That Seanad Éireann would welcome fostering action on the part of the Minister for Education in order to encourage the Managers of National Schools to establish parent-teacher groups in connection with the schools under their management.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming along this evening and I am grateful also to the Leader of the House for giving me the opportunity to-night to propose this motion which I feel to be one that could, if it were accepted and acted upon, be very fruitful in relation to the education provided in our national schools. I draw particular attention, in starting, to the fact that what I am asking the Seanad to do is not to urge, direct or tell the Minister to do anything but simply to state that we, as a House, would "welcome," not a direction on his part, not a command, but "fostering action." I chose the phrase deliberately, because I realise that among the 4,000 national schools in the country, there are very widely differing circumstances and conditions. It would be quite absurd for the Minister to command that, starting from a certain date, parent-teacher groups should spring up all over the country. What I am asking is that he shall foster or encourage. I shall mention later the methods by which I think he might do that.
I draw the attention of the Seanad to the fact that the motion is couched in these terms for the purpose of recognising widely different circumtances in different parts of the country, and that it simply urges the Minister to see what action might be taken on his part not to command, direct or even request, but to foster the formation of such groups.
The background against which I propose this motion and seek to encourage the establishment of such parent-teacher groups in relation to national schools is that I feel—and I say this advisedly—that in Ireland today in many schools, there is not either enough comprehension or enough co-operation between parents and teachers and between parents and school managers. I stress the two words "comprehension" and "co-operation".
Comprehension is basic. Unless there is an understanding as between parents and teachers, there can be no co-operation. Unless there is understanding between parents and school managers, there can be no effective co-operation. I am not suggesting that on either side there is a lack of goodwill. I am suggesting that not infrequently there is a quite clear lack of understanding. It sometimes appears to those who know what the conditions are that there appears to be, on the part of the parents, a rather silly lack of comprehension of all the very real problems of the teachers.
Whether that lack of comprehension on the part of parents is silly or not, I think few can deny that it exists rather more than it should. When there is awkwardness, trouble, failure or near-failure, or conditions which are regarded as not entirely satisfactory, there is a tendency on one part or the other to "pass the buck," to pass the blame, and say: "It is the fault of the teachers. The teachers should be doing more." There is similarly a tendency on the part of the teachers to say: "It is the fault of the parents. They should be doing more."
In both contentions, there may well be a large element of truth. In other words, there is very little doubt that, where things are not functioning properly, blame is probably legitimately attributable to both sides. Nevertheless, this atmosphere of "passing the buck" or of mutual suspicion, which, as I suggest, is often based upon ignorance of the problems and difficulties involved on one side or the other, is something against which we should strive. There is sometimes—I am not suggesting this is generally the case—an atmosphere of uneasiness, even of distrust, and sometimes of feeling disgruntled.
We read of parents' strikes. I think everybody will agree that, when the parents of a particular school call a school strike and remove their children from the school, it is a thing to be regretted, and yet we should not try to say straight away whose fault it is. We should deplore the fact in itself that this can occur. I am not suggesting that every school in the country suffers from this kind of thing, but it does occur. I feel that even where it does not go to that extreme, which is rare, there is a sense of uneasiness, sometimes even of distrust, which need not even be there at all, if there were more comprehension.
The individual parent of children at national schools has only one normal channel of expression, as it were, of giving vent, I will not say to grievances, but to questions, or for the raising of points or the asking of questions. That normal channel is that of going to the school manager or the individual principal. Mothers or fathers hesitate to do that simply because they do not like "making a nuisance of themselves," as they call it. Most parents are imaginative people, and realise that the school manager and the principal teacher have each a great deal to do, and they hesitate to go and make an occasion of putting a question, raising a point, or making a minor complaint, and they put it off, indefinitely, because there is no other channel for them to express that, other than to go and do what they might term making a nuisance of themselves.
They recognise, too, that the manager is a busy parish priest, a busy reverend mother, a busy parson or a busy rabbi as the case may be, extremely busy in relation to the school and outside, and consequently many parents hesitate to raise what they might legitimately regard as minor points, yet which they would like to raise or discuss, since they do not want to "make nuisances of themselves."
Consequently, since this is really the only way at present in which they can express a view on the way in which their children are being taught in the school, there is no organised channel, as it were. All too often if we look for organisations among the parents, what we see is the organisation of a strike committee. If we were to see what were the present organisations of parents in relation to national schools, we should find it hard to go very much outside the confines of the small numbers of schools where the parents have organised themselves into strike committees to protest against conditions in particular schools. That is deplorable, that the only organisation of parents which one can see should be one springing from conditions which are extreme and exceptional.
