19th Century Teaching in Brontë Novel


Below I present an extract from the novel Villette by Charlotte Brontë, which in some people’s eyes is an unappreciated masterpiece on a par with, or even better thanJane Eyre. Set in the 19th century, the novel initially depicts the protagonist Lucy Snowe as a hapless young English woman who leaves her native country in search of a better life after an unspecified family disaster. She soon finds herself employed as bonne (nanny) to the young children of a stern headmistress in a Belgian town. The extract below occurs near the beginning of the novel, as Lucy is settling into what she thinks is a comfortable yet uneventful and somewhat tedious life as a governess. But unbeknownst to her, the headmistress sees potential in her, sizing her up as a possible replacement for the languid and unsatisfactory English teacher, Mr. Wilson. When Mr. Wilson fails to show up one day, Lucy unexpectedly gets a chance to prove herself as a teacher. Initially hesitant, she soon finds her feet, satisfies the headmistress and is taken on as a teacher. She comes to like her new post.

This passage gives a fascinating insight into what went on in 19th century classrooms. Much of Brontë’s fiction is said to be drawn from her own life. Given that she spent some time teaching in Belgium, this passage is probably a fairly accurate portrayal of what she experienced. Judging from the extract, the most important skill a teacher could possess at the time was the ability to control a class. Given how big classes were – sixty in the case of Lucy’s – the only possible way of teaching was to exert strict authority from the front and to impart material explicitly as Lucy does in her dictation lesson.

Anyway, here’s the extract:

I was one day sitting up-stairs, as usual, hearing the children their English lessons, and at the same time turning a silk dress for Madame, when she came sauntering into the room with that absorbed air and brow of hard thought she sometimes wore, and which made her look so little genial. Dropping into a seat opposite mine, she remained some minutes silent. Désirée, the eldest girl, was reading to me some little essay of Mrs. Barbauld’s, and I was making her translate currently from English to French as she proceeded, by way of ascertaining that she comprehended what she read: Madame listened.

Presently, without preface or prelude, she said, almost in the tone of one making an accusation, “Meess, in England you were a governess?”

“No, Madame,” said I smiling, “you are mistaken.”

“Is this your first essay at teaching—this attempt with my children?”

I assured her it was. Again she became silent; but looking up, as I took a pin from the cushion, I found myself an object of study: she held me under her eye; she seemed turning me round in her thoughts—measuring my fitness for a purpose, weighing my value in a plan. Madame had, ere this, scrutinized all I had, and I believe she esteemed herself cognizant of much that I was; but from that day, for the space of about a fortnight, she tried me by new tests. She listened at the nursery door when I was shut in with the children; she followed me at a cautious distance when I walked out with them, stealing within ear-shot whenever the trees of park or boulevard afforded a sufficient screen: a strict preliminary process having thus been observed, she made a move forward.

One morning, coming on me abruptly, and with the semblance of hurry, she said she found herself placed in a little dilemma. Mr. Wilson, the English master, had failed to come at his hour, she feared he was ill; the pupils were waiting in classe; there was no one to give a lesson; should I, for once, object to giving a short dictation exercise, just that the pupils might not have it to say they had missed their English lesson?

“In classe, Madame?” I asked.

“Yes, in classe: in the second division.”

“Where there are sixty pupils,” said I; for I knew the number, and with my usual base habit of cowardice, I shrank into my sloth like a snail into its shell, and alleged incapacity and impracticability as a pretext to escape action. If left to myself, I should infallibly have let this chance slip. Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the hornbook, turning silk dresses and making children’s frocks. Not that true contentment dignified this infatuated resignation: my work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial: the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives—the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter.

“Come,” said Madame, as I stooped more busily than ever over the cutting-out of a child’s pinafore, “leave that work.”

“But Fifine wants it, Madame.”

“Fifine must want it, then, for I want you.”

And as Madame Beck did really want and was resolved to have me—as she had long been dissatisfied with the English master, with his shortcomings in punctuality, and his careless method of tuition—as, too, she did not lack resolution and practical activity, whether I lacked them or not—she, without more ado, made me relinquish thimble and needle; my hand was taken into hers, and I was conducted down-stairs. When we reached the carré, a large square hall between the dwelling-house and the pensionnat, she paused, dropped my hand, faced, and scrutinized me. I was flushed, and tremulous from head to foot: tell it not in Gath, I believe I was crying. In fact, the difficulties before me were far from being wholly imaginary; some of them were real enough; and not the least substantial lay in my want of mastery over the medium through which I should be obliged to teach. I had, indeed, studied French closely since my arrival in Villette; learning its practice by day, and its theory in every leisure moment at night, to as late an hour as the rule of the house would allow candle-light; but I was far from yet being able to trust my powers of correct oral expression.

