A commitment to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on education was a core feature of the recent general election manifesto of the Green Party.  

This proposal was based on its belief that there is a fundamental “need to re-evaluate the outcomes of education” and to bring about “structural changes” at all levels of our education system.

That manifesto pledge successfully made its way into the Programme for Government.

The precise wording in the Programme is that government will establish a Citizens’ Assembly on “the Future of Education ensuring that the voices of young people and those being educated are central.”

Exactly when and how this is to come about were issues raised on Thursday by Labour Party Spokesperson on Education, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, when he had the opportunity to question Minister Norma Foley.

While he was doing this he also delivered what can only be described as a backhanded compliment when he made it clear that the “reservations people in education have about the Minister’s appointment do not relate to any lack of ability, competence or understanding of the education system.”

Instead, he went on to say, “our nervousness is that when a conservative Department meets a conservative Minister, the possibility of a radical overhaul of our education system may be affected.”

Minister Foley in an obvious attempt to soothe the nervousness of the Labour Party Deputy, stated that she was “a fan of the Citizens’ Assembly” and will be “hugely supportive” of it’s work.

In terms of a timeline, none could be provided beyond a commitment that the Minister was in the process of formulating a three-year strategy and annual implementation plan which will incorporate priority actions from the programme for Government.

This plan “will include at its centre the Citizens’ Assembly,” details of which will be available before the end of the year.

In the substance of her reply however, Minister Foley also alluded to where the idea for the Citizens’ Assembly on Education originally came from, and it was not the Green Party Manifesto or the Programme for Government.

Here is what the Minister said:

“I understand that initial proposals to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on education have been informed by proposals from the Burren College of Art, which called for the assembly to examine issues such as how to properly position post-primary education for the 21st century and how to encourage greater creativity, student agency and resilience.”

More detail on the role played by the Burren College of Art can be found in the brief overview provided by Martin Hawkes, a Trustee of the College, on the Education Matters platform.

There Mr Hawkes states quite clearly that while idea of a Citizens’ Assembly for Education first emerged at a symposium, ‘Towards a More Creative Education System’, hosted at the Burren College of Art in September 2018, it was subsequently proposed by “former INTO deputy general secretary Catherine Byrne who worked with Atlantic Philanthropies when it funded the precursor of such Assemblies with the successful “We the Citizens” process in 2011.”

The full list of those who attended the Symposium, “all of whom backed calls for radical reform of education” can be found here.

The Symposium itself appears to have been an interesting, if unusual event. A compilation document of perspectives from across the field of Irish education entitled Voices from the Field was discussed.

There the view was put forward that teachers are actually suffering from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’;  “they’re so inured to the Department of Education and Science’s unidirectional approach that when invited to assess their own students they feel unable to do so.”

The following rather bizarre observation was also made:

“Looked at as a co-dependent relationship, the dynamic between the DES and the teaching profession evokes the image of two drunks propping each other up.  Their post-colonial habits are predictable.”

“This post-colonial guerrilla approach contrasts with the Scandinavian willingness for policy-makers to say what they propose and be happy if others disagree with them.”

The Burren Symposium was also told that teachers are suffering from ‘Learned Helplessness’,” which Martin Seligman defines as “the state of people who feel oppressed and who develop behaviours and attitudes which accentuate the condition.”

It is not hard to imagine what most teachers would make of these outlandish and patronising views.

The more serious issue of course is that documents like this, which purport to be somehow representative of views within the field of education, will almost certainly be front and centre in any future Citizens’ Assembly on Education.

That should give us all significant cause for concern.