal responsibility of the state. Moreover, discussion of this awful report is diverted into guff about whether or not the Taoiseach should apologise now or next week.

Look at and listen to the woman at 08.30 here: http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10108232/ She is owed wages and pension contributions by people who hid her from factory inspectors. She was kept away from school. She was beaten. She is not old. It is certain that at least some of the perpetrators of the crimes against her are still alive. The state has a responsibility alright: to investigate these crimes and to apprehend the perps. There is a role too for the Criminal Assets Bureau.

National Certificate of Competence for Workers in the Media and Food Industries 2013

Mathematics paper one: Basic burger mixing

Please read the paper.
Please answer all five questions.
You may use a calculator, a computer connected to the web or both. You may phone to consult a friend.

Q 1. A burger is made from a mixture of Irish beef and an imported filler material. The burger contains 29% horse meat. If the filler is not 100% horsemeat, what is the maximum Irish beef content of the burger?

Q 2. Burgers are made from a mixture of Irish beef and an imported filler material. If there is one kilo of Irish beef, what weight of filler material must be added in order to ensure that the burgers comprise 29% imported filler material?

Q 3. Burgers are made from a mixture of Irish beef and horsemeat. If there is one kilo of Irish beef, what weight of horsemeat must be added in order to ensure that the burgers comprise 29% horsemeat?

Q 4. Burgers are made from a mixture of Irish beef and an imported filler material. If one kilo of burger mix contains 71% Irish beef and 29% horsemeat, what proportion (percentage) of the filler material is horsemeat?

Q 5. “In mathematics and in the manufacture of burgers quantity is the property of magnitude involving comparability with other magnitudes.” Explain. (Your answer should make reference to the distinction between trace elements and ingredients.)

Good luck with that!

It is intriguing that the presence of tiny amounts of horse DNA in beef burgers and the presence of 29% of horse in one beef burger continues to be covered by media as one story. It may be a profoundly depressing suggestion but it is possible that the reason for the conflation is an alarmingly poor grasp of basic mathematics.

Industry explanations for the presence of horse DNA go something like this: “We use pure Irish beef but we add some filler which we buy in from the continent and it is possible that this may have somehow been contaminated by horsemeat.”

Clearly if this explanation is applied to the 29% finding, it is complete bollocks. 29% is pushing on for one third horsemeat.

Let’s slap the beef down in front of us. It’s 100% Irish beef but in order to make it stick together and/or to reduce cost, we increase its volume by adding 50% imported filler. It is now roughly 60% Irish beef and 30% imported filler.

Assuming that the truth has been told about the Irish beef content, there is only one way that there could be 29% horsemeat in the burgers: the filler must have been almost 100% horsemeat! Pure horsemeat, not traces of horse DNA!

Yes, the figures above were made up but they are not fantastic. The point is that the story about traces of horse DNA is not the same story as the 29% horsemeat content. That it is treated as such feeds a fear either that journalists can’t grasp the numbers or that they can but they believe that citizens cannot.
——————————————————————
I’ve mentioned poor basic maths before:
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

The Higher Education Authority’s document, Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, can be accessed here: http://www.hea.ie/en/node/1497

While it is a disgrace, we can of course to have some fun. Complete bollocks invites derision. Ok, ok, ok, let’s play before getting to the serious point. As slagging goes, I think this will do:

A Prayer for The Landscape Process

For the sake of the stakeholders let us pray that the landscape process is robust and sustainable with sufficient key drivers, outcomes and benchmarks, that it is fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice, that its diversity of mission matches the diversity of needs, pathways, clusters and linkages and that its knowledge transfer services can keep pace with its rolling programme of thematic reviews. Amen.

Fun over! Jesus wept; this is the Higher Education Authority! Talking in bafflegab, unspeak or complete bollocks betokens managerialism which must be rooted out of the public service. The Minister for Education or the Oireachtas Committee on Education could take a stand by sending this report back marked “Unacceptable. Rewrite.” It is probable that without the scaffolding of fashionable buzzwords and phrases, the entire structure of the report would fall apart. Let’s put the question in a crude and easily understood form: without the complete bollocks is there anything of substance here?