“Dîtes donc,” said Madame sternly, “vous sentez vous réellement trop faible?”

I might have said “Yes,” and gone back to nursery obscurity, and there, perhaps, mouldered for the rest of my life; but looking up at Madame, I saw in her countenance a something that made me think twice ere I decided. At that instant she did not wear a woman’s aspect, but rather a man’s. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy, nor congeniality, nor submission, were the emotions it awakened. I stood—not soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonour of my diffidence—all the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire.

“Will you,” she said, “go backward or forward?” indicating with her hand, first, the small door of communication with the dwelling-house, and then the great double portals of the classes or schoolrooms.

“En avant,” I said.

“But,” pursued she, cooling as I warmed, and continuing the hard look, from very antipathy to which I drew strength and determination, “can you face the classes, or are you over-excited?”

She sneered slightly in saying this: nervous excitability was not much to Madame’s taste.

“I am no more excited than this stone,” I said, tapping the flag with my toe: “or than you,” I added, returning her look.

“Bon! But let me tell you these are not quiet, decorous, English girls you are going to encounter. Ce sont des Labassecouriennes, rondes, franches, brusques, et tant soit peu rebelles.”

I said: “I know; and I know, too, that though I have studied French hard since I came here, yet I still speak it with far too much hesitation—too little accuracy to be able to command their respect I shall make blunders that will lay me open to the scorn of the most ignorant. Still I mean to give the lesson.”

“They always throw over timid teachers,” said she.

“I know that too, Madame; I have heard how they rebelled against and persecuted Miss Turner”—a poor friendless English teacher, whom Madame had employed, and lightly discarded; and to whose piteous history I was no stranger.

“C’est vrai,” said she, coolly. “Miss Turner had no more command over them than a servant from the kitchen would have had. She was weak and wavering; she had neither tact nor intelligence, decision nor dignity. Miss Turner would not do for these girls at all.”

I made no reply, but advanced to the closed schoolroom door.

“You will not expect aid from me, or from any one,” said Madame. “That would at once set you down as incompetent for your office.”

I opened the door, let her pass with courtesy, and followed her. There were three schoolrooms, all large. That dedicated to the second division, where I was to figure, was considerably the largest, and accommodated an assemblage more numerous, more turbulent, and infinitely more unmanageable than the other two. In after days, when I knew the ground better, I used to think sometimes (if such a comparison may be permitted), that the quiet, polished, tame first division was to the robust, riotous, demonstrative second division, what the English House of Lords is to the House of Commons.

The first glance informed me that many of the pupils were more than girls—quite young women; I knew that some of them were of noble family (as nobility goes in Labassecour), and I was well convinced that not one amongst them was ignorant of my position in Madame’s household. As I mounted the estràde (a low platform, raised a step above the flooring), where stood the teacher’s chair and desk, I beheld opposite to me a row of eyes and brows that threatened stormy weather—eyes full of an insolent light, and brows hard and unblushing as marble. The continental “female” is quite a different being to the insular “female” of the same age and class: I never saw such eyes and brows in England. Madame Beck introduced me in one cool phrase, sailed from the room, and left me alone in my glory.

I shall never forget that first lesson, nor all the under-current of life and character it opened up to me. Then first did I begin rightly to see the wide difference that lies between the novelist’s and poet’s ideal “jeune fille” and the said “jeune fille” as she really is.

It seems that three titled belles in the first row had sat down predetermined that a bonne d’enfants should not give them lessons in English. They knew they had succeeded in expelling obnoxious teachers before now; they knew that Madame would at any time throw overboard a professeur or maitresse who became unpopular with the school—that she never assisted a weak official to retain his place—that if he had not strength to fight, or tact to win his way, down he went: looking at “Miss Snowe,” they promised themselves an easy victory.

Mesdemoiselles Blanche, Virginie, and Angélique opened the campaign by a series of titterings and whisperings; these soon swelled into murmurs and short laughs, which the remoter benches caught up and echoed more loudly. This growing revolt of sixty against one, soon became oppressive enough; my command of French being so limited, and exercised under such cruel constraint.

