First Communion & Our Primary Schools

Let me tell you a story, it’s a sad story, so please don’t laugh…

There was this little school where all the children got on well. All the boys & girls were well prepped and worked towards getting ready for their First Holy Communion.

The day arrived and the class assembled in church, going over their moves when the teacher noticed that little Mary was missing.  Mary never missed a day so the teacher got worried and she phoned Mary’s family.

“No problem,” they said “we got held up at the hairdressers so we’re going to skip the church and go straight to the hotel”.

I believe that First Communion in this country has gone in the wrong direction.   I first heard the above as an urban legend, but it has an air of possibility about it.  And that, for me, is sad.  First Communions and Confirmations are happening all over the country at the moment, and the commentary isn’t far behind.  Last year I remember Matt Cooper interviewing the owner of a Limo business who put in a policy that he wouldn’t accept First Communion bookings.  Why was the policy even needed in the first place?

A little context, First Communion is what is termed a ‘Sacrament of initiation’.  There are three of them: Baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist (Communion).  The idea is that a child on having taken part in all three sacraments will be a full member of the Catholic Church.  Very early in the Church’s history the three were separated out.

Funnily enough, in the modern world, they are not always separated.  A convert to Catholicism will receive all three in one go (in a rite called RCIA), and in the Orthodox church, all three also happen in one go.

Due to the Church having such an integral role historically in our primary schools we have a situation where the school is the place where children learn about, and are prepared for, the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation.  The sacraments have become rites of passage where the emphasis has moved towards the finery and the money spent rather than on the sacrament itself.

I’m against this.  Yes, make a big deal out of a sacrament if you want, but since when should 8 year old girls be worried about a dress costing €200 or more?  Since when should they have fake tan?  Since when is the contest in school later about how much money in gifts they got?

I think that I may agree with Ruairi Quinn on something.  <did I just say that?>

Like him, I think that it would be a good idea to take some of the preparation for communion out of the school.  Instruction in Religion could still happen in school, but move the responsibility for the sacramental preparation to the parish.

This has started in some places.  In my own parish children and their families attend a series of masses in preparation for their own Communion.  A group of parents meet on a regular basis to plan and prepare.  The links in the community are strengthened and those who choose to be part of the Church deepen their understanding.

Make communion something that a family, that a child has to opt into in their own time and you will very quickly find out the ones who actually want to be involved for what it is – part of the journey in the Christian Faith.

Things can’t change fast enough for me.  One of my daughters will receive her First Communion next year, and I would far prefer her to wear a pretty dress and not worry about the hype than be dressed in a miniature wedding dress and comparing hair-dos.

Lets put away the farce of Fake Tans and the Limos.  Let First Communion be for those who want to take part. Do away with the crap that has built up around it.


Emer O’Kelly Rebuttal

The following was written by Mairéad De Búrca in reply to Emer O’Kelly’s article in the Irish Independent. 

I’d like to thank Mairéad for giving me permission to publish her letter here.



I am pleased that the Sindo published my response to Emer O’ Kelly’s unwarranted attack on teachers. However, my letter was edited to remove many criticisms of EOK’s article. I will copy the published letter and then my original letter to show you what I mean. To get the full picture, you should read her article first

My letter is a point by point rebuttal of her piece.

Published Letter –


Madam – Well done to Emer O’Kelly and the Sunday Independent for once again writing hateful bile about teachers. (Sunday Independent, April 27, 2014).

Teachers most certainly do not earn €60k on average per year. The ministers she praises earn multiples of a teacher’s salary and get tax-free expenses and perks. Why not attack them? Teachers pay into their pensions every week for 40 years. Teachers do not have jobs for life. Teachers can be, and are, dismissed. Thousands of teachers have no jobs at all.

The minister is destroying our education system. Teachers try to point this out when they can. Teachers have a duty to point this out. Journalists have this duty too. Minister Quinn is about as far away from being a socialist or a trade unionist as Emer O’Kelly is. He attended private schools. He sent his children to private schools.

He most certainly is not the best Minister for Education, since anybody! He has actually done nothing during his tenure except cut, cut, cut, speak to the media, cut, cut, cut, spin, spin, spin. He is arguably the worst Minister for Education I have ever encountered. He has failed utterly in his oft-stated intention to wrest the control of education away from religious denominations. It is disconcerting that Ms O’Kelly views this complete failure of his as a success.