 

The following is quite different to the now routine media treatment of clerical sex abuse in Ireland. It’s not entirely clear if the journalist realises the significance of these 170 or so words.

 

“But how widespread was this abuse? Did senior clergy or other students know what was happening? Those who attended Holy Ghost schools describe their contrasting experiences.

Maurice Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, recalls that while there may have been rumours about a handful of priests when he was a student at Rockwell, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the teachers were well liked.

‘Maybe there were one or two you wouldn’t want to get caught alone with . . . There were kids who were more vulnerable than others. But I wasn’t aware of anyone being abused. And I think that was the honest view of most of my classmates.’

Gerald Montague, a philosopher who lives and works in Germany, was a student at St Mary’s College during the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘I didn’t recall anything of a sexual nature until I discussed it recently with some friends,’ he says. ‘They reminded me of a father we used to call ‘Fr Fiddly Fingers’. It seems I just didn’t want to know.’”

Carl O’Brien, Sex abuse in private schools, Weekend with The Irish Times – Saturday, September 8, 2012 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0908/1224323728889.html

 

The words attributed to Maurice Manning are curious and he needs to clarify. He seems to be saying that while he was aware that some of his teachers were likely to abuse and that some of his classmates were at risk, he wasn’t aware of any particular incidence of abuse. That’s chilling.

Though I didn’t attend an expensive school, my experience is more similar to that of Gerald Montague but with the significant difference that at our school we laughed and joked about the sexual nature of the abuse.

By including this material in his article Carl O’Brien is lending support to my deepening conviction that what has happened in Irish schools was mass sexual abuse.

Before continuing to talk about sexual abuse in Irish schools I want to make it absolutely clear that it is quite unusual for me to disconnect sexual from violent abuse[i]. I consider them parts of one whole and I talk of sexual abuse here because others have isolated it.

I attended James St CBS for my secondary education in the mid-1960s. As we developed sexual awareness all of my peers knew full well the difference between affection and sexual contact. (Indeed the very idea that affection would feature in such a school is ridiculous.) Being felt-up, leered over and told vaguely homo-erotic stories were routine. It became central to our slagging and jokes. If anyone had been left with one of the touchers, he could expect jokes along the lines of, “Did he get you? Did ‘Touche’ queer you?”

There was sport on Wednesday afternoons in the Civil Service grounds beside the Memorial Park, Islandbridge. Everyone who took part had to squeeze past a Christian Brother who placed himself in the doorway of the changing room and tried to check for “tight tummy muscles”. Avoiding him became part of the sport.

There are other examples but enough said to make three points. Firstly, all of the pupils knew precisely what the touchers were up to. Secondly, joking was how they coped with it. Thirdly, it is highly improbable that anyone who attended that school at that time avoided this type of abuse.

Having spoken casually over the years to very many people who attended other schools, I formed the view that the carry-on in my school was not exceptional. The piece above from the Irish Times lends support.

As mature adults and aware of dreadful sexual assaults, I had a number of conversations with former classmates. We were concerned that we might have failed to notice much worse than touching-up. We wondered had there been someone quiet and not part of our immediate close gang who could have been isolated and used terribly. We could think of none. This is remarkably similar to Maurice Manning’s reported comment.

The next step in the thinking is vital and this is where there will be disagreement. It is at this point that we enter into the business of defining sex crime to include touching up a child. There may be three positions on this. Firstly, that while it is sexual and it is unacceptable behaviour, it is too minor to warrant a fuss. Secondly, that it is very wrong but falls short of criminal behaviour. Thirdly, that it is very serious, most definitely criminal and should be investigated.

The debate very likely turns on gender inequality. The touching up mentioned here has been male adult on male child. There is not the slightest doubt that had it been male adult on female child, there would be universal condemnation and a call for Garda action. Moreover, I began to view what had happened to me and to my friends as not merely sexual abuse but criminal when I read the details of what a priest had done to a girl. The actions were identical and the man was in the dock. The label of criminal can be withheld from our abusers only if it can be successfully argued that it is less wrong for a man to touch up a male child as opposed to a female child.

