Around 1800 the Anglican Church was responsible for supervising the education of boys and girls at both the primary and secondary levels. But many areas of the country that were heavily Catholic were resistant, and some rural Catholic areas either had no schools or offered little financial support for them.
There were a few superior schools in Ireland, the education historian R.B. McDowell has written—the well-funded Royal School at Armagh, Enniskillen, and Burrowes. But these were the exception. Hence, Ireland, in many pockets of the country, relied upon numerous private academies taught by schoolmasters of various skill levels and education levels to educate students in cities and rural towns. Some of the schoolmasters were clergy. Others were women, and limited their students to young ladies (in the parlance of the time). Some offered room and board or meals only for the young people. Standard subjects were elocution, arithmetic, bookkeeping, foreign languages, and geography. The girls' schools added "finishing school" classes to raise cultured pupils.
Almost as it was in the Middle Ages when scholars traveled far and wide to recruit students and teach, in Ireland during the late 1700s and early 1800s, poor, learned men traveled to offer classes in barns and anywhere else a few students might be assembled. The schools were nicknamed "hedge" schools because they were as apt to be taught under the shade of a hedge as in a building, and they were of uneven quality—as likely to be taught by an itinerant, unqualified teacher as a scholar. In time, however, even some of the secret, underground hedge schools became permanent fixtures in a community, and the classrooms sometimes were the equivalent of mainstream classrooms with proper textbooks instead of merely a handy Bible or popular novels.
Nonetheless, Catholics, in particular, considered them a better alternative to Protestant schools or no schooling at all. Estimates during the 1820s were that as many as 400,000 pupils were in attendance at hedge schools. There were 9,000 such schools in existence in 1824, according to The Oxford Companion to Irish History.
In sharp contrast to the hedge schools, a handful of day schools associated with the Church of Ireland opened in Ireland that were the equivalent of day schools for younger children in England. In 1811, impressed with those schools, some business leaders from Dublin (who were Quakers and members of other sects) resolved to try to improve educational opportunities for poverty-stricken youth. These reformers called their organization the Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland, and their crusade resulted in the state granting funding. The Society also admired the pioneering work of English educational reformer Joseph Lancaster, founder (in 1801) of a free elementary school that organized one-room schoolhouses for the poor. Teachers enlisted their better students and designated them as monitors to train younger or less-quick-to-learn peers.
Following Lancaster's precepts, a monitorial system was installed at the Society's headquarters in Kildare Place in Dublin, and the hope was that superior teachers could be trained here. Each student monitor was given a bench with 10 students to school. In contrast to brutal methods of some schoolmasters, Kildare Place eschewed beatings in favor of shaming miscreants. But the daily practice of Bible reading infuriated Catholics in the country; they refused to accept the validity of the King James Bible and disagreed with the school'srefusal to interpret the scripture reading for students. By 1831, funding for the school dried up and went to the national schools where separation of church and state was followed in theory, though not in practice.
Enough students possessed sufficient literacy for the cities to support at least one newspaper and occasionally many papers. More sophisticated subscribers read Hibernian Magazine. Theatres did a brisk business entertaining a story-loving people. Dublin supported a lending library, and booksellers made a living off scholars and the well-to-do. But McDowell, the critic, said that the general state of Irish letters was poor then, the glory years of the great Irish playwrights at the Abbey Theatre and poets such as Yeats were still one century away. McDowell stressed that Ireland failed to measure up to comparison with the intellectual accomplishments of Scotland, let alone Britain.
Perhaps the most significant time in the establishment of a countrywide, state-aided educational system of elementary schools was in 1831, championed by Lord Edward G.S.M. Stanley. Conflicts immediately arose over the matter of keeping religious influence out of schools because the elementary schools were told that churches had the right to provide pupils with supplementary religious education. Even though, in theory, no aid was to be given to the primary schools and emerging secondary schools, in reality, religious influences permeated all levels of the educational system, particularly the school boards, which were headed by priests or vicars, depending on the district's religious makeup.