This minister has not only failed the education system, he has failed Ireland’s children. Of course teachers must call him on that, especially if journalists like Emer O’Kelly fail to do so. I stopped buying the Sindo years ago due to the astounding amount of teacher-bashing in it.

Dr Mairead De Burca,

The full text of my Letter:


Well done to Emer O’ Kelly and the Sindo for keeping up your long tradition of poor journalism. Emer, you get 10/10 for writing hateful bile about teachers once again. 10/10 also for not bothering with actual facts. 0/10 however, for accuracy, objectivity, research and journalism, so that’s a FAIL, Emer. Here is a critique of your latest “work”, point by point:

1. Teachers most certainly do not earn 60K on average per year. The Ministers you praise in your article, however, earn multiples of a teacher’s salary and get un-vouched, tax free expenses and perks also. Why don’t you attack them?

2. Teachers pay into their pensions every week for forty years. Ruairi does not. What do you say to him?

3. Teachers do not have jobs for life. Teachers can and are dismissed. Thousands of teachers have no jobs at all.

4. On what basis do you describe the ASTI as the “cream level” of teachers?

5. The Minister in charge of Education is destroying our education system. Teachers try to point this out when they can. Teachers have a duty to point this out. Journalists have this duty too.

6. Minister Quinn is about as far away from being a socialist or a trade unionist as you are, Emer. He attended private schools. He sent his children to private schools. He earns an enormous salary. People call him a champagne socialist. I call him a capitalist.

7. Dignity and grace are not words I would use about Minister Quinn. He spins statistics without grace or dignity to make himself look good. He cuts educational supports to our children without grace or dignity.

8. He most certainly is not the best Minister for Education, since anybody! He has actually done nothing during his tenure except cut, cut, cut, speak to the media, cut, cut, cut, spin, spin, spin….. He is arguably the worst Minister for Education I have ever encountered.

9. I have never heard Minister Quinn tell the truth, as you claim. He spins statistics and reads speeches prepared for him by his many, very well-paid advisors.

10. It is the Minister who continuously self-congratulates himself. He thinks he’s doing a great job, and tells teachers this all the time.

11. He veers between saying our teachers are the best in the world to saying they are not. Make your mind up, Minister.

12. He has failed utterly in his oft-stated intention to wrest the control of education away from Religious denominations. It is disconcerting that you view this complete failure of his as a success, Emer.

13. This Minister has not only failed the education system, he has failed Ireland’s children. Of course teachers must call him on that, especially if journalists like you fail to do so, Emer.

14. As regards the Honours Maths and anti-women gaffs which this man “mis-spoke” in front of INTO members… Emer, please stop trying to defend the indefensible. He, himself, knows he made a mistake saying what he said. The whole country knows it, except you.

15. Andrew Phelan of ASTI has explained his actions very thoroughly on his FB page. Why didn’t you read what he had to say while you researched your own piece, Emer? O that’s right, sorry, I forgot that you don’t “do” research.

16. The new Junior Cycle is under-funded, under-resourced and unplanned. You think that’s good, do you, Emer? Teachers do not. Parents do not.

17. Teachers are the greatest advocates for children and young adults in this country, Emer. You are not. Minister Quinn is not. You could use your position as a journalist to help teachers to advocate for children, Emer.

18. You advise Minister Quinn to emulate Minister Shatter? Really? Do you really believe that anyone should emulate Minister Shatter given the scandals in his Department?

Emer, the least you could do would be to check out a few facts, do a bit of work, before you sit down to your keyboard. I stopped buying the Sindo years ago due to the astounding amount of teacher-bashing in it.

If we have learned anything last week, and again today in the Sindo, it is that some newspapers attract entirely the wrong kind of people into “journalism”.

Yours Etc…

Dr. Mairéad De Búrca.

The Minister’s Real Speech

It’s A Tuesday in Easter…

Teachers, it’s a pleasure for me to have the chance to speak to & berate you today.

This is my fourth year addressing you, and I’m determined to make headlines today.  Enough of Man U holding the limelight today.

Now, where was I?  Oh yeah, the primary lot.

Yes.  We’re in a hole.  i’d like to blame the other lot, but I’ve used that line enough already. So let’s talk about how you lot are underqualified. First up, you only had to do three years in college to train as primary teachers, I’m changing that.  Plus, you lot aren’t good enough at maths.  Lets see, a starting point is that you’ll have to do honours maths for the leaving.  You see, girls are lazy.  You’re going to drop honours maths after the Junior Cert if we give you half a chance.  So, you have to keep it on.  So there.

