When the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) reshuffled his cabinet recently, he re-named two government departments; one of these was the (former) Department of Education and Science (which has become the Department of Education and Skills). The ‘and Science’ part of the organisation migrated, at least by implication, to what was the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and is now Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.
Do these name changes matter? Here is how they were explained by the Taoiseach in his speech to Dail Éireann (parliament) announcing the reshuffle on March 23:
‘The changes I am making are intended to ensure that political leadership and administrative capacity are aligned with the core objectives of economic recovery, job creation and support for those who have lost their jobs. In particular, I am strengthening our approach to supporting innovation and overcoming barriers to structural change; responding better to the needs of unemployed people; supporting productivity and growth through skills development; maintaining progress in a coherent and strategic way towards important social policy goals, and accelerating the pace of modernisation of the public service.’
In the reshuffle itself, the two Ministers who ran the now re-named departments swapped jobs. And here is how the new Minister for Education and Skills, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, explained the significance of the change as it affects her department to the annual conference of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI):
‘There has been a somewhat artificial divide between education and training in Ireland for many years and I know that the TUI has been vocal for some time now that a more joined up approach was needed. I am glad we have delivered that change. Your conference and the work many of your members are engaged in relates directly to my new task of bringing cohesion to this move of policy responsibility and service delivery. Together, we need to ensure the up-skilling and re-skilling of people across the country, a task that is central to how the State assists and supports those who have, unfortunately, lost their jobs during this recession.’
Taken together, it seems the name changes were designed to reflect the government’s priority concern with economic recovery and job creation. And in the case of the Department of Education specifically, the change is, as the Tánaiste explained, designed to blur the lines between ‘education’ and ‘training’.
But what does all this mean? Does it mean that all education is vocational? Is it all exclusively to do with preparing people for jobs? What, if any, are the pedagogical implications in all this?
It has been my contention for a while that education in Ireland has lost its way. There are a few reasons for this, but one of them is that nobody quite seems to know these days what education is actually for. This becomes more complex still when the agenda for what has become known as ‘lifelong learning’ is added to the mix – some of it has genuine pedagogical objectives, while some of it again seems to be primarily about removing people from the dole queue.
There is, I believe, quite a strong argument for placing both education and training in the same government department; but that argument is not that they are both the same. There should of course be a coherent view of learning that takes in both what goes on in schools, and what people do to develop themselves later in life. Furthermore, the education system should take account of national needs, so that students learn those things that are of benefit to society and to themselves. But that is not the whole story, and if we over-emphasise the vocational angle we will find young people balking at learning, say, Shakespeare or Yeats, or even Pythagoras, because they will feel that these will not be of direct functional relevance to them in their lives as accountants or software programmers.
Education has to deliver some practical benefits to the country, but that is not the whole story. It is to be hoped that the new government structures will not suggest to anyone that all education is principally vocational training. It is time that, as a country, we rediscover the merits of pedagogy.