Renua(ing) Education

I don’t know why I am surprised at Renua. I guess its that when a new political party emerges there is an opportunity for it to really take a radical, evidence based look at areas and suggest alternatives to how we do things. Renua, in its election manifesto education proposals, has merely produced an ideological grabbag of tropes and clichés. It is barely worth a passing grade. It would result in a gradgrindian system and should be rejected forthwith.

Lets go through it. Buckle up..


The manifesto starts with an assertion that there is no coherent philosophy underpinning the whole education system and that this is a gap which leads to the divil and all. Into this purported gap stride the educational colossi of Renua. They of course have a philosophy. That it is one which is shared by about 1% of the population is irrelevant.

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This is nice, in principle. However, when we read more of the manifesto, we see

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Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with community childcare, or using childcare training as part of labour market activation strategies.  Put together however this reads : we believe in highly trained and motivated childcare workers but dont believe these people should be paid concomitant with these standards.  There is little here on increasing spend. Ireland ranks 16th, midtable, in OECD public spend on preprimary education (here, B3.3) . But spending public money is not what Renua is about now, is it?

Primary education

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What evidence do we have that we lag? That we ever indeed led? What evidence we do have, from the OECD suggests that the balance of what we teach is out of kilter

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There is literally nothing in the section on primary education on the subject mix. What is Renua’s policy on less god and gaeilge (the 25% lump above…) and more games and geology?  The policy document has  a lot of strange (you dont say…) comments. Here for instance they seem to ake a pop at Hibernia, which has for a decade or more converted mature students with life experience into primary teachers.

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We’re going to get primary school league tables.

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The whole league table issue is moot when parents are running round trying to get their children into ANY School (large urban areas) or there is only one (rural areas and most towns). The most recent study, a survey of more than 1900 parents, shows Irish parents dont want league tables. In any case, do we really want baby infants tested twice a year? 16 tests through the period of primary school? Is that the ghost of the 11+ I see hiding ? What evidence do  Renua have that this will do anything other than stress the system, and the kids? What evidence we have suggests we should be very careful about national standardised tests at a young age.

Where  will the kids be taught?

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Absolutely nothing radical here. Nothing like : Renua will require that within 2 years all religious run schools transit to lay patronage, and that religious patronage schools should be funded privately. That would be radical. And what, exactly, is a religious ethos in primary school? Is there a particular jewish math? a protestant geometry? a uniquely catholic way of arranging the periodic table?  a muslim Irish grammar? For a group that decry the lack of a coherent philosophy there is a remarkable acceptance of fuzz here.

We also see a lack of coherence in the costings. We are told that Renua wants to improve the pupil teacher ratio

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These are noted as cost neutral. At present in the OECD the ratio is on average 15-1 while in ireland it is 16-1 (yes, thats the average…). So to get to the OECD average we would need to recruit 1/16 more teachers. Thats about 2800 extra primary school teachers. That can only be cost neutral if theres a plan to reduce the staff costs.

Secondary Education

On secondary education we move to the big idea. Renua seem to think that the role of the second level school is to educate for the market.

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First, self directed learning is not about CA. CA is an assessment philosophy. Self directed learning is a holistic educational approach. One wonders if there is any evidence underpinning the idea that SDL is appropriate for young teenagers? Sometimes people must just ‘know’ stuff. Self directed learning has a role but I suspect more so at upper levels and less than Renua think. Second, while CA is a good idea, there is again here the conflation of the LC with entry into college. I have written fairly extensively on how we can retain the LC and the points system while incorporating a whole pile of things we might want. Im not sure either that spreading the stress out over years is ipso facto better than concentrating it. Secondary school is not about getting into college. The LC is one mechanism for collegiate selection. Confusing the two doesnt help. Even Renua themselves admit that in their next section.

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The LCA is not an apprenticeship system. A proper, structured, apprentice system requires a root and branch approach. It <GASP> requires employers and their representatives to commit to taking on students into the system, linked to but not dependent on one company, and to work with higher education (not second level) to ensure that students are both academically and professionally trained. Germany doesnt turn out highly skilled machinists from the Hochschule system. It does from the streaming via mid second level through a structured system to a ECTS based qualification. There is more than a whiff here from these paragraphs of an early stratification into academic and non academic. I would rather have the basic life and social skills required by all, and then when and if industry wants to train people, let them take the lead.

