A tale of two countries;The Sweeney;School Management

26th February 1999 at 00:00
As the Sweeneys' mid-term holidays again stubbornly refused to coincide, I tagged along with my sister, Kathleen, on a trip to Dublin where big brother, David, has lived for many years.

Our curiosity was stimulated by reports of the soaring economic success of the Celtic tiger and of the ubiquitous tales of a thriving European capital which has no time to sleep.

My earliest memories of Dublin in the Fifties feature an O'Connell Street populated by men with bunnets on myriads of ageing bicycles. The pavements had more priests and nuns to the square yard than was comfortable. Generally, it served as the political and religious centre of an underdeveloped rural economy.

The turn-around in Ireland in recent years has been staggering. Property values are sky-high, business is booming and the Irish have managed to sell tourism in a way that Scotland could do well to emulate. Throughout this cosmopolitan explosion, the essential Irish characteristics of hospitality and good humour have been carefully preserved and cleverly packaged. There is a general air of prosperity, and a palpable optimism for the country's future.

My nieces and nephews, great characters with talents in abundance and engaging personalities, have all benefited from expensive private education and it has served them admirably. There is, however, the enduring impression that the high proportion of the country's education in private hands must create inequalities and polarisation of opportunity.

Problems of illiteracy, social exclusion and crime seem to go hand in hand with increasing affluence, and many of the dilemmas facing the education system are uncannily familiar. While I was there, the Irish Independent contained an article about teenage violence which had rendered late night trains unusable in certain areas.

A former class-mate from Glasgow University has a key role in shaping Ireland's educational response to this development. It was 27 years since I had met Maura Clancy. In that time she had risen from teacher of languages to assistant chief inspector for the Republic.

It was intriguing to learn how similar the problems of education were, although the Irish system is very different in character. Inspection of schools is at an earlier stage of development and the Scottish experience has influenced the model being adopted. The role of the inspector has been concentrated on overseeing examinations and on curriculum and staff development, in order to adapt an academic tradition to the needs of a diverse population.

Quality assurance is less dominant, and this is seen as a crucial item on the agenda. A strong sense of national loyalty coupled with a spirit of enterprise has created an economic phenomenon on our doorstep. Instead of packing the ferries and planes to sample the Irish experience, we can create a heightened sense of national pride in the Scottish character and in our emerging national identity. As Scotland stands on the brink of devolution, young people in our education system can be given the ambition and skills to sustain a vibrant economy, and the confidence to respond to the challenges of a new Europe.

Boatloads of eager tourists can be discharged at Leith to savour the excitement of a devolved Scotland, and the wit and charm of Scottish people which has endeared the Tartan Army to millions can be translated from comical caricature to economic asset. Hallmarks of the Scottish character such as inventiveness, enterprise and reliability can again be universally recognised and marketed.

Ireland and Scotland share a troubled past and have much to gain from pooling their expertise in future. Scotland can learn from Ireland to tantalise the world to its shores, and Ireland would benefit from a short loan of Edinburgh's David Begg to tackle Dublin's spiralling traffic problems.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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