Saturday 6 September 2014

Banged up in chokey

Monica O'Connor, doyenne of the Home School movement, was arrested on Wednesday as the relentless juggernaut of the state ground through the process of bringing its citizens into line. I call her doyenne [footnote] with a touch of irony because she is currently, in a famous for fifteen minutes sort of way, the highest-profile home educator in Ireland. If you read the comments to the press reports, you may be struck by how often people use Monica's predicament to gallop off in all directions each on his own hobby-horse.  Moaning on about the wasting police time, the salaries of government ministers, [not] needing the government to look after our children, pointing out the logical inconsistencies, moral turpitude and plain silliness of other commenters without applying the least critical evaluation to their own shoutiness.  I'm going to join in the melĂ©e now with some barely connected thoughts only tangentially relevant to the case of The Tullow Wan.

The Home Ed movement is made up of families who, by definition, go their own way. It is financially burdensome because they get no support from the state which is happy to spend €4,600 each year on average to get a child through primary school and €7,600 for the shorter period in secondary education.  I think this is a fair representation of the true costs to me-the-taxpayer based on 526,000 primary school pupils with an all primary expenditure bill of €2.465bn and 327,000 secondary school students with a bill of €2.522bn. We the home educators should not expect that sort of money into our fists, because of the fixed costs (building maintenance, head office, the minister's mercedes etc.) but the average at the coal-face teacher serves maybe 30 pupils for a salary North of €30K, so a grant of €1,000 p.a. for each home educating child might be seen as fair.  And we'll undertake the building maintenance and use our own limo to haul the youngsters to ballet, music, drama, nature-study, the library, the National Butter Museum, and soccer.  Breda O'Brien, Ireland's regular public face of home ed, made the subsidy point about 15 years ago in her Irish Times column.

This is only the cost to the government! Every parent in Ireland has to pay extra for a rucksack of text-books and most schools require a specific uniform where a jumper costing €5 in JC Penneys is miraculously transformed into a €50 garment by the addition of of logo on the left breast. You might really like to get the contract to write, print and supply half a million books every year - only cousins of Ministers of State need apply. And you may like to imagine how, if The Teacher costs €1000 per child, what happens to the other €'000s in the Dept of Education's allocation. Paper-shufflers in head office, inspectors, inspectors of inspectors, the minister's dacha in the country???  In terms of bangs for bucks, it doesn't seem very efficient.  But these bureaucratic monsters tend to acquire their own momentum and inertia. They've spent so much on education that everyone must use the resources that have been provided, hence there is no impetus to support people who choose to paddle their own canoe.  And what it looks like (from the inside of the Home Ed community) is that The Man is making a bullying example of this family in Tullow so that weaker vessels will sign their kids up to the normal system. Like Voltaire said about the execution of Admiral Byng  "il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres"  It's as if we were all told that we'd all have to buy two cars because the National Roads Authority had spent so much on motorways.  It's like that already with television: Ireland requires the payment of a TV licence fee that supports the state broad-caster RTE.  You're allowed not to have a TV but you have to report the absence of the instrument every year to the Post Office: failure to report is itself an offense. We really need to ask which aspects of government we need or desire and how much we are prepared to spend to get them.  Monica and Eddie have helped us start to ask these questions: let's continue to unzip the body-bag and see what really lies inside.  Let's go back to SCOTUS Justice Louis Brandeis and demand "the right to be let alone".  A society rich in diversity is our best hope for an uncertain future.

Almost everyone agrees that Education is a good thing but there is an underlying assumption that it is an active process: being either delivered to passive receptacles but W.B. Yeats quashed this conceit long ago "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." The fall back is that educators somehow give kids the energy of activation. Then they become somewhat self-directed or at least self-disciplined enough to knock off the tasks assigned by their teacher so that they can knock off the tasks set them by an examiner.  But this is nonsense.  If you let kids alone [shut up and get out of the way] they will follow their innate curiosity to find out what they need to know - this model works really well for the first six years of life and then mysteriously disappears <not!> when the child goes to school.  When Dau.I and Dau.II were growing up we said we'd throw in the Home Ed towel at any stage if they wanted to go to school, but we felt that every year, every week that we kept them out of the mill would stand to their self-esteem and their unfettered desire to learn. With each passing year, as they grew up straight and tall, our self-doubt and anxiety fell away.  One hopeful sign is that it is now called the Department of Education and Skills, to indicate that we need to nurture, cherish, value, encourage and train those who are not academically inclined.  It's probably just optics but it's looking in a sensible direction.

Monica seems to have been released from jail at 1pm having been admitted at 9am. She must have been let out for good behaviour.

[footnote definitions of doyenne: a woman who has a lot of experience in or knowledge about a particular profession, subject, etc. Merriam-Websters . . . the senior member of a group, profession, or society; the oldest or most respected of a group Collins.
the form of words in the Collins definition has the unfortunate effect of making me think of "the oldest profession", and I don't think any Irish Home Educators are supporting their family in that way]


  1. Some years ago as a Development worker targeting men who had "fallen out" of education and thus many of them lived with a very negative view of their abilities education wise, I got in a lot of trouble with an official of the Dept of Education. My remark which she considered abhorrent was that it was ridiculous that people who had done well out of the education system would be in any kind of a good place to develop strategies to support those who had done badly. A broad sweeping statement no doubt but one I've found to be fairly accurate. She opined that it would be beneficially to these men to learn to read as they could then "take a paper" and be informed about the world. Now I happen to agree that by learning to read there are undoubted benefits, but for many of the men I worked with learning to read came a long way back from being able to sit in a group, walk into a building that even looked in any way educational or institutional, or even give themselves permission to "waste their time" over a book when there was "real" work to be done. The lady's view of education and theirs was so polarised as to be akin to separate cultures and identities. They could see this, she could not and my remark, like myself was dismissed out of hand. My funding was dismissed not long afterwards. She however continued to a handsome pension (and I hope good health to enjoy it) A longwinded rambling remark I know, but only to underline that those who have done well out of a particular system (and continue to thrive) are not always the best at seeing it's flaws or being open to alternative views / approaches. Loverly piece

    1. Yes, indeed: yet again I give thanks that I was born white and male and speaking English like a native. Imagine if we both had to blog in Portuguese to get any international readership, imagine if Mandarin was the language of interweb discourse..The people who define what education is and what it should achieve are people just like me (I am also an academic in a University as well as at my beloved The Institute). Ken Robinson identifies and pillories this outrageously one sided view in his famous TED talk.