Second.  I’m a bit upset.  All the women in here and I don’t even get a cup of tae?  What’s the point in having a feminised profession if you lot can’t even put on the kettle?

To address this, I’m changing the law.  We already have FEMPI, but I’m now changing the education act to get rid of teachers that are sub-standard.  And to keep an eye on these standards I’m the one who sets the standards.  There.  That should reassure ye.

Now, about this religious malarkey.  I got an idea yesterday.  How’s about we put the religion classes at the start of the day, or at the end?  I know, I know.  You then have students who have no room to go to.  Look, I know I’m taking as many teachers out of the system as possible, but can’t you just play musical chairs with them.  And yes, I do include all you lot who’d be in one-teacher-schools-if-I-get-my-way.

I’m not anti-religion. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll quote Hans Kung.  There, see?  But I will take the chance to boast that my first full day on the job was the day I started to look for ways to get the church out of as many schools as possible.

Remember I’m not anti-religion.  We must respect the rights of families who want their children to be given a religions education.  That’s in the constitution.  Unfortunately.

Later that day…

You lot are the secondary teachers, yeah?

First up.  Have you got around to telling me what you want yet?  Don’t bother with that resources rubbish.  I want to know what you want so that you will do what I want.

Here it is.  Let’s work to support inclusion and giving students a chance.  Let’s not let that bit about the guidance counsellers come between friends.  Come on.  You know that wasn’t a real job.  If the kids really cared then they’d find out what their subject choice and college options were.  I mean, that worked for me and my buddies in the bish.

Now.  the JCSA.  Let’s be clear.  We all agree that the current Junior Cert needs reform.  The best advice that I can get (while avoiding teachers) is that my pet-project is the way to go.  What we have isn’t working, and I’m the boss, so what I say goes.  Yes, I will pretend to keep listening to you lot, but consultation is not spelled n-e-g-o-t-i-a-t-i-o-n.

Now it seems to me that your unions don’t like what I have in mind.  So, I think that they aren’t doing their job.  They seem to think that you are not up to the task of working over 60 hours a week.  I say let’s prove them wrong.  I’ve already gotten away with taking about 20% of your pay, forcing you do do S&S and adding 33 hours of meetings.  Let’s face it, it’s not as if I trust you to work unless I get the principals to roll-call you after hours.

To re-enforce that point I’m changing the law and the Teaching Council will be allowed to continue the beatings until morale improves.

I look forward to seeing you all next year.  By then I hope that you’ll be too knackered to kick up a fuss.

Education and Equality

We have an ideal that all students who enter our schools will be treated equally, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will be offered equal opportunities.

This is a myth.  Not true. Good PR.

You see, we live in an incredibly unequal society, and this inequality is reflected in our schools.  And this is a fact that our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, seems to ignore.

So, just how does inequality show up in schools?

Well, all schools receive a running cost from the government depending on the number of students enrolled.  And yes, this does sound fair, but the costs of schools are such that the running costs will often exceed the money received from the government.  After all, taking the team to a match requires a bus, visiting the Young Scientist Exhibition or going on a field trip for geography requires money.  Some schools have more, some have less.  And this means the education experience of students can and will vary depending on the finance available.

You see, I don’t really believe the minister understands just what a disadvantage it can be to be from a disadvantaged area.  I mean how could he?  He hasn’t had to face a pay-cheque of less than €80,000 in years.  He went to a nice school (The Bish), and recently got to visit it with one of his advisers (coincidentally also a past pupil of the same school).

The thing is, if you attend a school where most of the parents have a decent wage, then the school looks for a top-up fee to support school activities.  These activities could include school tours, proper IT for classrooms (whether tablets, computers or whatever).

If your school is in a disadvantaged area, then things don’t look so good.   Being in a disadvantaged area you can expect to see higher rates of unemployment, lack of engagement with education, and social exclusion.  In short, schools could not in fairness ask for top up fees from these parents.  Any development is dependent on grants (which are getting scarcer).

The picture looks a bit like this:



Just because schools receive a similar grant does not mean that the students will benefit from equal opportunities.  The playing field is not equal, a student who starts from a position of disadvantage will need extra help.

Our education system is in a lot of trouble at the moment.  Teachers are under pressure; we have a new Junior Cycle programme that is being rammed in despite the concern and opposition of thousands of teachers; school funding is being cut.

And yet, we claim we believe that education provides opportunities for students; that education is valuable; that education is more than just about measuring students. There’s a disconnect there and I hope that someday we get an education minister who actually believes in education and trusts teachers as professionals.

