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Educating Ireland

30 November, 1999

Frank O’Reilly met Anne Looney who heads up the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment(NCCA). He talked to her about her work and her religious beliefs.

In another context, Anne Looney once described herself as “a Catholic despite herself’, and there are things which the Roman Catholic Church has done which she admits have driven her mad. “Is there an adult Catholic who hasn’t (been driven mad)?”, she queries rhetorically, bemusedly. “Education is an act of hope, and all religions are enormously hopeful, particularly Christianity, because of the Resurrection”, she observes. “What I suppose disappoints me about organised religion – and I would still see myself as being part of organised religion – is that it can’t get that message of hope out there. It just can’t manage to get over itself, and all the other things it gets embroiled in. It forgets that it exists for that message, and not just for itself. But you hang on in there and hanging in there is itself an act of hope!”.

Whatever her misgivings may be, being a practising Catholic is important to her. “As an adult living in an urban area (Anne lives in Clondalkin) you could very easily get disconnected from religion. It’s easier to stay in bed. It’s a chance to have breakfast, to read the papers. You do have to make a conscious effort to stay connected. So I probably am one of those people who would probably worship where I think I would get the best deal – does that sound too consumerist? – but where I think I will hear words that are meaningful”.

Anne says that nowadays you have to make a conscious decision to stay connected, whereas ten years ago, religious practice was something that everybody observed. “Maybe that’s what being an adult Christian means, that you have to make a conscious decision about it”. Has her religious faith sustained her? “It has sustained me and driven me crazy at the same time. But religion was never presented to me nor did I ever engage with it – as anything other than liberating. I have my family to thank for that as well as my schooling”. She says she is not one of those people for whom Catholic education is something you have to recover from. “I think I can speak for other members of my family as well who went to Catholic schools. I had a great education at St. Paul’s (convent) school, in Greenhills, Dublin – one that said your life is full of possibilities, that religion is a liberating force. ‘Go out there and be all things to all people’, as Saint Paul once said. I’m always proud of that school. It was an ordinary school, but like many Catholic schools it said, ‘you can be an extraordinary person’.  I think this is a message that Catholic education still has for people”.

Moreover, she doesn’t believe she could have become an educator herself if she hadn’t had such a positive experience before she sat her Leaving Cert in 1980. After graduating from Mater Dei in Dublin, she taught religion at the Assumption Secondary school in Walkinstown for fourteen years. Down the road, so to speak, from her own alma mater. She loved the job, however demanding it may have been. “I remember the feeling on a Friday afternoon, after five days in the classroom, being unable to put a coherent sentence together, because I would be so physically exhausted”. Her onerous duties as head of the NCCA mean longer hours and far less holidays, but despite whatever exhaustion she may know, she has never revisited that feeling of being completely drained which she knew as a teacher in a secondary school.

Relationships and sexuality
Later on she became involved in adult education, and worked part-time for the NCCA, on the new curriculum for religious education, and on relationships and sexuality education. Each school is obliged to have a policy on relationships and sexuality, with information readily available to parents, who must know what their children are being taught. Relationships and sexuality education is itself part of the curriculum category known as Social and Personal Health Education, which starts in Junior Infants and runs right through primary and post primary school. The Stay Safe programme, which became all the more topical in the wake of the murders of the two girls, Jessica and Holly, in Soham, is also part of the same broad curriculum area. “If you can teach children at five years of age to describe how they are feeling, not simply just the happy and sad, but that they can put words on other feelings and learn to say ‘I am angry’ that’s the first step in building good mental health, being able to recognise that something is upsetting you”. However, she insists that teachers know what the boundaries are. Private family matters are not up for discussion in the classroom. There are parents who would prefer that relationships and sexuality and similar programmes should not be done in school, and they are in a position where they can withdraw their children.

Relationships and sexuality education is but one example of the work undertaken by the NCCA. It is responsible for the curriculum for schools and the design of the assessment components at post-primary level. “Our job in one sentence is to advise the Minister for Education and Science on the curriculum for early childhood, primary and post primary education”. The National Parents’ Council, the various teacher unions, the management bodies, are all represented on the NCCA , and there has to be consensus before new measures are introduced. Does it try her patience, achieving such consensus? “Not really. That’s the nature of public service. You are a government agency, so in that sense you have to be open to people who are looking for change”.

The gender gap is another obvious concern for the NCCA, bound up with the underachievement of boys in public examinations. “For years, it was the other way around, and nobody ever spoke about the underachievement of girls, and it was put down to the natural ability of boys to do well. Now, it’s the other way around, and apparently it’s the system that’s at fault. The maturation rate is a key area, the issue of learning styles and the fact that we tend to have quite a significant gap at say, fourteen years of age, but it tends to close up as they get older. If they move into third level, boys begin to pick up again and do pretty well at university”.

Ultimately, gender is not the critical factor in determining how a student will perform at school. Social class is the much more relevant one. “After each examination, nobody publishes a story saying, ‘poor people don’t do as well at school as rich people. This is a scandal, what is the system going to do?’ We get into a big panic about the underachievment of boys – I think I’d be more worried about the underachievement of people from disadvantaged communities. If you ask me what is the crisis in the system, that would be it. It wouldn’t be the boy-girl gap. Education won’t solve economic disadvantage, but it shouldn’t be a factor in making it worse. So what do you do to ensure that you have a system that not just gives everybody the same chances but gives an extra chance to those who are economically disadvantaged? It won’t turn communities around, it won’t turn entire towns around, but education can play a key role in building individual resources”. Literacy levels, she believes, have improved significantly in recent years and this country features in the top five for fifteen-year-olds. The Irish track record, she insists, is good, despite being relatively underfunded, in comparison with the education systems of other European countries. “It worries me that we do well, but we have a tail of underachievement.  It would be great if we could say, ‘we do well, and everybody benefits from that’.

Furthermore, she believes that the most heroic teachers are in the most deprived communities. “It probably won’t show up in an improvement in the Leaving Cert results, and it won’t show up in more students taking Physics and Chemistry. But if young people have a better sense of themselves and have the life skills, and if they see the world as presenting a set of possibilities, then they don’t see themselves as victims, but as people who can act. I think that this is a huge role that teachers have and I think that teachers are wholly undervalued for what they do. In schools in disadvantaged areas students can have very low expectations of themselves. Part of the role of the school is to challenge such expectations, and to say, ‘yes, you can be a hairdresser, or a barman. They are good careers, but let’s look at other options”’. In transition year in the school where she worked, work visits and careers fairs opened up the vista and showed the breadth of career opportunities. “It meant that we ended up with students who could become pilots and athletes and mothers and creche owners and nurses and doctors and musicians.”

Finally, on the question of access to third level education she says that the abolition of fees didn’t open the doors for working class people to go to university, as hoped. “Universities are going to have to go out and bring working class people in. It’s not going to happen otherwise, and parents are going to have to broaden their attitudes as well. You can’t go to college without your family making a sacrifice on your behalf. We may have free third level education, but there’s still a need for sacrifice. It’s like what I said in the context of religious faith. It’s all one great act of hope”.

Article Credits
This article first appeared in Word (October 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication