Ireland United – by supplying free school books to all its children?

06 Sep 2016 in Advocacy, Featured, Schools

Dr Patrick Walsh, former senior lecturer in Education at the School of Education, Queens's University, Belfast

Barnardos has launched a campaign to remove the bulk of current costs paid by parents in the Republic’s schools. Instead the Department of Education should fully fund schools to ensure essentials such as school books, classroom resources and transport (for those who need it) are provided. Their initial focus will be on the primary sector and a recent in-depth report that they commissioned has established that it would cost only an extra €103m annually to deliver free primary education. To put this into context, the Department of Education’s overall budget exceeds €8bn annually. One hasn’t far to look to see what such a system might look like. Since the post-war Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947 (closely modelled on the famous Westminster ‘Butler Act’ of 1944) books and educational equipment have been provided free in Northern Ireland schools.

The Irish education system has a strong tradition, dating back to the foundation of the National School system in the 1830s, of overseeing the content, publication and supply of books to its schools. The recasting of relationships after partition in 1921, and the different contexts of the two Irish states that emerged, resulted in gradually diverging practice in the two jurisdictions: both states were anxious to produce school systems that matched the ideologies of their governing elites. In the Free State (and later the Republic) Pearse’s The Murder Machine,  although more  a polemic than a manifesto, articulated a conception of Irish Ireland that was nevertheless influential in forming educational policy in post-independence Ireland where the governments vigorously began to promote nationalist versions of history as the orthodoxy in its schools. And new school books emerged to service the system. The two big players in this respect were the Educational Company of Ireland (Edco) and Browne and Nolan. The voluminous Edco archive in the Irish National Archives provides evidence of the tensions that often resulted between the commercial publishers and the educational officials to whom they were striving to respond as they developed books that were compliant with the new educational policies. And it has remained primarily a commercial relationship up until the present. While the Free State entrepreneurs and policy makers were working through this new relationship the same issue was exercising politicians and educational officials in the northern state.

In the two decades after partition Northern Ireland struggled to both detach itself from the Irish school book publishing trade on which it had depended like any other part of Ireland and to produce or procure books that reflected its new educational priorities. Producing books locally required traditions of publishing expertise, but Belfast lacked such in-depth expertise and also faced problems associated with economies of scale. The Northern Ireland education system would eventually come to rely mostly on the much larger British school book trade. So up until the second world war the two systems were largely comparable in how they managed the supply of books to their primary school systems – the only part of either system at that time that was compulsory for all children. And books were not universally supplied free of charge by government or local authorities in either state.

But the post-war Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947 extended free second level compulsory education to all children. Hitherto, second level schools served only a minority and consisted mostly of voluntary grammar schools, mostly for the wealthier in society, but even these would be opened up to a broader range of pupils through the access to state financed academic education by way of the new 11+ selection examination. The act created a system that was dominated by two tiers – academic grammar schools and ‘secondary schools’ for those not selected for admission to the grammars. As might be expected the social make-up of both sets of schools was sharply differentiated, working class pupils making up the vast majority of those in the new secondary schools. Northern Ireland has maintained this system up until the present, in spite of the fact that it was abandoned in England and Wales in favour of all-ability comprehensive schools in the 1960s, and in Scotland in the 1970s. Thus alongside the religious demarcation that divided Northern Irish schools was added yet another social one that was duly reproduced on either side of the religious divide. The new act necessitated a huge building programme and, for the first time in Northern Ireland, in line with practice by local authorities in England before the war, the universal provision of free school books to pupils attending both primary schools and the new system of post-primary schools.

Many in the Republic we are told would like to see a united Ireland. So, could I make here a modest proposal in that direction? Let’s start providing free school books to all children in the Republic’s schools. 

Barnardos has investigated the cost and legislative framework required to make primary education in Ireland truly free. Dr Patrick Walsh spoke at Barnardos Seminar – Making Primary Education Truly Free on Thursday September 1st.