Education —A non-issue politically?
Education policy was a virtual non-issue in the recent general election campaign. None of the party leaders addressed the topic in any significant way. I think it’s fair to say that the education manifestos were notable for a lack of original thinking and indeed, with one or two exceptions were not very comprehensive. Yet education is far and away our most significant and costly intervention in the lives of young people. The question arises therefore as to why it seems to matter little in political discourse.
The exit poll carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of RTÉ may afford us a least a partial explanation. 1418 individuals were asked to identify the issue that most influenced their first preference vote. The health service was listed by 20% of those questioned, closely followed by management of the economy at 18%. The remaining issues on the list all scored less than 10%. Of these 3% of those questioned mentioned education as the most influential factor in determining their first preference vote. When the figures were broken down by age it is noticeable that there was a far greater concern regarding education among people in the 18-24 age group at 17%. Presumably quite a number of the respondents in this sub-group were still directly engaged in the education system. The figure for the 25-34 age group at 5% was slightly greater than the overall figure which probably reflects the concern of those rearing young families. On the other hand those over 50 displayed less concern about the topic at 1%.
The responses were also broken down by social category with those in the ABC categories at 3%, C2DE at 2% and F no score. Responses were also analysed under the heading of the political party for whom those interviewed had voted. Again the variation was very limited ranging from 2 to 5% with the exception of the Independent Alliance, Independents for Change, and AAA-PBP each of which registered zero percent. It could be argued that a word of caution would have to apply in these cases as the numbers of respondents in those sub-groups was relatively small at 50, 20 and 74 respectively. On the other hand, however, it is noticeable that in the case of The Labour Party, The Social Democrats and the Greens, where the numbers interviewed were also below 100, the figures ranged between 3-5% of the respondents listing education as the most influential factor in their decision-making.
Overall it is clear from this that the electorate as a whole is relatively uninterested in education policy. Why this should be the case baffles me somewhat. It may be that while we are anxious to secure the best for our own family members the rights of the generality of children and young people are not high in our list of priorities. Even without focus groups politicians generally are keenly attuned to the issues which concern voters. The lack of meaningful discussion among the parties and politicians on the topic in the recent election campaign, and indeed previous ones, obviously reflects thinking in the wider society.
While this may be the most significant reason for the lack of political engagement with the topic another contributory factor may lie in the development of the Irish education system over the decades. Traditionally education provision was in the hands of the churches. The State’s role in the 19th century was limited to providing some, though not all, the necessary resources. Gradually the State accepted responsibility for issues such as curriculum and teacher qualifications. However, generations of politicians, with few exceptions, and the bureaucratic apparatus supporting them, have displayed extreme reluctance to go beyond that. The political parties’ manifestos when they address educational issues, as during the recent election, tend to limit themselves to supporting some of the ideas put forward by interest groups. While no doubt many of these are worthwhile some original thinking is also desirable. The State has been happy to disavow all responsibility for what goes on in schools, sometimes with tragic consequences. Indeed this hands-off approach is enshrined in the constitution of 1937 and there’s no evidence of any desire among the politicians and mandarins in Marlboro’ Street to change that state of affairs. This is a deep-rooted culture in Irish education and continues to flourish as the Department of Education seeks to hand over the running of schools to anyone who may be interested in taking on that responsibility and affords interest groups too much power. Eventually the implications of the significant legal victory of the extremely courageous Louise O’ Keeffe at the European Court of Human Rights will have to be considered. Hopefully this will lead to a comprehensive discussion on the role of the State should play in education policy formation in a democratic republic. In the meantime the laissez-faire approach to education policy prevails.