Could I but have spoken in my own tongue, I felt as if I might have gained a hearing; for, in the first place, though I knew I looked a poor creature, and in many respects actually was so, yet nature had given me a voice that could make itself heard, if lifted in excitement or deepened by emotion. In the second place, while I had no flow, only a hesitating trickle of language, in ordinary circumstances, yet—under stimulus such as was now rife through the mutinous mass—I could, in English, have rolled out readily phrases stigmatizing their proceedings as such proceedings deserved to be stigmatized; and then with some sarcasm, flavoured with contemptuous bitterness for the ringleaders, and relieved with easy banter for the weaker but less knavish followers, it seemed to me that one might possibly get command over this wild herd, and bring them into training, at least. All I could now do was to walk up to Blanche—Mademoiselle de Melcy, a young baronne—the eldest, tallest, handsomest, and most vicious—stand before her desk, take from under her hand her exercise-book, remount the estrade, deliberately read the composition, which I found very stupid, and, as deliberately, and in the face of the whole school, tear the blotted page in two.

This action availed to draw attention and check noise. One girl alone, quite in the background, persevered in the riot with undiminished energy. I looked at her attentively. She had a pale face, hair like night, broad strong eyebrows, decided features, and a dark, mutinous, sinister eye: I noted that she sat close by a little door, which door, I was well aware, opened into a small closet where books were kept. She was standing up for the purpose of conducting her clamour with freer energies. I measured her stature and calculated her strength. She seemed both tall and wiry; but, so the conflict were brief and the attack unexpected, I thought I might manage her.

Advancing up the room, looking as cool and careless as I possibly could, in short, ayant l’air de rien, I slightly pushed the door and found it was ajar. In an instant, and with sharpness, I had turned on her. In another instant she occupied the closet, the door was shut, and the key in my pocket.

It so happened that this girl, Dolores by name, and a Catalonian by race, was the sort of character at once dreaded and hated by all her associates; the act of summary justice above noted proved popular: there was not one present but, in her heart, liked to see it done. They were stilled for a moment; then a smile—not a laugh—passed from desk to desk: then—when I had gravely and tranquilly returned to the estrade, courteously requested silence, and commenced a dictation as if nothing at all had happened—the pens travelled peacefully over the pages, and the remainder of the lesson passed in order and industry.

“C’est bien,” said Madame Beck, when I came out of class, hot and a little exhausted. “Ca ira.”

She had been listening and peeping through a spy-hole the whole time.

From that day I ceased to be nursery governess, and became English teacher. Madame raised my salary; but she got thrice the work out of me she had extracted from Mr. Wilson, at half the expense.

(Villette is available for free online).



Creating resources in modern languages

Considering the dearth of high-quality, content-rich textbooks available to language teachers, it seems that we will have to create our own. This is not always an easy task: non-native language teachers, even after reaching a high level of linguistic proficiency, usually lack the kind of effortlessly rich and fluent language that comes naturally to native speakers. Of course most of what we produce would probably be satisfactory for the purposes of second-level pupils. But still, it’d be nice to make sure that any language presented to students is not only correct but authentic and sounds natural to native speakers.

One way to get around this problem is to adapt authentic texts (magazine and newspaper articles, etc.) for our purposes, but it can be difficult to find suitable texts containing everyday topics and language at the right level. I think the best option is to write our own texts, getting feedback and corrections from native speakers. Running the texts by French friends is an option, but if you don’t want to be constantly nagging them another option is to post your efforts on an online language forum where native speakers are happy to help. I recently posted some paragraphs on a forum and within hours had two responses from native speakers correcting my efforts and adding an authentic touch.

How can you trust the accuracy of these corrections? Generally language teachers should be able to recognise this themselves: in my own case, I was happy with the way my efforts were clarified or modified to make them sound less formal. Furthermore, the contributors on such forums are generally linguistic buffs who love to help foreigners with various queries about their beloved language. If you’re still doubtful you can look at the contributor’s profile to see the quality of their previous responses and what kind of thing they’re interested in. However, I’ve since posted two more paragraphs on the same forum and have yet to receive a response: maybe there’s a limit to people’s goodwill in helping random strangers with their French for free! Who’d have thought it… I guess there are more forums, however. Although I haven’t used them for this purpose, websites such as ConversationExchange.com allow you to find penpals who might be willing to correct your work in exchange for doing the same for them in English. If anyone wants to swap or exchange resources let me know!

Below is a sample of one I got corrected.

Paula : Mon père est homme d’affaires. Il me conseille d’étudier le commerce à la fac, mais je ne suis pas sûre de le vouloir. Le commerce ne m’attire pas vraiment. Mais si je veux gagner beaucoup d’argent, je dois suivre le conseil de mon père ! Ma mère me conseille de faire ce que je veux, sans trop m’inquiéter de faire plaisir à mon père. Mais elle ne me donne guère de bons conseils ! Selon elle, peu importe ce que je fais à la fac. Elle pense que je réussirai quoi que je fasse dans la vie. Ma mère est infirmière. C’est un métier difficile, mais elle en tire beaucoup de satisfaction. Elle aime soigner les gens en écoutant leurs histoires. Je vais peut-être devenir infirmière moi aussi. Je ne sais pas. Il faut que j’y réfléchisse encore. Heureusement, il me reste encore quelques années pour me décider.

Old-School French

At a second-hand booksale recently I bought a gem for 50 cent: ‘Model French Essays’ by Mary Barry. A booklet of 41 pages, it’s aimed at beginner secondary students and consists of 40 ‘essays’ or short passages on simple, everyday matters using vocabulary and idiomatic phrases that can serve students in many different contexts. Below is the foreword by the author, with further pages from the booklet included at the bottom of this blog post:


There’s no date on the booklet, but it must date from before 1992, when the Intermediate Cert was replaced with the Junior Cert. Since it was published by the state-owned ‘The Educational Company of Ireland’ it must have formerly been a standard textbook for secondary pupils.

The essays aim to instil good habits in pupils: ‘Le matin…je dis ma priere’ (‘In the morning, I say my prayers’) and ‘Avant de quitter la maison je gonfle les pneus avec la pompe et je vérifie si les freins marchent bien’ (‘Before leaving  the house, I pump up the tyres and make sure that the brakes are working properly’). This reflects an era when moral values infused the whole school curriculum. No doubt this would be seen as unacceptably paternalistic today but it adds to the charm of the booklet and harks back to an era when educators were more sure of themselves.

The simplicity of the approach outlined by the author is what strikes me. The essays are of increasing difficulty and although the booklet may seem prescriptive and one-dimensional, there’s a lot that a teacher could do to aid understanding and retention, such as narrowing in on particular aspects of grammar, reading aloud and supplying further English translations. Moreover, the fact that tricky grammar and tenses are presented from the beginning gives pupils something to get their teeth into straight away. Having model texts to work with exposes students to complex structures from the start. It seems to me that too often under the progressive approach, pupils are expected to somehow magically come up with their own ideas and produce their own language after they’ve been exposed to only a minimal amount of language content. With this booklet, on the other hand, pupils are expected to master the store of useful phrases and vocabulary contained in the passages, acquiring a solid basis in the language in the process.

From my own experience, language classes that progress too slowly through basic topics and spend whole classes on things like your age and home can get quite dull. Much better to present meaty texts to pupils, breaking down the language all the time and commenting on particularly noteworthy points. If pupils could master the 40 essays in the booklet and practise their pronunciation, I’d imagine they’d be well on their way to developing a solid foundation in French.

I particularly like the concrete and straightforward goal of the booklet: after mastering the passages pupils would have acquired a wide range of idiomatic French expressions on a wide range of familiar topics. This handy pocket-sized booklet is easier to carry and has more condensed and useful content than many of the French textbooks on the market at the minute, which are bulky and glossy but light on text, as they seem to merely present long lists of individual words without putting them to use in meaningful phrases or contexts. The standard of French in the booklet is high in comparison to today’s French textbooks, considering that it is designed for first-year pupils. Nowadays pupils in the junior years are unlikely to meet such language-rich material: the norm is to introduce lists of words and very simple sentences in each topic, with verbs being introduced gingerly and classes generally supposed to revolve around fun and games so that pupils don’t have to work very much and thus won’t be ‘put off’ languages. Moreover, using English translations is very much frowned upon in modern-day MFL handbooks, a constriction which is supposed to increase contact with the target language but which actually precludes the possibility of tackling challenging texts until sufficient vocabulary has been painstakingly and laboriously built up over a long time by using such roundabout (progressive) methods as games, gestures, miming, telepathy, etc.

The idea of equipping pupils with a store of idioms and exposing them to various tenses through close reading reminds me of the highly efficient Michaela approach, which aims to impart a rich collection of structures and expressions in French, ensuring that pupils come to grips with PROFS: past, reasons, opinions, future and subjunctive.

It’s a real pity that the traditional method embodied by this booklet – presenting material to pupils, guiding them through it and expecting them to master it – is now discouraged. Having a set of core texts that pupils are expected to retain by constantly revising and recycling the language is a sure way of making the knowledge stick in long-term memory. This core knowledge can then be expanded on and adapted to the personal lives of pupils. Furthermore, how much simpler this approach would be for both teacher and student than the various forms of fun and games promoted under the progressive banner! This traditional booklet involves no mucking around with ‘discovery’ activities: pupils know exactly what they’re expected to learn and are provided with rich and useful French that will stay with them. No doubt this approach would be considered overly didactic and unimaginative today. As a trainee teacher, I was told recently by my ‘mentor’ that one of my classes was doing too much reading and writing!


The Schools We Need in Ireland

In trying to predict the impact of the Junior Cycle reforms, it is necessary to establish why they are being introduced: what problems do these reforms seek to rectify? In a recent article in the Irish Times, ‘experts’ are cited as saying that the reforms are necessary to combat ‘a real problem with student engagement’.

In this piece I will argue that the approach taken by these reforms is misguided as it will not equalize educational outcomes. By diluting the content of the curriculum and replacing traditional subjects with more ‘relevant’ and skills-based courses, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is lowering standards for all and doing nothing to help the disadvantaged improve their performance.

Student Disengagement

The NCCA is rightly concerned about the way in which many disadvantaged students ‘switch off’ and drop out of school. The first problem that the reforms seek to resolve – student disengagement among working-class students – is thus a legitimate one, as this is at the root of educational inequality. But underachievement among the disadvantaged is not a result of a high-pressure exam system or a lack of focus on ’21st-century skills’, as the experts assert; what prevents disadvantaged students from keeping up in school is rather a lack of adequate prior knowledge and preparation, a lack of cultural and social capital that the middle class takes for granted. Reform should thus not be a matter of radically overhauling the current system, as it has been shown to be effective for those middle-class students who are in a position to take advantage of it. The aim of any reform should be to narrow the achievement gap, allowing poor students catch up with their more privileged peers.

It is unclear how the achievement gap will be narrowed under the new JC system, however. The underlying socioeconomic divide which accounts for much of the academic differential between schools is left unaddressed in the proposed reforms. Emer Smyth points out in her longitudinal studies of Irish schools that many teachers in disadvantaged areas of Ireland currently have low expectations for students, with many having given up entirely on certain students who seem uninterested in school. In order to improve educational equality, schools in underprivileged areas would thus have to undergo a vast culture change which would raise academic expectations and help their students reach the same standards as their more privileged peers. 

The fact that the JC reforms offer poor-performing schools little guidance on how to seriously improve student attainment is thus a major omission. The framework fails to mention educational features that have been shown to be linked to good academic outcomes in controlled  studies, such as developing wide cultural knowledge, using direct instruction and enforcing strict discipline. These factors are arguably as or more important than assessment methods in improving learning, but the JC reforms focus almost exclusively on assessment methods. It is unlikely that socioeconomically deprived schools will significantly improve without a vast change in culture and educational practices among teachers, parents and pupils.

Low Expectations

In fact, the reforms are likely to further entrench educational inequality, as they advise schools to tailor instruction to their students’ level of ability. Thus, schools in deprived areas will be given a less challenging curriculum because their students lack the prior knowledge developed by privileged students at home or in better primary schools. Disadvantaged students will be judged by lower standards. It is a case of having low expectations for schools that are already doing poorly: how will this improve lack of engagement among poor performers? Surely the aim of education should be to broaden a student’s horizons, to introduce them to a world of knowledge that opens doors to new opportunities and aspirations. The JC reforms do none of this: by maintaining low expectations for poor students they will perpetuate inequality.

 The JC reforms promote a broad range of vaguely defined non-academic skills. This will do nothing for poor performers, who need more academic content, not less, to catch up. If social inequality is to be reduced, schools need to equip disadvantaged students with the knowledge they need to go on to college, as educational attainment is closely correlated with financial success. Underprivileged students need to be able to succeed independently in college: what is needed to succeed in college is knowledge, self-discipline and perseverence. Ever-lasting academic virtues should thus be taught in schools rather than vague skills-based courses such as Wellbeing, an initiative concocted by government bureaucrats who know nothing about education.

The JC reform proposals make no mention of the need to reduce the knowledge deficit between social groups in secondary school, the root of the educational inequality. It is well known that a lack of knowledge holds disadvantaged pupils back. Middle-class students tend to have more cultural, parental, and financial resources at home to develop cultural knowledge, and tend to have acquired more knowledge in primary school than their less advantaged peers. The head-start that middle-class students have upon entering secondary school grows ever greater, as working-class students fall further behind due to frustration and low teacher expectations. Middle class students capitalize on the fact that knowledge is built upon knowledge: the more knowledge a person has the easier it is to acquire more. By the time students finish school, the knowledge gap is enormous. Many disadvantaged students lack basic numeracy and literacy skills and struggle to find work. A very low percentage of them go on to third level. The majority of middle-class students, on the other hand, go on to third level.

Emer Smyth further demonstrates this socioeconomic gap: her research shows that school success in Ireland is largely determined by the socio-economic  background of students. A student’s scores on initial reading and numeracy tests predict with a high degree of accuracy how the student will perform in state exams during secondary school. Middle-class females tend to do best in the initial reading and numeracy tests, while working-class males do least well.

The Schools We Need

To maximise their chances of doing well in life, students need to learn a broad range of cultural knowledge, enabling them to understand complex information and communicate effectively with those around them later in life. Even understanding articles in broadsheet newspapers requires a great deal of implicit cultural knowledge that writers assume their readers possess. While middle-class students may pick up cultural knowledge at home by discussing current affairs at the dinner table or by reading their parents’ collection of the classics, this is not the case in many socio-economically deprived homes. The only source of cultural knowledge for many disadvantaged students is thus school. This is why it is imperative that school is a place that maximises academic learning, passing on knowledge to disadvantaged students by holding them to high academic standards and enforcing strict discipline to make sure that learning takes place in a calm, orderly environment. The Michaela school shows that doing this is possible in a deprived part of London.

Early intervention programmes that focus on literacy and numeracy development among disadvantaged students are also important, and a knowledge-rich primary school curriculum would go a long way towards narrowing the attainment gap and preparing pupils for a demanding secondary school curriculum. The NCCA seems not even to be aware of the success of these measures in reducing the achievement gap in other countries, however. They seem preoccupied with imposing an ideological agenda on schools that is egalitarian and progressive in name but that will only serve to perpetuate social inequalities.

It’s a pity that ideologues in the state department seem to have an aversion to conservative education, as they are trying to get rid of it in the proposed reforms: prominent government officials say it is outdated, and no longer fit for purpose. But if they took the time to examine the issue, they would see that conservative education has socially progressive effects. This is why many liberals in the United States support the Uncommon Schools’ Charter movement, as they see the difference that well-disciplined, knowledge-focused schools can make to the life chances of the poor. By giving disadvantaged students the knowledge and sense of discipline that middle-class students take for granted, these schools have transformed the lives of poor students, broadening their horizons by introducing them to the best that has been thought and said giving many of them the opportunity to go on to the best universities. Since we have a centralized system of education in a small country, it should be possible to establish such schools in Ireland if there is a political will to do so. These are the kind of schools we need to truly tackle educational and social inequalities.


Why Tinkering with the JC System is a Bad Idea

The Junior Cycle (JC) reforms that are to be rolled out over the coming years are said to be moving us away from an ‘outdated‘ exam-centred system towards a more holistic, skills-based model of education. In trying to get to the root of these reforms, I’ve been trying to trace them back to identifiable authors. Who are the progenitors of these reforms? On what do they base their claims? Answering these questions is difficult because the JC frameworks are written anonymously and do not provide many references.  Jargon-ridden and amorphous, policy documents issued by the Department of Education and Skills have been setting out a vision of progressive, ‘child-centred’ education with a hollowed-out curriculum, as I explained in another blog. It seems that Irish educational policy-makers have been basing their claims on dubious research and on the vague notion that they do things better in Finland.

Mr. Ruairí Quinn

I have identified Ruairí Quinn, minister of education from 2011 to 2014, as one of the main architects of progressive reforms. One of the main purposes of the JC reforms, in his view, is to reduce focus on the terminal exam so as to make school a less stressful and more enjoyable place. He says that there “is compelling evidence from many countries that shows more students will perform better by moving away from such terminal exams” and says that teachers “are often hamstrung by pressure to teach to the test. The new reformed junior cycle will liberate teachers and their students.” Thus Mr. Quinn seems to think that abolishing exams will ‘free’ students and teachers from the shackles of oppressive traditional education. This was part of Mr. Quinn’s ‘big agenda’ to impose a social experiment on schools, in the belief that a conservative educational system is no longer ‘fit for purpose’, and that freed from the constraints of a knowledge-laden curriculum, pupils will be able to develop new 21st century ‘skills’. The progressive model he proposes is more likely to lead to a lowering of standards and discipline problems, as it devalues knowledge and reduces the authority of the teacher.

As a left-wing ideologue, Mr. Quinn has an aversion to conservative institutions. This aversion blinds him to the fact that conservative education has socially progressive effects. By giving disadvantaged students the knowledge and sense of discipline that middle-class students take for granted, conservative education helps disadvantaged students progress to third level and thus reduces social inequalities. The national culture is inherently conservative: it has taken shape slowly over many decades and is resistant to change. It is similar to the slow-moving nature of language, as can be seen in the stability of English spelling, for example, which has remained virtually the same for hundreds of years. Rules of grammar and spelling have been standardised and must be learnt to enable effective communication, even though they are a product of a different era when English was pronounced differently and may seem strange to us now. Many central aspects of our culture will evidently never change: the dates of the 1916 Rising or the poetry of WB Yeats. Passing on a body of traditional subject knowledge is thus an inherently conservative task.