That situation, which parents in fact in this country have to be driven very hard to reach, is a situation which all of us regret. Parents, as a rule, even the mildest of them, feel, in so far as they think about the national schools, not infrequently rather pushed aside. A lot of public speeches are made about "the rights of the parents", but, in practice, there is no way of consulting their views, no way in which their views can be put in a balanced and co-ordinated way. It is quite obvious that if you have, in relation to a particular school, where there may be hundreds of children, two or three parents strong and vocal enough to make their protests, it is possible that they are unrepresentative, and that their protests are ill-founded. Therefore, I would suggest that, in practice, it would be a good thing for the schools were there to be an organisation or informal group officially set up for the purpose of discussing things with the parents, submitting points to them, answering questions and so on.
Sometimes parents feel that in relation to the school, their views are not wanted, and that in fact they are hardly ever approached in relation to the schools, except when it is a question of raising money. Yet, even from the point of view of raising money for the school—and it is a good thing for parents to be brought in in that way— I suggest that too becomes easier if there has been active and continuous co-operation with the parents throughout the year in relation to the school.
The value of a parent-teacher association in relation to a particular school is that the parents—and I say this in all seriousness, though it might sound surprising at first hearing—will find value in knowing the premises, because I assume that the association would meet normally in one or two rooms in the school. I suggest that there is value in the parents being brought into the school, by the mere fact of their going in the door in the evenings for a meeting. I do not mean that they should meet every week or month, but there is value in the parents meeting and discussing inside the school premises.
I believe that there is a psychological value for the child, and particularly for the young child, and I say this with all the emphasis at my command, in knowing that his daddy and his mammy were in the schoolroom the evening before, perhaps sitting at his desk, perhaps seeing the same picture on the wall as he sees, and perhaps noticing certain things in the schoolroom that are usually there, that he knows about and which he has difficulty in communicating to his parents in any adequate way. There is also pleasure and psychological value in the feeling that the parents have been interested enough to come along to the school and concern themselves to meet the teachers and so on. That is the first value: the actual value of the parents knowing the premises.
It may well be that in the premises of some of our schools there might be a feeling that it would be as well if the parents did not see the premises. I am not suggesting that all schools are bad. Some of them, for reasons of poverty, are not as good as they should be, but I think the Minister would certainly not feel that there is any reason because of poor conditions in the schools for preventing the parents from seeing the inside. That would be ignoble, unjust and unjustified. It is quite obvious that very good schooling can go on in very simple surroundings, and in fact in the majority of schools while as regards the actual class rooms and so on the parents might say that things are pretty simple, that fact might in itself urge them to a better local effort to improve those very conditions.
The second value I would see in such formal or informal meetings is that the parents would get to know the teachers. In any community, some of the parents will know the teachers anyway, but in quite a lot of communities, the parents who know the teachers on a social plane and meet them informally will be a minority. That might be the case more in towns than in the country, but whatever the position, I feel that it is a good thing for the parents to get to know the teachers, (a) formally, that is to say, to see them and hear them and what they have to say about their subjects and the children, their methods of teaching and so on, and (b) perhaps even more precious, informally.
It is obvious that some parents will prove to be to the teachers a bit of a bore. You will get a mother or father who will insist on buttonholing the teacher and telling him all about little Willie or little Patricia. That is one of the legitimate hazards of the craft of the teacher. Nevertheless, a parent who gets that opportunity of seeing some of the things done in the school, or putting some questions he or she has long wanted to put, is getting a valuable opportunity psychologically, which makes for far better relations and more ready comprehension and co-operation, because—and this is very important—the parents will be getting to know the problems of the teacher.
I think it is fair to say that many parents, even with the best will in the world and with intelligence and education, find it very hard to grasp just what are the problems of the teacher. Parents who have large families will have some notion. I myself have three children, and sometimes at a meal time I think to myself that if I were dealing with 57 children in one room, as many teachers have to do, I should find it would drive me crackers. For most parents then, to be brought in touch with the teachers would be excellent, and educational for the parents, because there is no question but that the teachers carry one of the heaviest burdens in the country, and the parents must be got to realise that.
I remember a friend of mine who was, for a time, a roadworker. He was a very intelligent boy and, by saving money and winning scholarships and so on, he succeeded in putting himself through the university, and became a teacher. He told me that often after a day's teaching, he was far more tired than he ever had been after a day mending the roads. I am sure that is absolutely true and I do not think it is realised as fully as it should be. There are many people who tend—and perhaps that tendency is as prevalent in the country as in the city—to regard teachers as having a grand life.
