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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.

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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/

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.
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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.

 

 

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 is generally thought that indiscriminate beating of children was permitted in Irish schools until corporal punishment was banned. This was not the case.
The following are rules of the Irish Dept. of Education:
“Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression.”
“In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons.”
“No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.”
“Teachers should keep a copy of these rules and regulations suspended in their schoolrooms in a conspicuous place.”
I find it unacceptable that any teacher who flouted these rules should now remain in employment or in receipt of a pension.

 

Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is at it again in  The Irish Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2010. He argues that there is no way adequately to fund universities without the reintroduction of fees. That may be so but it is long past time to hear his argument stripped of nonsense.

Something needs to be said at the outset: There is no connection between fees and the fact that poor people don’t go to college. Poverty determines one’s level of ambition and educational attainment, and keeps the poor away from third level education in any significant numbers. Apart from, let’s call them, access interventions which seek to increase the number of exceptions who get to college from poor backgrounds, any real change will require a systematic assault on poverty.  

Ferdinand offers a strange view that ‘free fees’ has undermined public understanding of inequality. Firstly, he seems to think that “many people” are beguiled by the absence of university fees into thinking “that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means.” I have never come across anyone who has so lost their grip on reality as to think like this. Secondly, he argues that the position of the deprived has “in some ways” been made worse “because some well-meaning people thought that ‘free fees’ had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed.” As before, I doubt that anyone thinks like this.

“What changed in the 1990s”, he says, “was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.” This is partially true but distracts attention from the fundamental improvement that has been ‘free fees’. Certainly rich people, even fabulously rich people, no longer pay fees. However, truth disappears in draining the word, “afford” of all meaning. My recollection of the days of paying fees has as typical, say, a technician on or slightly above the average industrial wage struggling hard to find fees to send a son or daughter to college. In some cases there was a need to find the money for fees for more than one family member. It is downright wrong to speak of such people being able to afford fees. The truth is that the removal of fees relieved many families of a dreadful burden.

Finally, Ferdinand says, “It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.” This is a plainly bizarre claim. I assume that it is based on the hope or possibility that the fees money which the rich and the likes of the struggling technician would have paid might have gone to the poor.

In the Irish blogosphere I’ve pursued Ferdinand on this issue. He steadfastly refuses to confer meaning on his notion of “afford”, to say who should pay fees. His is an argument of an all too familiar type which offers that simple solution: the rich will pay and all will be well for everyone else. The truth is that unless the majority of students pay fees, the income will be small and, no matter who pays what, the poor will still be excluded.

Ferdinand’s blog is here:  http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/

There is a need for a shower of realism over many who talk of Ireland’s educated workforce and the need to bend education to serve the knowledge/smart/information economy/society. I fear that the level of education is pretty poor in precisely the areas that emerging society demands. I fear too that those who talk most of the knowledge/smart/information economy/society have reflected least on what it means.

The backward workforce

Too many of my students have poor literacy skills. This is a common topic of conversation among university lecturers. So too is the lack of general knowledge among students. It is far less common to have such conversations about the poor command of pretty basic math, science and technology. I don’t want to clutter this piece with examples but an archetype might write “shouldof”, think that the USSR still exists, be unable to manipulate percentages, have no grasp of statistics and consider basic science a no-go area for all but the expert. Such a person betokens neither an educated workforce nor a competent citizenry.  

Not so smart policy

No one in their right mind would argue that that the kind of society and economy determined by increased application of technology – especially IT – does not require experts or does not require quite a few experts in these fields. However, no one who has looked at the effect and the likely future effect of these same technologies on society and the workplace would place too great an emphasis on the creation of an excessively large numbers of experts. For a long, long time technology has had a democratic vector: it demands proportionately greater numbers of effective, creative users than experts in the field itself.  The danger in the current pre-occupation with science education is that it might be successful and produce two categories of frustration: a glut of experts with no career prospects and a mass of people without the skills to prosper or create prosperity. A considered, realistic education policy will try to ensure that mass education will deliver citizens and workers who are competent to contribute in our time.

The smart worker or even the smart citizen

The world of work – or at least that part of it that pays reasonably well – that has emerged over, say, the past 30 years demands that people be articulate, literate, numerate and informed. (I should add “secure” but this would open up another argument.) These are the preconditions for flexibility, creativity and innovation. There is absolutely no point in talking about a smart society or economy unless the mass of people are pretty smart.