 To take part in the national conversation and cultural life, citizens need a broad range of cultural knowledge to understand complex information and communicate effectively with those around them. Even understanding articles in the Irish Times requires a great deal of implicit cultural knowledge that writers assume their readers possess. While middle-class students may pick up cultural knowledge at home by discussing current affairs at the dinner table or through reading their parents’ collection of the classics, this is does not happen in disadvantaged homes. Conservative schools can pass on this knowledge to disadvantaged students by holding them to high expectations and enforcing strict discipline, as the Michaela school demonstrates.

Ruairí Quinn is rightly concerned about the way in which many disadvantaged students ‘switch off’ and drop out in Irish post-primary school. But this is not a result of a high-pressure exam system or a lack of focus on ’21st-century skills’, as he asserts; rather it is a result of a lack of adequate prior knowledge and preparation that prevents disadvantaged students from keeping up in school. Early intervention programmes that focus on literacy and numeracy development among disadvantaged students, and a knowledge-rich primary school curriculum would go a long way towards narrowing the attainment gap, thus reducing the likelihood of school disengagement among the disadvantaged. Mr. Quinn seems not even to be aware of the success of these measures in reducing the achievement gap in other countries, however. 

Dr. Anne Looney

The second person I’ve identified as being at the root of progressive reforms is Dr. Anne Looney, formerly Chief Executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), who seems to have had Ruairí Quinn’s ear throughout the reform process. According to Dr. Looney, ‘research evidence’ shows that centralised state exams are bad. Dr. Looney’s original proposals have since been watered down, but the most recent framework proposal continues to push for formative assessment and a less centralized curriculum. This is in spite of the evidence that formative assessment was a complete failure in Britain, as Daisy Christodoulou explains in her upcoming book, ‘Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning’. In the first chapter, entitled ‘Why Didn’t Assessment for Learning Transform Our Schools?’, she shows that assessment for learning is only effective when it is employed as a tool for learning, not as an official state-mandated method of assessment. Christodoulou’s book reveals the false promises made by educationalists in Britain who claimed that formative assessment would be ‘transformative’, as Dr. Looney has been claiming in Ireland.

Formative assessment can be valuable if it involves giving immediate feedback to students on the mistakes they are making and how they can rectify them. Feedback is thus effective if it plots a way forward for the student, pointing to specific actions that will improve future performance. If feedback is merely a summary of a student’s mistakes or if it is long delayed, it is ineffective, however. The state-mandated formative assessment being introduced under the JC reforms will thus most likely be ineffective, as it will not provide instant feedback and will focus on hard-to-measure skills such as oral communication, team-work and creativity (DES, 2015, p. 53).

Benefits of external, knowledge-based exams

Dr. Looney thus aims to move the Irish system away from high-stakes centralized exams based on content knowledge towards skills-based formative assessment. Her claims fly in the face of actual international research showing that high-stakes, knowledge-based exams motivate students to work hard, lead teachers to adopt better pedagogical methods, thereby improving learning and teaching.

As John Bishop demonstrates, in educational systems with high-stakes external exams, students spend less time watching TV, more time studying and reading, and are taught by better qualified teachers. This is partly due to the fact that there is more riding on academic results, thus raising parents’ and students’ expectations of the quality of schools. Bishop also finds that doing well in state exams becomes a form of positive signalling to peers, family and potential future employers. Although this may be less true of the JC than the Leaving Cert, people do take note of JC results and they do mean a lot to students and their parents. This leads to a greater investment of time and effort in educational performance. Contrary to the belief that such exams lead to sterile forms of ‘teaching to the test’, the subtle pressure of state exams causes teachers to adopt strategies that have been shown to maximise learning. It has been found that those teachers whose students get the best results in external state exams are, unsurprisingly, also those with the best subject knowledge and most effective teaching methods.

Where educational systems have decentralized, school-based assessments, on the other hand, students are less motivated to study for exams, since results will be determined by the relative achievement of their classmates on norm-based tests and teacher grades rather than on external objective measurements. This runs the risk of a kind of anti-academic culture emerging that discourages study so as not to raise the average norm-based grade. For example, those who work hard for exams in US school-based assessments are frequently ostracised or bullied for raising the average grade of the class against which their classmates are compared, making life more difficult for classmates who now also have to study if they want to do well. School-based assessment also encourages students to choose teachers who are easy markers.


The NCCA seems to be completely unaware of research that stresses the advantages of externally-graded, standardised exams: the JC reform proposals aim to shift Irish education away from the exam-based traditional model and towards a more decentralised model placing less emphasis on performance in externally-graded exams. Even after it emerged that Ireland has been doing well on objective international comparisons, the NCCA has refused to change course on JC reform. It’s a pity that Irish educational policy is being dictated by ideologues who have already made up their minds and refuse to listen opposing voices.