In "School around the Corner" on the radio the other evening, a child was asked what she would like to be, and she said she would like to be a teacher. She was asked why, and she replied: "Because they have a grand life". They have "a grand life"! It is true that they have a rewarding life in many ways; but they also have an extremely hard life in other ways. They give of themselves all the time. As I say, I feel that to know the problems of the teacher is a most valuable thing for the parents, to know the conditions in which they have to work, to know the class rooms, and also to get a chance to have their own parental problems and difficulties made known to the teachers and examined sympathetically.
All of that, I suggest, could not but be valuable to the kind of education given in our schools. I have experience of two such groups, one in a secondary school and one in a kindergarten and junior school. There is always very strong parental solidarity and goodwill in favour of the teachers, when the parents know them and know the sort of work they are doing. You get strong solidarity between the parents and between the teachers, and between the parents and teachers, and they support what is good and valuable in the schools.
What I am suggesting, therefore, is that by fairly regular meetings—perhaps once or twice a term would be quite sufficient—the parents can learn a lot and the teachers can learn a lot— the parents about the teachers' problems and the teachers about the parents' problems.
I said that I have experience of two such groups. I have experience in relation to one secondary school in Dublin of a parent-teacher group, and also of a kindergarten and junior school run by the Society of Friends in which one of Ireland's outstanding educationists, Miss Isobel Douglas, who has recently retired from the Headmistressship, used to run what seemed to me a wholly admirable parent-teacher group. I attended it as a parent and there is no question but that every one of us benefited immensely both from the contact with the teachers and also from listening to the other parents, and to Miss Douglas whose experience and imaginative ideas were freely made available to us. Teachers and parents both benefit immensely from such encounters.
I believe, also, that the managers of the schools, if they could attend these groups and meet both sections, would find that it would help them also in relation to the schools by reason of the goodwill engendered and the ideas expressed.
I may be permitted perhaps to quote from a very interesting and informative article by Mr. Raftery which appears in the current issue of Studies in which he considers the situation of education in America. He had a very extensive tour there and he gives us, in an article entitled “Some Impressions of Education in the U.S.A.,” a very comprehensive view of education at every level. He refers to the fact that there are these parent teacher groups and he notes that they are useful both from the cultural point of view and from the point of view of helping all aspects of school life. At page 58, he says:
Certainly the country is prolific in useful educational and cultural bodies. Of these, the parent-teacher associations, which operate at local and national levels and in which the parents (usually mothers) appear to predominate, are an outstanding example. As far as an onlooker may judge, their concern is not so much the rights of particular parents as such—those rights are rarely challenged, in theory at any rate—but rather improved provision for schooling and other educational matters of public interest.
I have no experience of such groups in America or Britain, although I have read about them, but I am certain that they do, as here suggested, contribute very largely towards the betterment of conditions, understanding and co-operation. As I say, in that way, and by such means, we could combat a certain lack of knowledge on the part of the parents of what goes on in our Irish schools, where it goes on—the actual premises—and why it goes on.
Those Senators who are parents themselves will be familiar, furthermore, with the extraordinary incommunicativeness of the human child. You ask him: "What did you do at school to-day?" No cross-examining counsel will drag more than a few admissions from the child, and, of course, in fact, it is not a very good thing to do. The child is incommunicative partly because he is not really capable of framing the words which would communicate the school as it appears to him. Therefore, for this reason too I believe it is a good thing for the parent to know by other means what it is like in the school. If you even ask any child in any school—a young child from a national school—"How many of you are there in your class?" you will find it very hard to get an answer. Even if you ask an older child: "How many of you are there?" the child counts on his fingers and omits a few, and usually he will be wrong.
There may be objection to what I am about to say now: some parents do not care about the school or do not care about what schooling their children get. They are "not interested", or as is more likely, they feel it is the job of the school and the teachers and not their job. I would say in relation to such parents that they should be encouraged to care. Both fathers and mothers should be encouraged to attend parent-teacher meetings. I am afraid it is the tendency in this country for the father to put off such responsibility on to the mother. The mother is expected to deal with "that side." That in itself is bad. I think Irish fathers should be encouraged to take an active interest in what their children are doing at school, and encouraged to go along with the mothers to meet the teachers at such groups. Both fathers and mothers should be encouraged to attend, to listen and to talk.