Our students deserve it.

The Start of a Campaign

On Tuesday 11th March teachers are being asked to spend their lunchtime at the gate of the school and protest against the introduction of the JCSA as it is presented.

In the immediate aftermath of the protest being announced there was a lot of differing commentary on some of the teachers’ Facebook Pages.  This division is reflected in some of the twitter feeds of the past week.  The initial reaction then is very mixed, and this can be very damaging to any campaign to oppose the JCSA. But such a campaign is necessary unless we are willing to accept a flawed programme.

So. What are the downsides of the protest?

  • Well, many people think that the teachers at the gate will be a laughing stock for their students
  • It is felt by many teachers that such a protest does not do anything to dissuade the minister, that the protest will lack any real punch
  • There is the real fear that if the protest is not well enough supported, then it may be seen by the minister as a lack of resolve by teachers

And what do we stand to gain?

  • People will see that teachers are willing to act in such a way that does not harm students’ educational attainment
  • A good turnout will send a clear signal to the minister that teachers are willing to stand their ground in order to oppose the current JCSA
  • This may in turn persuade the minister to engage properly with the unions and accept the criticisms and the concerns of professional teachers

First Steps

I’ve written before, listing concerns that teachers have about the JCSA, and I’ve also written how I see the current plan as the result of a solo run by the minister.  The TUI & ASTI have issued a joint document outlining the unions’ concerns.

Minister Quinn seems hell-bent on introducing the JCSA as it stands, and, so far, seems to be unwilling to listen to any concerns put forward by either the ASTI or the TUI.  I doubt that a 30 or 40 minute protest at school gates will do anything to change his attitude in this.

And that brings me neatly to the ballot which is being put to teachers shortly.  We will be asked to give the unions power to undertake industrial action and oppose the implementation of the JCSA.  We will be asked to approve a campaign of non-cooperation.

I will turn out on Tuesday to support the protest, but only because I see the protest as the first step in a broader campaign to raise awareness about teachers’ concerns.  In fact not just the concerns of teachers – parents of children who will be affected by these changes will have plenty to be worried about.

However, for any of this to work, both unions need to be able to send a clear message to the minister.  I believe he will ignore anything else.

I believe that we teachers need to stand together next Tuesday and raise public awareness about the new Junior Cert.  Beyond that we need to vote ‘Yes’ in the ballot for non-cooperation.  Most people recognise that the Junior Cert needs reform.  However, the JCSA is not what is needed.  There are too many concerns for it to go ahead as it is.  Lets work together to get our concerns addressed and give students a programme that will work and deliver for them.

By the way, the ASTI Nuacht outlining the protest and the ballot can be found here.

Consultations & Negotiations

You’d kinda have to have a bit of pity on our Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn.  He feels that the teachers of this  country don’t want to talk to him.  He thinks that we won’t actively engage with him.  He says he wants to talk with us.  He has further asked that teachers won’t go on a lunchtime protest in March as he doesn’t want to hurt students.  (That’s a bit rich coming from the man who took guidance counsellors out of schools)

The teachers aren’t willing to engage?


I don’t think that I can quite agree with that point of view, Minister.  You see, you may have forgotten that we have a body in this country called the NCCA.  The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment oversees the development of curriculum from early childhood up to senior cycle.  Now.  Up until the minister did a solo run in October 2012 the NCCA had been working in conjunction with the unions and other stakeholders to revise the Junior Cert.

In November 2011 the proposals for a new Junior Cert were released.  The ASTI & the TUI released the news of the proposals, and were generally positive.  (In the ASTI pdf, look at p.16 & p.17)

So, for a while, all was rosy in the garden.  We had proposals for a new Junior Cert, agreed with the Unions, the NCCA and all under the stewardship of  our current minister.

And then, for some unknown reason, he changed his mind in 2012 and ditched the proposals.  He is according to the Irish Examiner,  unrepentant.  In fact, he looks down on teachers so much that he finds it necessary to spell out ‘negotiation’.  Basically, he doesn’t want to back down on a pet project and is upset by the fact that teachers don’t agree with a number of the tenets of his project.  He wants a consultation around implementation, not a negotiation about what’s appropriate.

The minister claims that he’s happy with “the professional advice” he has received.  From whom, may I ask?  Not the NCCA who were working with the unions.  Is he referring to his advisors? . And, if so, why should their advice rank higher than an organisation such as the NCCA which has been in existence for 30 years? Maybe it’s the fact that if he gets away with it, he can reduce the costs of the State Examinations Commission by removing them from any role of examining the JCSA.