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/university-challenge/

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/unloved-british-universities/

A sensible and democratic approach is to treat Islamic dress as public argument. It can then be defended as free speech which invites counter argument, and it can be banned in schools to shelter children until they mature as citizens.

It is very hard to find a plausible argument as to why an adult cannot dress any way they like. Comparisons with motor cycle helmets, balaclavas and hoodies make no sense. Yes, it’s true that if you search, you’ll find that a male criminal evaded the police by dressing as a woman but that’s a world away from claiming that these masks make the control of criminality more difficult.

When journalists have bothered to ask women why they dress in this way, four reasons seem to emerge. Firstly, they are forced to do so. Secondly, they just like it. Thirdly, they believe it to be a command from God or that it pleases God. Fourthly, they are expressing a belief about the nature of people – especially men – which is determined by gender.

If a woman can be forced to dress against her will, it is likely that she is oppressed and unfree in many unpleasant ways but there is no way of knowing by dress alone what is going on.

If a woman simply prefers to dress in this way, nothing can or should be done. She’ll have to expect ordinary respect; the same as that due to any style minority, say, Goths.

However, if she is saying that God wants women covered up either because of divine petulance or because God shares the sexist views of some of Her followers, then the dress is an argument. The term “sexist” is used to refer to a belief that one’s character, behaviour etc. are determined by gender.

Now, at the extreme this is akin to wearing a sandwich board or carrying a placard saying that all men are rapists or the familiar, all men are bastards. At its mildest it is saying that men are driven exclusively or primarily by sexual desire prompted by the sight of a woman’s body, face or hair and that a woman is responsible for controlling this lust by covering up.

The question now arises as to whether the clothes, sandwich board or placard should be permitted? Of course, they should. It is a matter of free speech. However, fellow citizens who disagree are duty bound to engage them in argument. Leaving public order issues to one side, this suggests that anyone dressing in this way in public should expect to be confronted by argument in public in the same way as if they had mounted a soapbox and presented a speech or carried a controversial placard.

Very few people argue for unqualified freedom of expression and most people become conservative when it comes to children. Adults can and must make informed judgements based on argument and information. Children develop and need to be protected from noxious doctrines until they are mature enough to examine them, hear counter arguments and make decisions. If sexism (and, its consequent inequality) is considered a noxious doctrine, its expression in dress should not be allowed in a school.

 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0807/1224276368541.html

http://www.nwci.ie/publications/fulllist/making-our-voices-heard/

I watched last night’s Dispatches doc. on Channel 4 about the dreadful outcomes of close-relative marriages. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-68/episode-1

It surprised me that such marriages are commonplace in some cultures which have become part of British society. By coincidence this morning I read Samira Shackle’s article “The mosques aren’t working in Bradistan” in New Statesman (20th August 2010) which mentions the problem of first-cousin marriage among Mirpuris and others whose culture values clan loyalty.  http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/08/bradford-british-pakistan

She writes,

Other Pakistanis frequently accuse Mirpuris of confusing culture with religion. Stemming from a lack of education, this manifests itself in cultural norms – such as the primacy of honour, or the mistreatment of women – being accorded religious significance. I speak to Khadijah, 18, in an empty playground as she looks after her younger sister. She hopes to enter Bradford University this year. “I can make the distinction between Islam and patriarchal culture,” she says. “But your average lad on the street won’t worry about which bit comes from scripture. It’s loaded in his favour.”

The implication is that norms based in religion should have a higher status than those based in culture. Odd!

Most people will express the need for tolerance towards the religion and customs of others. However, it is very easy to insert the wedge that is genital mutilation. Other barbaric practices can then be used as hammer blows to drive home the wedge. At some point there will be mild resistance. It might be on circumcision or ritual slaughter, perhaps because these are not thought too bad or because they are coming closer to home.

Having lots of nationalities, cultures and religions is great; they bring new tastes, colour, expression and other positives. Religion is interesting when it’s a matter of colourful ritual. Then they go and ruin the fun by wanting to be cruel and nasty. But, we have home grown nastiness too.

Would a majority of people be prepared to say the following?

“I don’t care where you are from or what God says, you are not teaching children that homosexual behaviour is a grave sin or that men and women have different roles, you are not going to cut a child or deny medical treatment and you are not marrying your cousin!”