Oh, and league tables for Second level also. Hidden in the appendix we find 58 metrics which Renua will use and publish to determine how things are going

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So, yeah, more league tables. Which will be of huge benefit to the parents in Cahersiveen, say, when they decide which school, Colaiste na Sceilge or Colaiste na Sceilge they will send their chile.

Third Level

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No, the cuts alone were not responsible for rankings falls. What Renua, and many, fail to understand is that the rankings are ordinal, not cardinal. If everybody else stays static bar one then the one will rise in the rankings. A careful examination of the underlying components of the rankings will reveal that in many areas irish universities have made massive improvements. The issue is that others, notably in Asia, have made more massive improvements. The big issues are staff-student ratios and the ability to retain key staff with high citation counts- these cost money.

Second, the dreary commercialisation of higher education drags iself into view again. The role of universities, say it, is NOT to educate for the marketplace. It is to educate. This is the Lavin theory of education in full rank bloom. People leave colleges at 21 or 22. They have about 45-50 years of working life ahead of them. Someone leaving college in 1964, when I was born, would have been outrageously illprepared for the workplace of 2016, in pure skill terms. What higher education does is not to teach skills, but to teach people how to learn skills and approaches to interrogating life and society. In many cases that is done very well by teaching skills, as an example of how to learn skills is useful when next one comes to do so. I took a course in programming in PL/1 in college. I have almost zero recall of what it was about. What it did do was give me the basic rudiments of good coding practice, which comes in handy when I do econometrics (although 95% of that now is done via drop down menu).  Accountants learn double entry bookkeeping and records ; they don’t in professional work do that, its done via computerised systems, but the underlying skills of knowing how things go together is key.  The problem with educational assessment is that the treatment (go to college, do a course taught in a particular way etc) is short but the effects very long. Theres a body of research on this if Renua are interested.

At least Renua admit the system is underfunded. So, how to sort that?

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So, student loans, ok so far so soon to be standard practice. But reading on one gets the impression that Renua think that fees alone run the system. They dont. Far from it. In 2014 fees accounted for about 1/3 of all TCD income. Total income was €326m, of which €121m was fees, of which €41m was the ‘free fees’ which are inevitably to be replaced by loans. So about 12.5% of the total income of TCD was from free fees. Renua will however freeze this in real terms, so the inevitable result will be that over time all colleges will move to a much greater reliance on non-state funds.

Renua dont however believe in a balanced workforce in colleges. Far from it, they see the need to introduce separate streams of teaching intensive and research intensive (Morlocks and Eloi lets call them) across the board.

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So.. Professor Pointyhead gets €1m from SFI or the ESF. Bye bye classroom. Meanwhile, Professor Furrowbrow doesn’t, and picks up Pointyhead’s teaching. Is that how it will work? Given that the overwhelming preponderance of available grant monies are in the STEM areas, this is  a recipe for AHSS to become teaching intensive overnight. This is despite the fact that the AHSS areas are the ones in which Irish higher education excels! In TCD, and other colleges I know, up to 50% of the weight for the more junior appointments and promotions rests on teaching. The idea of teaching not being seen as important is as outdated as the ark. In any case, it makes little educational or pedagogic sense to keep the best professors out of the classroom. By all means, lets move to a teaching-intensive career path in higher education as a parallel to research. But intensive is not exclusive. Every teacher should be a researcher, every researcher a teacher.  Let people specialise, when they have the basics of both demonstrated.

Renua also seem to have no knowledge of the research bases of much of the modern IoT sector.

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So far as I am aware there is zero bar, at an institutional level, in IoT’s bidding alone or in consortia for research funds. The difficulty many IoT faculty face is that as they are in teaching-intensive roles they find it difficult first to find time to reach a level research playing field with others not so and second to find time to manage and run teams when and if they get same. What Renua may not be aware of is that it is quite common in large scale grants to build in funding to buy out a chunk of teaching time. This allows the IoT or other researcher the ability to devote a continuous block of time to a project. I have no idea what “aligned with start up incentives…” means here. Are IoT staff to be encouraged to do something? What? How is this different to the systems in place already? Why just IoT staff? Or is it?

On courses Renua have this to say.

