Lack of progress means old topics back again at teachers' conferences
TTHERE are times when you couldn't help but think how much effort and resources would be saved if all of the three main teachers' unions' conferences were recorded on CD and just replayed over a public address system every year at Easter time. It sounds as if they're still talking about the same old issues, year in, year out, yet little or nothing appears to be changing in some areas of our education system.
This week, the National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), the Association of Secondary Teachers (ASTI) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) debated pay cuts, reduction in teacher numbers and the future of small, rural schools. These issues, without fail, pop up on the conference agenda every single year.
And there's the issue of education for the disadvantaged, the issue that never seems to go away, simply because progress in this area is at a snail's pace.
Let me declare my vested interest here: I have a son with special needs, a teenager who has mild to moderate learning difficulties and who requires added resources in a special education school so that he can learn like everybody else. He's doing great, thank God, thanks to wonderful schools, teachers and special needs assistants he's crossed paths with over the years. He is, quite simply, the happiest young fella in Ireland, and his parents are grateful.
It hasn't been the same experience for all parents. Over the years, I can recall numerous encounters with heartbroken parents; mothers and fathers whose lives are dominated by a never-ending battle just to get a fair share for their children when it comes to education. In my own personal view, some have looked for and expected too much. But in the vast majority of situations, all they wanted was for their child to fulfil their right to a decent education.
I've learned a few things about education when it comes to those who don't tick all the boxes in the eyes of Irish society at large and successive governments. In this country, you do have rights as a child with special needs, but by God will you have to fight toothand-nail to get them. You'll get more sympathy than action from politicians and civil servants. Most of all, those who shout the loudest get the most, and that's where justice and fairness goes out the window.
For us as parents, we are able and willing to shout loud, to catch up the phone to whoever needs to be spoken to and articulate our case for our son at whatever level and with whatever amount of force is required. But what about those who are shy and reserved or fearful of engaging with faceless civil servants and bureaucrats? What about the parents who, through no fault of their own, lack the education or knowledge of how to get what their child ought to have? If they are the only voice representing their child when it comes to education, then must the child suffer simply because his or her parents didn't win the shouting match?
It shouldn't come to that, and yet it still goes on. Granted, things have improved enormously in a short period of time. Children with special needs are included more in society now than ever before – thanks to outstanding sporting organisations like Special Olympics. But were it not for the likes of Fergus Finlay, Matt English, Mary Davis and other champions of people with special needs, we'd still be stuck in a warped and grossly immoral Ireland where those with intellectual difficulties would be sitting in their bedrooms, staring out the window, with no friends, no life, no meaning, no education and no hope. That went on for years all over this country. Collectively, we should be ashamed for allowing it to happen. I've always believed that a fundamental reform of our education system is necessary. The systems we use to educate our young people and the tools necessary to secure a content and successful life are seriously out of kilter. Our understanding of intelligence is far too limited. Attributes like talent, charisma, determination and sociability are never considered or nurtured. Large chunks of our schools are nothing more than glorified regurgitation machines.
Likewise, when it comes to special needs and disadvantaged children, a problem for the State arises, simply because they don't tick all of the system's boxes. If a child can't be measured by a points system, then he or she won't be measured at all. It's not the children who are the problem; it's the metre stick we're using to measure them.
The very reason teachers' unions are debating this and other issues all week is because they do care. But it's also because the responses to their calls for more resources for the minority who don't tick all the boxes are still falling short of what is required.
Teachers leave a profound mark on a person's life. In fact, after your own parents and family, I'd argue that teachers are the most influential people in our lives. When it comes to the lives of children with special needs, they are crucial. But without resources, their hands are tied.
We might be broke in this country but everything is not lost. Europe might have taken away our economic sovereignty, but they can't get their hands our sense of decency. How we treat and educate our disadvantaged children and those with special needs says a lot more about us as a nation than does our ability to deal with rogue bankers. It's a matter of perspective, of right and wrong. We're not just an economy; we're a country made up of many types. We're not all the same, but surely to God we're all equal and should be treated and educated accordingly.