Thanks for a change of art

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
In the Republic of Ireland there used to be just one inspector of art and design. His name was Michael O'Nullalain.

Michael was an unusual civil servant, a distinction he shared with his late brother, Brian. Briain O'Nullalain had spent his days anonymously in some ministry or other. His own time became equally anonymous as he donned one of his noms de plume.

As Flann O'Brien he wrote a novel of wild eccentricity and near genius called At Swim-Two-Birds. As Myles na Gopaleen he wrote an inspired newspaper column, commenting wickedly on the often bizarre affairs of de Valera's Ireland in the years after The Emergency of 1939-45. Myles' weapon of choice was a surrogate Greek chorus named The Plain People of Ireland, whose take on events was at once commonsense and surreal.

Michael was just as irreverent, just as sharp as his brother had been, but he lacked an outlet other than bar-room talk and his job as inspector. One day in the early Seventies, the absurdities he met each day boiled over in an article for the Irish Times Educational Supplement (no relation). His subject was a test in drawing, then in use in some Irish schools. Children were instructed to assemble an ellipse, a circle, a square, two triangles, a spiral and four short strokes, thus: Underneath was the order, DRAW THIS PIG.

As Michael said, the insult of the thing lay principally in the word "this". Had the test required one to draw a pig, then even allowing for the frightfulness of the attached illustration, there would have been scope for creativity. The test and the teaching method it sought to validate were a part of the post-imperial legacy called the "South Kensington System", ossified in Dev's dream of a nation of literary, musical pastoralists, where the visual arts had no legitimate place and were left to languish unregarded.

The result of the national inspector's intervention was uproar. There were those who deplored British influence. There were those who deplored the Irish passivity, which had tolerated British influence long after its mandatory effect had disappeared. There were those who deplored the rote learning still lodged at the heart of too much schooling.

There were those who smiled knowingly and welcomed Michael's boost to the creation of a newly confident and prosperous European nation.

Few appeared oblivious. None doubted that education, even visual education, was a serious political issue. Action was taken. What impact these events had on Michael's career I don't know, but in the Irish civil service boat-rocking was seldom much valued. The O'Nullalains were temperamental outsiders, anyway, and were probably content with the outcome, whatever the cost.

The opportunity to make so decisive a contribution to shaping events comes but rarely to inspectorates, let alone to an individual inspector. Rarely enough to keep one on one's guard against accepting the utility of the role as self-evident. It is in reality part of a mosaic in which the tesserae consist of ministers, civil servants, funding bodies, researchers, education providers, awarding bodies, employers, parents and an ever-changing band of other players and hangers-on.

Asked to award a score to the influence on education quality of each one of these on a scale of one to 10, most of us would probably assign more ones and twos than would be good for the professional vanity of those so designated.

The reason why Michael O'Nullalain was effective was that he understood that his place was not to be a tessera, but to be the cement which kept the whole pavement grounded.

Napoleon was right when he called politicians dreamers. If those in power do not dream of a better future then progress becomes impossible. The business of civil servants is to make those dreams concrete, in clear legislation and regulation. The business of funding bodies and others is to transform legislation into facilitation, and that of providers is to deliver action which, finally, makes the dream a reality.

Nobody in this otherwise virtuous set of relationships has the job of saying "It doesn't work"; nobody, that is, but the inspector. Inspection is the reality check which ensures that expectations from on high really are reflected in practice, and that reality influences expectations and the form in which they are expressed.

The grace to do as Michael O'Nullalain did, to expose folly with extraordinary impact but with an edge softened by wit and humour, is a gift.

The obligation to do so is owed, as his brother Myles na Gopaleen might have said, to the Plain People who otherwise have no voice.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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