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This is gibberish. Literally. Are they saying in the first that they want to have less or more specialisation? do they want specialisation in general courses? Is this just an issue for IoT’s?  As for duplication – why is competition a bad thing? In every other area its seen by Renua as good. Why is it uniquely bad here? Given that they see the role of the state in Higher Ed dwindling, what business is it of theirs anyhow? Are Renua aware of what is actually going on in colleges (dont all rush to answer)? Give that they want earlier to have people specialising in junior cert year to go academic or otherwise and if otherwise into a particular industry, if it can work for a 15y old cant it work for  18y old? It also again confuses the points system (a pricing mechanisim) with the higher education system (a set of interlocking products). Do Renua think that massification of generalist education delivery at higher education is the best, or just the cheapest way? Again, what evidence do they have on this?


Overall this is a massive MISS. One cannot but suspect that no education specialist was involved in this. If they were, they would be wise to keep their head down.

17 thoughts on “Renua(ing) Education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Renua(ing) Education

  2. bealoideas

    On the topic of Primary education, why do we assume OCED averages are ideal? We spend less tim eon reading than the OCED averages for we achieve our best marks in reading in the PISA

  3. Frank Cronin

    Hi Brian,
    I am a Renua candidate for the Dun Laoghaire constituency, so as you may guess I don’t agree with some of your comments. However I appreciate your interest, thank you for taking the time to read our manifesto.
    I have three children who are either finished or close to finishing second level education. My experience as a parent of three children who went to three different schools is that the standards vary considerably and as a parent you are ill-equipped to tackle any ineffectiveness. Your only opportunity to do so is that criticize the very person you are entrusting your beloved child to for a long period of the day. You fear disadvantage, even subtle such. Renua are trying to overcome this by giving parents and indeed school management tools of measurement to assist. I agree completely that these need to be compiled with great care, we are not seeking early stress but we are seeking teacher performance and parental understanding.
    Secondly your points on the society measures, the people in Cahirciveen deserve to know if they are lagging the country, they are better to know than to permit the problem to persist.
    I know I have picked two simple examples here, I can articulate any others you would like me to.

    Frank Cronin

  4. Pingback: Social Democrats and Education | Brian M. Lucey

  5. Cathal

    An interesting article, though it seems a bit biased to me. I agree with some of the points you make but a few don’t add up to me.
    1. Primary school kids are already regularly tested, as far as I’m aware. Renua seems to only be proposing to test twice per year as opposed to once. Also, the results are already made accessible to parents, so the league table point is moot.
    2. If they are against Hibernia, I for one am ok with that. There are many teachers coming through Hibernia who are fantastic, due to having some experience from other sectors. However, many of them are simply not up to the standard of regular teachers. Otherwise they would have been able to attain enough points to attend teacher training college. A degree in basket weaving and €10,000 does not a teacher make :).
    3. Lastly, on their policy to adjust the ratio of religious run schools: Does the fact that the policy is not radical make it worse somehow? In my experience, the majority of parents are fine with sending their kids to a religious run school – radical change is not needed as far as I can see. Also, I assume you are being facetious, but do you really not know what a religious ethos is in a Primary school? Obviously, teaching for Sacraments such as Communion, Confirmation and whatever else would be an indicator of a religious ethos. Nothing to do with core subjects (though I would be interested to see a primary school where the kids learn the periodic table, Catholic or not!)

    1. brianmlucey Post author

      Hi Cathal
      1) This is twice per for the Drumcondra tests. And making results for johnny and mia to mammy and daddy is not the same as what Renua are suggesting. They are suggesting making the (presumed) aggregate school results available
      2) Full Disclosure – Married to a primary teacher Hibernia graduate. ..Now. Your comment reeks of ignorance and elitism. You conflate points at 18 with ability to do anything other than get points. You presumably feel that people should never change career? Never retrain? Err really? I have seen the good and bad of Hibernia up close. They fulfill a need – to allow people in their 30s and 40s who are made redundant, or take a time out to say “fekit, I really like kids/want to work with them”. Thats all. And how on earth do you know Seamus Caca about the comparative quality (how measured? ) of “regular” (or did you mean real?) teachers vs hibernia graduates? Do you not think its good to have people with life experience ( ex guards, librarians, fishermen, housewives, jewellers etc) teaching or should it be for Maire, who went to Mary I and whos mammy and daddy for generations were NT’s? Cop on.
      3) Radical or redundant. And your experience is that – yours. And no, I dont. What IS a religious ethos? Why should we teach doctrine in state schools?