Banishing the Past in Teacher Training

Since I had been aware of the progressive ideology emanating from universities before starting my course, I picked up on the anti-traditional bias from start. During the induction week for new trainee teachers, our course coordinator told us to put aside any preconceived notions we may have of what traditionally constituted a good teacher. She advised us not to fall back on impressions from own school days, as apparently times have ‘moved on’ to a more ‘progressive’ era where students are engaged in active learning rather than passive recipients of mere knowledge. This was a pre-emptive strike against traditional teaching: she knew that Irish education has until recently remained fairly conservative in that we have been resistant to the progressive fads that other Western countries embraced, such as the belief that everything taught must be relevant to the child’s life, ‘mere facts’ (i.e. large doses of knowledge) are tedious and that discipline is oppressive. Our coordinator seemed to be concerned that we may be favourably disposed towards conservative education – or ‘chalk and talk’ as it’s now disparagingly called – having benefited from it ourselves. She was thus subtly priming us to reject this legacy: yes, you may have benefited from a traditional model of teaching, but this style is no longer an option, she seemed to be suggesting.

The coordinator proceeded to get herself into a bit of a muddle, though. She went on to sing the praises of one particular Irish-language teacher from her own school days who, judging by her description of him, had a traditional, no-nonsense approach, as he did lots of grammar, translation and rote memory work. He inspired her to go on to study Irish at university. She used his example when speaking of the impact good teachers can have on students. After speaking so glowingly of him, however, she then had to qualify her praise with an an obligatory warning against his conservative style. While he may have been suited to the era and worked for some students, she said, ‘you could never teach like he did nowadays’. Nowadays too much emphasis on grammar and translation is frowned upon as it is deemed to be pedantic and off-putting: students must do lots of games and group work, with everything served up to them on a fun plate in the hope that they will pick things up in a natural process of osmosis. In reality, this ‘child-centred’ approach leads to a chaotic classroom where students are lucky to pick up the odd word as they end up speaking the target language badly among themselves in small groups while the teacher darts among groups as a largely useless ‘facilitator of learning’.

My coordinator serves as a prime example of the kind of cognitive dissonance that exists among progressive educators who have benefited from a conservative, knowledge-rich education themselves but who seek to deny it to others. Since their own positive experience doesn’t fit their progressive ideology, they have to reject their own heritage of traditional schooling and seek to deny others the fruits of such an education. They know that the caricature of repressive, authoritarian teaching is largely false and yet they go along with it. Since ‘old-school’ education is closely associated with the Catholic Church in Ireland, progressive educators seem to believe that putting an end to traditional practices is a necessary part of the wider process of cleansing the country of the Church’s supposedly toxic legacy.

Another highly ‘progressive’ reason that our coordinator opposed the traditional educational system is that certain aspects of it are apparently a legacy of British colonialism. She said that the school uniform was a colonial imposition, implying that it should therefore be abolished. But rejecting something based on its ‘imperial’ provenance is ridiculous. By this logic, should we abolish parliamentary democracy and Georgian architecture, since they are both relics of British rule? This scorn for the past also betrays a mistrust of Irish people: did previous generations of Irish people not choose to adopt and maintain school uniforms and the inherited grammar-school curriculum, seeing them as fit for the purposes of the time?

While bashing the old system, our coordinator made snide remarks about Irish people being backward and frustratingly resistant to change. But, she added, there are ‘signs of hope’ that progressivism is taking hold. Being Irish herself, she intended her comments about Irish backwardness to be self-deprecating. But to me, her patronizing attitude towards her fellow Irish men and women who happen to be conservative is indicative of an inferiority complex, which is ironically a legacy of the colonial era.

In any case, why would we scrap our valuable educational inheritance if it has served previous generations well and has been found to be well above average in international comparisons like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)? We should do our best to preserve it and guard against rejecting it or modifying it simply because it does not accord with the progressive worldview that sees traditional institutions as inherently bad.

The edu-blogger Anthony Radice recently tweeted: ‘It’s not so easy for consultants to get away with peddling tripe nowadays. They have to ask themselves how many bloggers are in the audience’. Well, no longer is it easy for educationalists to get away with peddling tripe on teacher training courses. Luckily I can go to the traditional edu-blogospere when I need an antidote to the hyper-progressive ideology being propagated on my course. I have also found some like-minded trainee-teachers with whom I share subversive blogs and who were in turn relieved to discover that they are not alone in their misgivings about what we are being taught.