Review by Prof John Coolahan in the Winter, 2016, edition of the Leader the quarterly journal of NAPD.


“Irish Education 1922 – 2007:

Cherishing All the Children”


By Brian Fleming (Dublin Mynchen’s Field Press, 2016, pp. 550)


In this extensive study of Irish education during the first eighty-five years of independence, Brian Fleming takes as his lodestar investigative guide the phrase from the 1916 Proclamation “Cherishing all the Children of the Nation Equally.”  He ignores an alternative interpretation of this phrase as meaning treating all the religious / political sectors of the island of Ireland equally.  He focusses on the phrase’s import for the promotion of equality of educational opportunity and provision, and more precisely on equality of access and participation to second level education.  This proves to be an illuminating approach which throws much light on the policies, attitudes and influences of key agencies – church, state, unions and parents – on the evolving educational process over this time period.

The welcome strength of the book is not in establishing an original or novel understanding of the inadequacy of the powers that be in addressing real educational inequality.  This has been long understood.   The welcome strength of the book lies in the thoroughness in establishing the contextual factors, the inadequacies of policy and response, the absence of strong public demand, the weaknesses in follow-through monitoring, and a reluctance to view educational equality as a human right in a democracy.  This is achieved through very thorough research of primary sources, the national archives and other archival data, official publications, an extensive range of secondary sources and a large number of interviews with key personnel.  The outcome is an enrichment of our understanding of the interplay of persons and events on educational development in independent Ireland.  While the focus is on the educational equality theme, the process of investigation throws light on many related issues.

The author divides the work into four main sections.  The first relates to the legacy aspects of the pre-independence education system. The second is interestingly entitled “Inertia”, and covers the period 1922 to 1959.  This is followed by “The Window Opens, 1960-80”.  The fourth analysis section covers the period 1981 to 2007.  The four core sections are topped and tailed by the Introduction and a final section, “In Retrospect.”  Overall, the book is a valuable addition to the increasing number of studies on the history of modern Irish education.  It is also timely in being published during the decade of commemorations.

In the pre-independence chapter, the author pays insightful attention to the content and fate of the MacPherson Education Bill of 1919.  It brought together a range of reform proposals for the structure of the Irish education system, which had been evolving over a number of years.  However, the very strong opposition of the Catholic hierarchy to the measure, interpreting it as a potential major intrusion by the state and civic agencies on their control of schooling.  As well this being a major factor in the Bill’s defeat, it sent long-lasting messages to politicians in the new state, emerging in the post 1922 era.

Apart from the Labour Party Education Policy 1925, which sought to revive features of the Bill, politicians during the first four decades of independence shied away from educational reform, other than in curricular issues, particularly in relation to the Irish language.  In 1933, the new Fianna Fail Government toyed with the idea of educational participation by expanding a scheme of “secondary tops”, whereby some primary schools would be allowed offer secondary school subjects for older pupils.  The government consulted the hierarchy who demurred stating, “the scheme involves a further extension of state control.”  The government dropped the matter, the author seeing it “as a failure of political will.”  It was suggested that the school leaving age should be raised in 1935, 1944 and 1947, but politicians did not act on this, and the issue was allowed drift.  The author has interesting comments on the nature of the wording of the education clauses in the Constitution of 1937.

There is no doubt but that during the inter-war years economic and political difficulties were not propitious for social reform. It is also the case that internationally the promotion of education inequality was not a political priority in these years.  Very late (p.415) in his study, the author states, “Inequality in education is a feature of many systems throughout the world.”  This was particularly the case in the twenties and thirties, and some reference to comparative patterns at that time would have enriched the perspective in treating of the period.  The author does make one reference to international development when he refers to the RAB Butler Education Act of 1944 in England, and its successor in Northern Ireland, in 1947.  These measures were prompted to expand educational opportunities for the less well-off sectors in society.  However, there was no such legislation in the Republic of Ireland in the post-war years.

The author underlines the weaknesses of the Council of Education Reports of 1954 and 1962. The 1962 Report stated “secondary education for all is utopian if only for financial reasons ... there are also educational reasons ...”  against it.

The nineteen sixties was a period of very significant economic, social, and cultural change in Irish society, well captured by the author.  It is in this context that a breakthrough is made on increasing access and participation in post-primary education.  The Investment in Education Report (1965) was a catalyst in this regard.  The author stresses its significance, but if he had used direct figures from the Report, it would have made his point about inequality more emphatic.  The Report followed through the educational fortunes of the age cohort of 55,000 pupils at the time.  It showed that 17,500 of them left school by end of primary, 11,000 without having obtained a Primary Certificate.  Of the 37,500 who went on to post primary 13,500 left without sitting a junior cycle certificate examination.  Of the original 55,000, only 9,500 sat the Leaving Certificate. The statistics for social class engagement indicated that pupils from the wealthier A,B, and C social categories were shown to have a four to five times greater chance of participating in post-primary education than the D,E,F poorer categories.  The various political parties became aware that education was becoming an issue of public concern and debate, and produced education policies.  The author deals with the political and policy issues very well in these crucial years. The work of Ministers Hillary, Colley and O’Malley is carefully analysed.  The author gives great credit to Taoiseach Lemass’s adroit support to these Ministers on carving out a more adventurous educational policy.  The key element for the author’s thesis is O’Malley’s “Free Education” and free transport scheme. In some ways, the free school transport buses, topping the hedgerows as they traversed the byroads and boreens of rural Ireland, as the state reached out to embrace pupils in rural areas, was the most public manifestation of a change in state policy.  Fleming gives full credit to O’Malley’s social justice concern and to the role of Sean O’Connor, Assistant Secretary at the time.  However, the author is also strong on the limitations of the measure and the lack of follow through monitoring on whether it achieved its objectives.  In his view the “window of opportunity” closed in 1968, and this valuable initiative was not built upon, nor the momentum for further advances maintained.  He regards the seventies as a period of consolidation.  He records a range of criticisms on the limitations of the educational equality agenda which set in.  These came from personnel such as Bill Hyland, Michael McGreil, Joy Rudd, Tim Kellaghan, Dale Tussing.  The author’s quotation from Donal Mulcahy would seem to catch his own evaluation:

To make adequate provision for increased participation and meeting the ideal of equality of educational opportunity for all, it is necessary to take account of the various needs, interests, aptitudes, and home and socio-economic background of all pupils. And in this regard the attempts of the 1960s were very limited ... it was a failure to assess the full extent of that challenge (p.284).

The author indicates that the White Paper of 1980 did nothing to advance the situation and gives the withering verdict, “It was published because it was promised.  Publication was deemed more important than content”, (p.270). In this context, on p.275, the author states “No serious effort was ever made to define the objective of equality of educational opportunity,” which verdict might have been appropriately voiced earlier.

In his analysis of the period 1981 to 2007, the author indicates that the economic climate of the eighties did not facilitate aims set out in Minister Hussey’s Programme for Action in Education and The Ages for Learning (1984).  From 1987, a sequence of seven national programmes were agreed leading up to 2008, by the national partners, led by the government.  While these agreements favoured improved teacher-pupil ratios and some additional measure for disadvantaged areas, the author concludes that “the vast bulk of the resources were thinly spread across all schools” and is not impressed by the approach taken.

The nineties and early years of the new century were a period of unprecedented consultation, reportage and legislation on Irish education. The author examines most of the key initiatives from his vantage point.  He quotes from the OECD Report of 1991, “The fact remains, however, that inequality in education persists” (p.301) and from the C.M.R.S., “It is now clear that far from breaking the cycle of poverty, education has become, albeit indirectly, the main mechanism by which that cycle is perpetuated”, (p.367).  These external and internal perceptives highlighted the continuing challenge.  Interestingly, while the author notes “Irish research indicates that benefits are most likely to accrue at the stage of early learning and with disadvantaged children”, (p.373), he takes no note of the National Forum on Early Childhood Education (1998), the White Paper 1999, nor the NESF Report on Early Childhood Education (2005).

However, there is no doubt that debate, during these years, focussed strongly on aspects of educational disadvantage, and useful initiatives took place. Among such was the Report on Educational Disadvantage in Ireland, 1995.  Arising from the Education Act of 1998, an Educational Disadvantaged Committee was set up in 2002.  It produced four reports between then and June 2005. The author devotes considerable attention to this agency and praises it for the rights-based principles of its final report, titled “Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage”, and the set of objectives it set out. He also highlights that its presence and work did not seem to find favour with the Department of Education and Science, which in May 2005, produced its “Delivering Equality of Opportunity for Schools” (DEIS), independent of and without informing the Committee of its preparations.  The author evaluates the DEIS scheme as being less thorough than what the EDC was promoting.  He is also critical that the EDC, which the 1998 Act had decreed should be a permanent agency, was not re-established during the period of his review.  Other agencies such as the Education Welfare Board were set up and made contributions to equality of treatment.

In the Retrospect Section of his book, the author, drawing on some sociological and political studies, engages in reflection on the changing role and influence of stakeholders in the policy process over the period.  Quite clearly, in the first four decades of independence the church was the major influence on the control and management of schooling, particularly at second-level.  In the sixties and seventies the state took the initiative and became more the shaper of changing policies.  In the most recent decades the author suggests that the power of the church has been in decline, but the power of the teaching unions has been in the ascendant, in association with the State.  The impact of parents he finds to be still rather peripheral.  The author also reflects a good deal of the structure and influence of the Department of Education and is generally critical of it. I think that he underestimates its changing character since the mid-nineties.

It should also be noted that significant progress was made over recent decades on participation patterns in post-primary education, which stand in strong contrast to the situation revealed by the Investment in Education Report, in 1965.  The proportion of early school leavers now in Ireland, at 6.9% is smaller than the EU average, which is 11%.  In 2015, 92.7% of Irish 20 to 34 year olds had attained Leaving Certificate or its equivalent, the third highest proportion of the EU member states, and they were also above the average for completing post-primary education of both the EU and OECD countries.

The author’s treatment ends at 2007, before the impact of the economic recession, whose cutbacks impinged very much on the economically marginalised and provision for traveller education.  The author’s focus in the book is very much on inequality issues affecting the economically disadvantaged. However, in contemporary society the concern about inequality and the rights of all citizens is much broader than this.  The concern for equality in theeducation system needs to encompass inequalities arising from school class, disability, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.  The various obligations arising from human rights conventions and treaties place obligations on education systems to maximise the participation and achievement of all children in the society.  Quite clearly, we in Ireland,, are just at a stage of the process of coping with this challenge.

The author of this book has rendered a public service in his analysis and evaluation of how we have dealt with inequality of education in the past.  His work lends weight to the thesis that coping with the challenge of educational inequality is a task for national policy as a whole, rather than for the education system as a sector. “Cherishing All the Children Equally” in education continues to be a national challenge.  Perhaps, with the centenary of the 1919 Democratic Programme in the offing, Irish society may commit itself to embrace the more comprehensive challenge to equality set out in paragraph four of that document

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