I have said that there is a certain ignorance among parents about the schools, but it is also true to say that not all teachers realise just precisely what it is that worries the parents. Usually parents have some worries in connection with their children, and if they have worries, the teacher does not always realise just precisely what it is the parents are worried about. Good teachers—and we have a large number of them in our national schools—know the children in their classes well, if the classes are not too enormous.
Perhaps the Minister will forgive me if I say in that connection that I hope that very active steps are being taken to reduce the size of the classes. If the classes are not too enormous then, the teachers know their charges, their pupils, well. They will also know them in a different way from the way in which the parents know them. It is a wise parent that knows his own child. Quite frequently the parent, if he or she is receptive, can learn a lot about his or her own child, because the teacher sees the child with more detached eyes and a less emotionally involved attitude. It is also good, as I have already suggested, for the child to realise that there is this joint concern on the part of both parents and teachers for himself or herself in school. Furthermore, at such groups and meetings, general principles of education and parental, magisterial and managerial responsibility can be discussed, ideas ventilated, principles defined, and so on, in a way that could not but be useful.
How would this work out in practice? What kind of group should there be? What is the kind of group which I would like to see encouraged? In my opinion the function of such a parent-teacher group would not be in any sense managerial. It would not be a case of setting up such a group as a committee to undertake the running of some part of the school. It should not even be formally advisory or consultative. It would not be a parent-teacher group to which one would submit proposals. It would consist simply of informal meetings and discussions between parents and teachers. In a small school, all the parents would be invited to attend, say, twice a term in the school, and in a large school, you might divide the parents according to the ages of their children and their grades and invite two or three groups at different times.
They might, occasionally, I think, hear a talk, possibly from one of the teachers, possibly from someone outside, on an educational topic. A teacher or parent might informally direct the discussion, take the chair, if you like. As far as possible, all the teachers would be present, and would be introduced to the parents—introduced formally at first in order that they might be approached informally later. There should be, after the talk —and this, I think, is absolutely essential—a break for a cup of tea in which the parents would converge on the teachers and ask them all the questions they had been burning to ask for a long time, the teachers circulating and having a certain amount of private talk with the parents, and finally a general discussion once more.
This would vary from school to school. In some schools, it might work out better than in others, but even in schools where it might not work out all that smoothly at first, through timidity, lack of knowledge, shyness or something else, there would be very great imponderable results, in better feeling based on better understanding; and I feel that it is absolutely essential for parents to understand teachers' problems and for teachers to understand parents' problems.
It is certainly true that there are such people as unreasonable parents. It is also true that there are such people as unreasonable teachers. Now, both of these are in the minority. When the unreasonable parent comes along to interview the principal teacher or manager and by sheer force of personality, perhaps, remains arguing away for a very long and unreasonable time, the manager or principal teacher may find it extremely difficult to get rid of such unreasonable parents who, however much they may be in a minority, may nevertheless occupy a lot of time. It is my experience, however— and that is the point I now want to make—that there is a world of difference between the unreasonable parent nattering away in private about a particular point to a headmaster or a principal teacher and that same unreasonable parent making the same protests or voicing the same grievance in public in the presence of the other parents.
Again and again in my own experience, I have seen such a parent shot down verbally by the other parents, by another parent getting up and saying that such a point is all nonsense, or that it is quite unreasonable to expect such and such an action or an attitude. I suggest that the weight of parental public opinion in support of a teacher is a far more effective way of dealing with the exceptional unreasonable parent than a private interview can be. There is a far healthier atmosphere if the unreasonable parent is made to feel that public opinion is not with him or her.
As well as the unreasonable complaint, of course, there may occur the unreasonable answer, and both the unreasonable complaint and the unreasonable answer made before a joint gathering of parents and teachers are shown up by joint public opinion as being unreasonable. I cannot feel that this would have anything but a good effect upon the atmosphere in a school. It will be in fact more salutary—clear the air—and make complaining parents realise the exaggeration of certain claims, and in the case of an unsatisfactory answer by a teacher, the teacher may realise that the question has not been answered as fully or as reasonably as it might have been.
The grousing parent who is grousing unreasonably is answered, not by managers or teachers but by fellow parents, and not necessarily by speeches. It does not necessarily mean that another parent must get up and answer, but simply that the crowd reaction to the parent who is being unreasonable has a salutary effect and spares the principal, the manager or the teacher from devoting a private hour which appears quite fruitless to trying to answer the unreasonable parent. It is far better that such a parent should be answered by commonsensical parental opinion than by teachers. I have taken time to describe one particular type of incident, but it is representative of the process of educating parental opinion and also teachers' opinion.
