Secondary school education in Ireland: history, memories and life stories

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

TOM O’DONOGHUE and JUDITH HARFORD
Palgrave Macmillan
£65
ISBN 9781137560797

Reviewed by: Brian Fleming

The 1960s were a period of considerable change in Irish education. Events during that period have been described subsequently in many books and articles. These have concentrated on the actions and experiences of policy-makers in government and other members of the education community, most particularly the religious authorities. This book takes a welcome new approach in that it looks at the experiences of over two dozen people whose participation in primary and secondary education occurred, either completely or mainly, before the introduction of ‘free’ secondary education in 1967.

The authors emphasise that their interviewees do not constitute a representative sample. Nevertheless, they have been careful to ensure that, as far as possible, experiences from the different models of secondary schools of that era are recounted. They also caution that memory is fallible and that accounts must be read in that light. On the other hand, it seems that many of those interviewed subsequently became involved in the education world, so they might be expected to look back on their experiences of school with a somewhat sharper focus than the norm. Of course, any two individuals may have markedly different educational experiences even if attending the same type of school.

Expectations were important. For many the transfer to secondary school was automatic. A discussion of options was not a feature of family life. Progress to university education in the case of some of those interviewed followed a similar pattern. Not featured is the far greater number for whom primary education was to be the only provision. Sadly similar patterns still persist in our education system. The impact of a single brilliant teacher, or of a small number of such, was clearly remembered and, indeed, influenced the subsequent career paths of many interviewees. The teacher who loved his/her subject, knew how to impart knowledge and could establish a firm but friendly system of class control was recalled fondly by many. These were quite rare but the vast majority of teachers were rated as good or very good, with some described in far less complimentary terms. As now, brilliant or even very good teachers of Irish were as rare as hen’s teeth, judging by the experiences recounted. The willingness of teachers to provide additional tuition or to support a wide range of extra-curricular activities in their spare time was also obvious. The pattern of subject provision was strict streaming. The ‘A’ stream were allocated certain subjects and their colleagues in the ‘B’ stream a different list. Part of this was the requirement at the time to have Latin for university entrance. This form of academic snobbery had an impact not just on curriculum provision but also, more directly, on the lives of many students at the time. Before we get too complacent that things have moved on, it’s important to note that the phenomenon still persists in the modern language requirement of the NUI, and the grade C (higher) in Irish needed for primary teacher training.

In reading the book I had a particular eye out for some ‘controversial’ issues. Bullying seemed to be quite rare, but I suspect that to a large extent it was not understood as such. Corporal punishment was practised in most schools but not by a majority of teachers. In many cases it was applied for learning failures as well as misbehaviour, though this was contrary to regulations at the time. While the role of the churches in Irish education at the time is a frequent focus of attention, the accounts in this book would suggest that the use of the schools as recruiting grounds for entrants to the religious life seems to have been relatively haphazard. From time to time Protestants enrolled in schools run by Catholic religious orders. In Ballyfin College, when it came to time for religious instruction, the teacher, a Patrician brother, used to remark to a couple of Protestant boys, ‘Time for you lads to go before I convert you’. The line was given and taken in good spirit. In Lismore, Tony was a member of the Church of Ireland who attended the Catholic schools. At primary level, when it came to time for religious instruction he just went home early for lunch, much to the annoyance of his mates. More remarkably, in the Christian Brothers’ secondary school, an enlightened Brother Doodie, working in co-operation with the local rector, took Tony at religious instruction time and helped him with his studies. In the light of current controversies it is interesting to reflect on the importance of a little common sense and generosity of spirit.

I would have liked to read the experiences of some of those who attended primary education only, and of those who went to vocational schools. In fairness it must be mentioned that the authors acknowledge the study’s limitations. As they have broken new ground this is understandable, and hopefully further work will follow. O’Donoghue and Harford are two of the most prolific writers on the history of Irish education. Invariably they write in a jargon-free style that is very accessible to the general reader. I am certain that this book will prove to be as enjoyable and interesting to the general reader as to the specialist. No doubt it will bring many on an enlightening trip down memory lane.

Brian Fleming is the author of Irish education, 1922–2007: cherishing all the children? (Mynchin’s Field Press, 2016).

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