      1. bealoideas

        We should teach religious education because people want it. Simply as that. Its certainly not more irrelevant that Irish, history or environmental studies. Ireland has a good history in catering towards diversity, For example Ireland has being funding Muslim public schools for 23 years, so we should keep it that way.

    2. Katie

      I’d like to weigh in on your Hibernia prejudice. I am currently a student on the Hibernia PME for post primary. I got 560 points in my Leaving Certificate, a first class honours in my undergraduate degree and in my masters degree. I am currently on track to be getting a first with Hibernia and have absolutely no degrees in basket weaving.

      I am only in my 20s and the reason Hibernia suits me rather than becoming a “regular teacher” (I assume this means I’m irregular, or otherwise deviant in your eyes) is that the classes are evenings and weekends so I can work during the day in order to pay my way through college. It allows people to work their way towards a qualification that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

      Also, for the record, Hibernia costs about the same as Trinity and not much more than other teacher training colleges.

  6. Pingback: Defending Renua’s Education Policy | J.P. McCarthy: Math Page

  7. Cathal O' Callaghan

    Hi Brian, Thanks for taking the time to respond. Firstly, that is me thats mentioned in the Corkman article you posted, but I am no longer the treasurer. That was just something I signed up for till they could find someone more suitable to take the role. I went to the founding meeting to hear what they had to say. My constituency is too conservative so I’m looking for some change. I decided not to join Renua though, so I’m no longer the treasurer as far as I know. I still haven’t decided who to vote for. I’ll probably go with Renua, Greens and Independents, but I haven’t decided my preferences yet. Really, I’m just looking for some change!

    1. Gotcha, I didnt realise it was referring to aggregated results. It does not specify that in the extract you posted – I take it that is specified in the full document?

    2. I take your point (no pun intended :)) about the point system only being an indicator of someone’s ability to attain points. Fair enough. The rest of your response is nonsense though. I don’t presume people shouldn’t change career – I’ve done it myself. So I’m going to ignore that part. I’m not really sure where you got that idea from.

    If you reread my original comment, I clearly stated that having life experience is a positive.

    My experience with Hibernia graduates comes from working with them. I’m sure your wife is a wonderful teacher though. As with “regular”* teachers, there are both good and bad. Obviously, I can only go on my own experience. I haven’t seen any comparative studies, so in the absence of those, my experience is all I can use. If you know of anything I could read up on though, I’d be interested to have a look. I’m always open to correction.

    3. I think I’ve already answered this-teaching of sacraments would be an obvious indicator. I still find it difficult to believe that you dont know what a religious ethos is – especially given that you and your wife are both involved in education.

    Obviously, I can only go on my own experience. Although I live and work in quite a rural area, it is very multicultural. The (Catholic ethos) school caters for people of all faiths and none. There have been no complaints so far. I do think people should have choice, and if there were plans to build a secular school, I would be all for it. But in my area at least, there genuinely does not seem to be any demand for that. The subject has come up over the years, but its never gone anywhere beyond initial feelers as people, including those who are non-Catholic seem to be happy with the existing setup.

    I don’t agree at all that policy has to be radical to be effective. Our education system is generally good at primary level, I would say. Some problems for sure, but nothing that would need massive change to fix, I think. Some tweaking would achieve an awful lot I think.

    (There is one issue I have with Catholic ethos schools by the way, just not to do with education as such, more human rights. In a Catholic ethos school you can still be fired for being gay, which is beyond reprehensible. That would be one issue I’d like to see resolved, and I would have liked to see that in a party manifesto. That party would have my vote anyway.)

    * By way of clarification/apology, I’m not using “regular” pejoratively, at least that wasn’t how I meant it and I apologise if that’s how it came across. I’m simply using it for lack of a better word. (it’s late, and I’m tired! :)) Katie, I used basket weaving as an attempt at humour, hence the smiley face. I guess what I meant was people with superfluous degrees. I’m reluctant to mention specific examples, but there are often people enrolled who have degrees with very little relevance to teaching.

  8. Pingback: Defending Renua’s Education Policy – jpmccarthypolitics

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