What do I mean by asking the Minister to take "fostering action"? I have asked him, and asked the House to pass a motion asking him to take "fostering action". I do not suggest that he should interfere in any particular school, but I do suggest that he makes it clear to the managers of schools and indeed later to the public by circulars and by suggestions that the starting of such groups in schools where conditions permit it would be welcomed by him as an experiment. In the Regulations for National Schools issued by his Department you find again and again—I do not want to dwell on this as I have talked for more time than I meant to—regulations setting out ways in which schools can be used. On page 9, there is reference to the fact that a schoolhouse may be used by a returning officer in election time—paragraph 18 goes on to say that the Minister would welcome certain action: "The Minister desires to urge upon Managers the desirability of (a), (b) and (c)" and so on. By a similar phrase in Para. 19 "managers are encouraged as occasion offers to invite or procure the assistance of persons who are qualified to give interesting lectures or talks of an educationally useful character to the pupils and thus to diversify the intellectual life of the school." I am asking for something in line with what is already practised in the Department in issuing that kind of suggestion and encouragement to the schools and to the managers.
I should like your leave to quote the Report of the Council of Education —Paragraph 333:
"Closely linked with the parochial ownership of the schools is the managerial system. The responsibilities of school managers are many and serious, inasmuch as they have obligations to the parents, the teachers and the State. Their duties are not confined to building schools, appointing teachers and acting as correspondents to the Department on behalf of their schools, though these alone involve heavy and pressing work. The maintenance of schools, the frequent visitation of individual schools, the supervision of religious instruction, the admonishment of parents and pupils in regard to attendance, and the guidance of teachers require their constant attention, which is often given at the cost of great sacrifice to themselves. The manager is the counsellor and administrator of the school, the very pillar on which the school rests. The enthusiasm and efficiency of the school depend largely on the influence of a manager, whose energy and interest are directed not to one aspect of school administration or to one subject of the curriculum, but to every phase of school life and activity."
That is Paragraph 333 in its entirety. The object is to show the immense burden thrown by our system upon the school managers.
The next paragraph, Paragraph 334, gives an indication of how he could reach perhaps greater co-operation, even locally:
Local or parochial control of schools requires that each locality should bear its due share of the cost of building and maintaining its primary schools. Every form of local co-operation designed to further this end should receive active encouragement from all interested in local welfare. Such co-operation would produce in turn greater interest——
I emphasise that.
—and pride in the schools and, accordingly, ensure better school buildings, improved attendance, and a keener standard of education.
—which is precisely what I would see deriving from such groups.
Equally, it would result in a higher standard of citizenship on the part of the child and on the part of his parents. Local committees working under the direction of school managers could contribute much to the improvement of schools and school building, not only by procuring funds locally—
I stress that also.
—to set against State aid for building and maintenance, heating and cleaning, but also by improving and beautifying school grounds, providing playing pitches, promoting athletics and games, concerts, plays and other school activities, —
—in which I would certainly see included the meeting of parent-teacher groups.
—presenting prizes, and securing through their own initiative or from individual members of the community pictures and paintings of educational value to embellish the walls of the school-room, and books to add to the school library. There is in fact —
—this is the last sentence I want to quote from this.
—no limit to the ways in which the locality could assist its own schools, thereby fostering a spirit of initiative, independence and service, and giving force and vitality to the influence of the school.
I believe that it would be in the spirit of such recommendations that the Minister should, by circular, encourage, where circumstances permitted, the setting-up of parent-teacher groups or, if you like, simply the calling together of an occasional meeting, if the notion of a regularly-organised group of parents and teachers was not readily acceptable. I suggest a supplementary circular, therefore, to be sent to school managers by the Minister, mentioning the advantages of such parent-teacher associations as they are seen in other countries—in America, in Britain—and saying that he would view with approval the setting-up of such groups, wherever possible, in our national schools. I believe that such a supplementary circular would produce most useful results, and produce more response in the early years than even the Minister might expect.
I believe that there is a reservoir of goodwill there, which can thus be tapped, between teacher and parent. The more they come together and understand each other and co-operate together the better. These groups could start very simply. The idea could be fostered, and the practice could be engaged in in a few schools to begin with; and a great deal could be learned from them.
Nothing but good could accrue from encouraging such mutual understanding and respect, and a responsible and co-operative attitude in the face of the problems of primary education, which are, after all, the common concern of teachers, parents, managers and the Department of Education. For these reasons I propose this motion, and I venture to express the hope that it may be accepted by the Seanad.