I have serious questions about the professional advice that he took on in 2012, that is at odds with an agreed programme from 2011.  A good comparison between the two can be found here.  But a quick summary of teachers’ objections are: The new programme isn’t externally moderated, there is still a subject overload, who designs & accredits short courses?  Another issue is this; what’s to prevent a JCSA award from a posh Dublin school carrying more weight than a JCSA award from a school in a disadvantaged area?  The minister’s plan will re-enforce disadvantage in education.

And by the way, the advisors?   Well, go to The, for a full name list.

New Junior Cert

(For anyone outside Ireland, a little information about what the Junior Cert is is at the bottom of the page.)

One of the important things to know about the Junior and Leaving cert is that the exams are totally impartial.  The papers are set and corrected by the State Examinations Commission.  I have corrected papers in the Junior cert (JC), and never had any indication about the the origin of the papers I corrected.  I never know the gender, background or address of any student.  I could not bring any prejudice or favouritism to the grades that I would award.  And that, I believe, is as it should be.

This brings us to the new Junior Cert.  Our minister for Education has decreed that the JC will pretty much end in 2016.  At that point the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will have no more role in correcting those papers.  The new programme is called the Junior Cycle Student Award.  It is based around 24 statements of learning.  The awards are granted by local schools, and the courses are assessed by the teachers within those schools.  This leads me to a few problems.


As I said earlier, one of the great advantages of the current JC is that the examiner never knows the student.  Whatever mark a student  receives is based purely on the students work and ability.

Under the new system teachers will be responsible for continual assessment, and grading their own students.  That’s it, the end of impartiality; welcome favouritism, or vendettas.

Or maybe what might happen is that I could design my own course, and give my students great marks, because I’m just that good.  Or what happens if my whole school tries this.  Suddenly, going by our results, it’s an absolutely outstanding school, ticking all the right boxes.  But what about the school just up the road?  Don’t they have the same success stories? What about the school that doesn’t worry about ticking the boxes, and instead focuses on student welfare, and achieving basic numeracy and literacy in an area of disadvantage?

It seems to me that by taking an impartial agency (the SEC) out of the process, the whole system becomes more open to abuse and manipulation.


A Junior Cert (or a Leaving Certificate) awarded to any student, anywhere in the state, carries the same level of validity.

The new Junior Cycle Student Award is fundamentally different.  Schools will follow a set of Core Subjects that are set nationally, but mix into this short courses and Priority Learning Units (PLUs).  (PLUs are designed to be used with students who may have learning difficulties)


At the moment teachers are busy people.  A teacher on full hours will teach 33 classes per week.  Under current agreements, the same teacher will be expected to supervise 45 minutes of break-time, and cover one class for other colleagues each week.

Lets look at those 33 classes.  In that the teacher will have a number of students who are preparing for state exams.  The teacher will be preparing for each class, and they will assign homework, class tests, and then correct all of the above.  The school day is busy enough to ensure all this won’t happen in a 9 to 4 day.  So, most teachers take work home with them.

Now.  What happens under the new regime?  Teachers will still have the existing workload but in addition will also have to administer continual assessment, and volumes of paperwork.  Because, to paraphrase, education must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.  Many teachers are worried about just how much extra workload will be loaded.


Casualisation of the Profession

Under our current system teachers are contracted yearly to teach a certain number of hours (not everyone has full teaching hours).  Under the new programme it is possible that teachers could be contracted for just the duration of a short course.

When this is tied to recent developments you get a clear picture that life is not very rosy for Newly Qualified Teachers.  Wages have been cut, and it is virtually impossible to get a full-time job.  (I have a number of friends who have been years teaching and are still not full-time)

The New programme may be the way to go, for example, students will undertake a maximum of 10 subjects, a cut from current practice.  However, I do think a lot of negotiation needs to happen in order for it to happen properly.


A little note on the Junior Cert & Leaving Cert

Secondary school students in Ireland face two state exams.  One at age 15, called the Junior cert, and one at about age 18, called the leaving cert.  These exams are huge markers for students.  The grades achieved in the Leaving Cert are a huge factor in access to further education for students.

The Junior Cert is a student’s first experience of state exams.  But it is more than just a marker.  Performance in the Junior cert can indicate to a student what level he/she should take on as they advance to senior school.