How diverse is Irish teaching?

Unofficially at least, as a nation we have known for decades that there is an often startling lack of diversity in terms of gender and socioeconomic status in various professions and walks of life in Ireland; and that something needs to change. However, the Irish Government has always lacked the hard facts and statistics necessary to demand and drive this need for change, and a major shift in governing policy – until now.

On Wednesday, November 4th, NUI Galway’s Dr Eileen Keane visited the ILAS centre to outline her research on diversity in the Irish teaching profession, reaching a conclusion that was perhaps unsurprising to all present for her seminar (especially given that the majority of them are or have at least experienced teaching in Ireland at various levels), but one that was also quite shocking in its starkness in terms of the picture it painted of Ireland’s teaching profession, and its homogeneous nature overall.

When people read, hear or think of the term ‘diversity’, the majority are likely to think of ethnicity, a misconception that Dr Keane was quick to intercept, and rightly so. Instead, Dr Keane’s research considers all aspects and characteristics of the Irish teaching profession’s members, including their nationality, socioeconomic status, age, gender, and their parents’ educational attainment, thus ensuring that her results offer the broadest cross-section possible of teaching in Ireland within her study’s remit.

Introduced by PHD candidate Maria Silva, Dr Keane grounded the seminar in her ongoing research paper entitled ‘Diversity in initial teacher education in Ireland: the socio-demographic backgrounds of postgraduate post-primary entrants in 2013 and 2014’, conducted alongside Manuela Heinz, using it as a point of reference for a broader examination of teaching in Ireland as a whole. In particular, Dr Keane looked at the lack of diversity in terms of students applying to ITE (Initial Teacher Education) in Ireland, developing her focus to offer an insight into the relative success or failure of applicants according to various factors relating to their respective backgrounds.

As already mentioned, almost all of Dr Keane’s findings are stark in their severity. However, because her research is on-going and its findings are provisional at the time of writing, I will refer only to a couple of general details, which more than suffice: over 95% of applicants (both entrants and non-entrants) of ITE at primary and post-primary level identify themselves as being Irish only in nationality, with White Irish students forming an average 98% of students on ITE courses nationwide versus and 86% for non-teaching degrees.

In addition to ethnicity, Keane and Heinz’s study suggests that lower socio-economic status and/or having a disability prove significant barriers to those considering teaching as a career at an early age – despite the “massification” of higher education participation in Ireland leading to significantly greater numbers than ever before attending third-level education since 2000. This widening participation and demand for ITE places (despite a lack of teaching jobs available nationwide in Ireland) now also comes in the context of the extension of ITE programmes to ensure greater rigour.

Many undergraduate programmes have been expanded from three to four years in duration, while previously one-year postgraduate programmes (more commonly known as the HDip) have been doubled. This development has already had a significant impact on the number of applicants across the board for ITE: Dr Keane’s research reveals a significant drop (one that is very significant given the short time-frame in which it took place) in the number of applicants with a lower socio-economic status for ITE, something that appears to suggest that the increased expense and demands posed by ITE in the near future will serve to widen further the class divide in Irish teaching, and lengthen the odds of a more diverse teaching profession, even in the long-term.

From an NUI Galway perspective, what’s heartening to know is that Keane and Heinz’s study is the first of its kind in the EU in the sense that it examines a country’s teaching profession at a nationwide level. Also, even though the study has now entered its fourth year and may soon no longer receive State funding, Dr Keane has vowed to continue to collect data for it (having received almost 8,000 responses already), and to continue to analyse its findings.

Furthermore, Keane and Heinz’s study offers concrete and reliable data for the Government to consider and tap into – statistics that may well serve to encourage policy-makers to affect top-down change in Irish education in the future. So, how might they even begin to tackle such an age-old issue?

Though opponents of gender quotas in Irish politics may deride the suggestion, Dr Keane’s seminar reached the consensus that the Government needs to set targets relating to diversifying the make-up of the Irish teaching profession. These targets need to start with third-level applicants and work from there. As it stands, only 40% of ITE applicants are successful in obtaining a place on an ITE programme; we need at least a certain percentage of this 40% to not be the white, Irish, middle/upper class student that has become the norm for many different reasons.

If Ireland is to move with the times and embrace its ever-broadening population, it must encourage diversity at every level and in every profession. In terms of teaching, Ireland should start by ensuring a more diverse range of ITE applicants on an annual basis with the more long-term goal of diversifying the Irish teaching profession to complement and appreciate the diverse pupil population at both primary and secondary level that post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is now blessed with.

Ireland is no longer a monoculture, no matter how much its majority might still believe itself to be, and we need to embrace that as a nation. We also need to open up to a broader set of beliefs, to new languages, to new eyes and new worlds; where better than the classroom to begin doing so?