The alarming proposition is this: if touching up male children is sexual abuse and if the practice was universal in schools or even widespread, then the scale of the Irish scandal has changed considerably. It would seem that we have so far looked only at the horrors behind which lies the routine. It is that word “mass” that disturbs, the likelihood that in Ireland we have to face up to, discuss and decide what to do about mass sexual abuse.

 

 

I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.


[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!

 

Here is an article by Eileen O’Brien in The Irish Times of May 22nd 2012. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2012/0522/1224316501691.html

She is a teacher troubled by her past, “To every child I struck when I was teacher … sorry.” She invites victims to contact her so that she might offer individual apologies and “to open some sort of dialogue on the subject.” The intention here is not to make little of her public contrition. What she has done is brave and sadly unprecedented. There is, however, a problem with what she says.

The article could be naively accepted as a decent woman apologising for her participation in brutal behaviour which was permitted by the state. She is claiming not only that she regrets what she did but that what she did was permitted. The truth is that in this article she admits violating the rules governing her performance as a teacher and she should face sanction.

Firstly, she refers to her activities in the 70s and 80s. It needs to be established just how far into the 80s she went because corporal punishment has been prohibited in schools since 1982. Interestingly, teachers’ immunity from criminal prosecution was not removed until the passing  of the Offences Against the Person (Non-Fatal) Act in 1997, article 24 of which states: “The rule of law under which teachers are immune from criminal liability in respect of physical chastisement of pupils is hereby abolished.”

Secondly and on this there is certainty, she explicitly admits to breaching Department of Education rules. She describes keeping her stick available as a threat and for use on children. This despite a clear Department rule: “No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.” (The other rules re corporal punishment can be found here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/rewarding-guilty-teachers/)

It is usual for teachers who beat children to offer in their defence that it was common and approved at the time. It was certainly common but equally certainly it was highly regulated and those regulations were violated. It would be preposterous to accept by way of explanation that teachers weren’t aware of the rules; anyone in any job has an obligation to be aware of the regulations governing their post.

It is unacceptable that any public servant who flouted state rules should remain in employment or remain in receipt of any pension attaching to their job.

 

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/integrity/) There are rare situations where showing integrity might bring appalling consequences – even death – and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable. In most other situations the risk is small. Indeed the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is an ambition for career advancement. Now, let’s be quite clear here. If someone feels compelled to dishonesty for fear of being sacked, then that may be forgivable if the matter is relatively minor. However, a person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad.

Today there are calls for the resignation of Cardinal Seán Brady who acted in a professional manner rather than doing what was right. (http://www.herald.ie/news/i-didnt-realise-impact-of-child-abuse-brady-3097772.html http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h7m8r) As a mature man of 35 years, well into his career, his integrity was tested. He failed the test and is proven to be “the wrong stuff”, i.e. a person lacking in integrity and unsuited to a position of responsibility. The consequences of his failure were dire for a number of abused children. The risk to him of acting with integrity was slight. His life, his family, his livelihood were not on the line. All that was at risk for doing the right thing was a petty hope of promotion.

There are ordinary people who pass such tests. They are rarely dealing with matters so serious. They do however speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career will stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion or they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position.

Integrity is at the core of another, older post on this blog. (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/ ) As the Irish property bubble/scam was developed with deliberation, there were those in banking, management generally, media, politics, the professions, education, public service, consultancies etc. who knew that it could end only in tears. Few of them passed the test: They lacked the integrity to speak up time and again. They preferred to take their chances by pretending that they believed in nonsense.

It is true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress. However, when they are found out, it is right that they be identified as “the wrong stuff” and asked to go.

There are two linked errors in Tom Garvin’s article in the Irish Times of Mayday.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/education/2012/0501/1224315400547.html

Firstly, managerialism is not exclusive to UCD or to universities generally. It had infected and depressed many other industries before it arrived quite late in education. Secondly, Tom links managerialism to business and argues that business approaches have no place in university management. Now, the latter may be true but the former does not support it.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.