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a loving system puts children at the center of education


I’m thinking steel pipes, something with a fixed structure designed to stay in place or I’m thinking something written down, mapped out – some register, all rows and columns and categories. A system on paper has no blurs or smudges; it is clearly structured.

However, what if I put another word before? And, say, if I insert the word “love” for example? What if I said I want a loving education system in Ireland? Does that sound like an oxymoron? Well, it shouldn’t.

The great thing about love is that it is both fixed and flexible. It is designed to follow the hesitations and complexities of our lives, but it is also constant.

What a wonderful starting point that would be for our education system — to have something at its center that is both responsive and resolute.

And love is simple. As my school’s guidance counselor says, it’s about creating “easy places to land” for young people, rather than supporting hard-to-manage places.

I went to see the Kenneth Branagh movie Belfast this week with my sixth year, to celebrate the end of their fake Leaving Cert exams. In a scene near the start of the film, young protagonist Buddy watches wide-eyed as his teacher arranges the children to reflect their most recent exam results. Top marks to the front. Bottom marks on the back.

Buddy, wanting to sit next to his sweetheart upstairs, asks his grandfather to help him with math.

The teacher in the scene represents a system. It is clear and brutal. The children in these changing seats absorb all the judgments, equating their self-esteem with their position in this room.

I mentioned the scene to my husband when I got home.

“Oh yes, we would do the same in our chemistry class. Our teacher said we had to face the Leaving Cert and at least by sitting down according to our most recent grades we knew where we stood.

“He said the classroom was like the country. Sometimes he made us sit in silence and look around. He was telling us to think about our own position, how we felt about it, how we could change it or maintain it. He talked a lot about strategies.

My husband’s teacher was right about the Leaving Cert back then, and unfortunately he’s still right about it now.

Its classroom management system mirrors what Leaving Cert does nationally, profiling and categorizing young people based on a restricted set of arbitrarily designed markers. It’s a small system replicating a larger one that we all accept as normal.

However, there is no love in it.

This is a big part of what makes class scenes work in Belfast. Buddy’s pre-teen adoration for the girl up front is full of joy, personality, and vulnerability. His teacher is stone. She is a woman made of steel pipes and lined ledgers.

Discussions about the imminence of a citizens’ assembly on education are getting louder and louder — the voices are piling up. According to a few sources, this should happen next year and could provide us with a real opportunity to challenge and rebuild our system.

I hope this assembly will hold the child — and love — at its center. I certainly hope that this hugely important assembly does not become a scaled down version of our current system, stifling innovation and sentiment, letting us all down.

David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin, believes that we lag behind other countries in the way we run our citizens’ assemblies. He writes this week: “Pathway addiction has set in, with the senior official in one assembly passing the baton and the lessons he has learned to the official leading the next.

This description reminds me of Buddy’s teacher and my husband’s teacher, 30 years apart, passing the same shape stick, doing the same thing, over and over, without thinking or feeling.

I’m bad at meetings. I would probably be the worst person to have at any meeting. However, one thing I would contribute if I could is a giant poster of a red heart. I would hang it on the wall with the words “A Loving System” on top because, really, all we need is love – to begin with at least.

It is the perfect ingredient for our strong and flexible education system.

A loving system would put children at the center of nurturing, giving them the freedom to roam, explore and, in the case of young Buddy, to sit right next to that certain person too.