In Ireland no one minds very much whether one believes in God or the form one’s God takes. Everyone has spent time trying to find a transcendent anchor for being and meaning. While it is certainly true that many – perhaps most – people find it difficult to argue that universal human values can exist without God, they are more than uncomfortable with the notion that different gods and different groups of religious adherents seem far too frequently to permit or encourage unkindness, cruelty or brutality. Some people avoid confrontation by taking refuge in “culture”; anything is permitted as long as it is sufficiently foreign. Leaving aside the question of abandoning suffering millions to their culture, Ireland’s relatively recent move to a multicultural society has brought the issue close to home. However, the problem lurks too in the folds of the controversy over faith schools.

The problem with religion is not God. It’s revelation. Finding God or feeling it necessary to crucify one’s reason does not lead to cruelty. That path starts at the feet of those who claim to be messengers; that God has told them what people must do, that God has inspired them or that they are particularly capable of interpreting the mind of God. Here is authoritarianism, the erection and maintenance of rules which are not subject to continuous argument – in short, savage certainty.

There are two debates:  i) the existence and nature of God; and ii) the creation of political values and rules to support those values. The two debates can of course be linked but not when the purpose is to avoid argument or to claim that noxious doctrines should be taught to school children.

In Ireland, as the Catholic Church declines, there are many who argue that it is essential to maintain schools with a “Catholic ethos”. Behind the Catholic stance are smaller but growing religions – like Islam – which are happy with their power to run a school according to a particular “ethos”. However, what is meant by “ethos” is not exactly public.

As long as great care is taken to avoid frightening them, there is little to be said against teaching children about, say, God, saints and sacraments. Moreover, religious schooling often features preparation for popular family events like first communion. Debate, therefore, about school ownership and management structures tends to emphasise the harmless and the happy. The contentious power to teach values is seldom mentioned and a thorough exploration of what might be taught is avoided. Most opponents of religious schooling either fall for this or are just as myopic; they charge off into today’s variant of the age-old debate over the existence of God.

The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values. A post from “Anne Marie” in an Irish Times on-line discussion is typical of the confusion. (The discussion followed on from the article by Breda O’Brien, “Time for parents to ask the primary question” in The Irish Times of Saturday, August 7, 2010.) “Anne Marie” – making no distinction between religion and ethics – wrote approvingly of a school in Brussels: the choices available are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic religion or non-religious ethics”. So far, so tolerant but when someone wants to teach a child, say, that God sees different roles for men and women or that homosexual behaviour is wrong, it must be PREVENTED in schools. This is not denial of freedom. Everyone is encouraged to argue among adult citizens but children must be protected. It is crazy to allow any doctrine – no matter how nasty – to be taught to children as long as it can be claimed to be religion.

Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.

 

The following is from “Making the grade in maths”, The Irish Times, Wednesday, August 13, 2008

 “And it is not only the Leaving Cert results which should serve as a wake-up call. The most recent OECD survey ranked Irish teenagers 16th in maths out of 30 member countries. In overall English literacy tests, by contrast, Irish teenagers regularly take one of the top three places. A mid-table ranking in maths is simply not good enough for a country investing heavily in science, technology and innovation. Even at third level, academics tell of students – some with higher level Leaving Cert maths – who have a poor grasp of mathematical concepts and an inability to apply the knowledge they do have outside practised routine situations.”

 This is typical of the poorly informed consensus, which surrounds the education debate in Ireland.

No one with any teaching experience at 3rd level could take seriously the claim that Irish students are literate. Many are, but the overall standard of English is dreadful. It is equally true that students have a poor standard of general knowledge, are not numerate, and have a very poor grasp of mathematical, scientific and technological concepts.

The phrase, “practised routine situations”, above is telling. There is a problem in Irish primary and secondary education. Students are taught routines that will trick the examiners: memorised essays/answers in the humanities and memorised procedures in maths. It is hardly surprising that students are bored and lack the creative skills born of a good education. Consider the plight of a student who can solve a maths problem but doesn’t know why it is a problem, where it comes from or what it is for!

The quotation also peddles the familiar nonsense that humanities and maths/science can be kept apart. Anyone who really has thought about “the information society” would realise how dated this approach now is.