At first, however, Protestants were the main critics against "godless" schools, while Catholic leaders, worried about high illiteracy rates among their people, generally supported the state-run educational system, at least at first. Eventually, Catholics came to despise the system, saying students were exposed to pro-British and anti-Catholic influences. Nonetheless, the formation of national schools was an important step forward in the history of education in Ireland. It was intended to give an equal education to all pupils without meddling from churches. It gave Irish schools a semblance of structure, and it established a policy of local districts to pick up their fair share of costs for teacher salaries, school lots and building costs, and schoolbooks.
During the nineteenth century, as classes were taught in English, there eventually occurred a downplaying of Irish as the native tongue. During the twentieth century, following a great surge of nationalism after Ireland gained its independence from Britain, there was a clamor to restore the teaching of Irish once again in schools of all levels. However, as native speakers age and die, there are linguists who predict that the "true Gaeltacht" dialect may disappear; others are dedicated to its preservation. With Catholicism further losing its influence in the twenty-first century, some nationalists feel it is important to preserve all forms of the Irish tongue as a way to unify the nation.
Literacy: The INTO teachers union in 1998 founded a committee for the study of literacy issues in Ireland. The union announced that it was looking into strategies for assisting children with literacy problems. The committee concluded that Irish children too often perform below the literacy levels of other European countries. They have performed in substandard fashion in reading levels. INTO concluded that teachers must be recruited who are particularly trained in developmental studies and remedial education. In addition, areas of particular concern to INTO are adult literacy problems and the literacy deficiency of people living in disadvantaged areas of the Irish Republic.
Special Needs Education: In 1998, Micheal Martin, Minister for Education and Science, announced that the government had made the needs of special education students a priority. In particular, the government has ensured that children with autism will have automatic access to special classes. There also will be trained teachers available and the support and infrastructure to serve their needs. The pupil-teacher ratio of special needs youngsters is 6:1. The cost of the reforms in 1999 was estimated at nearly 4 million pounds.
Compulsory Education: In Ireland, compulsory education is from the age of six, theoretically. However, given the increasing role women have played in the Irish labor force, the majority of children enroll by the age of four or five. In 2000, some government spokespersons advocated cutting off free primary education at 18-years-old, but the proposal has met with parent indignation and media expressions of outrage in favor of giving slow learners all the time they need to graduate.
Female Enrollment: As in other countries, the education of girls and women was slow to take hold as a concept in Ireland. During the Middle Ages, Ireland truly was a land living in the Dark Ages when it came to schooling females. There were some gains in the 1500s, but those were lost the following century.
Not until the 1700s did some women from wealthier backgrounds not only show their aptitude for serious study, but also a number of female poets, writers, and intellectuals contributed significantly to Irish letters.
That somewhat of a turnabout had been achieved by 1831 is seen in the creation of a national school system that provided the same curriculum for males and females, as well as access to scholarships to acquire training to serve as teachers. However, clear to the end of the 1870s, those schools that charged tuition put emphasis on graduating ladies able to take their place in society.
Finally, in the late 1870s and 1880s, attitudes changed dramatically in Ireland, and women earned the right to pursue rigorous studies at the university level, forcing schools at the lower level to upgrade curriculum choices for women. At individual universities, administrators showed varying degrees of acceptance for female equality in education. In Belfast, Cork, and Galway, women who could afford the tuition took classes alongside males in the 1890s, but Dublin schools of higher education resisted compliance until 1910.
With the worldwide spread of feminism in the last half of the twentieth century, many inequities in the education of all females came under criticism. Slowly, the country moved ahead to enable women from lower income families to gain an education with the aid of public funding targeted for that purpose.
Academic Year: Many Irish schools are in session far fewer days than schools in other industrialized nations. The exceptionally shortened school calendar has been linked to dismal scores of many Irish students in science and mathematics, according to educational experts inter-viewed by The Irish Times in 1995. Only 35 percent of Irish schools remain in session for more than 175 days (with a high of 200 days), while 90 percent of schools in Scotland and England do so.
While 65 percent of Irish students who are 13-years-old go to school only between 151 and 175 days, in England and Scotland, less than 3 percent of students are in school for fewer than 175 days. Irish 13-year-olds scored next to lowest in a ranking of competing countries in science and scored eighth out of 14 in mathematics.
In 2001, as secondary teachers were involved in a dispute over salary, commentators noted that if higher pay scales were granted, teachers might be asked to teach additional school days to equal the number of days scheduled by English and Scottish schools.
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