Accountability in education

Vol. 5 No. 3 - 1987

Accountability in education

An historical perspective
Part 1

by Albert Maguire

Current trends have rendered the term "accountability" to be foremost in the minds of those involved in education. It is interesting to note that even in the early days of organised education the accountability was of paramount importance.

Education in Ireland was originally left to those academics who conducted classes on what was known as "the sunny side of the hedge". With the advent of various educational societies in Ireland, tuition was conducted in more orthodox accommodation, though it was not uncommon for instruction to take place in what the 1829 "Commissioners" of Irish Education Report described as a "mere hovel". Lurgan at the time, for example, seemed fortunate as its educational establishments were described as middling to tolerably good in two instances in this report.

Schoolmasters incompetent and antagonistic

Two prominent societies which were in receipt of large sums of money voted by Parliament for the specific needs of education were - The Incorporated Society for promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland and The Association incorporated Disencountenancing Vice and promoting the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion. The latter society, though instituted in 1792, did not receive its first parliamentary grant until 1801.

In 1806 a commission was appointed to enquire into the state of education in Ireland. This particular body issued a number of reports between 1809 and 1812 which pointed out that existing schools were under no control. In most cases these schools were owned and administered by schoolmasters who were described as incompetent and antagonistic to constituted authority.

It was deemed that interference on behalf of the Government was necessary. This indicates that there was a definite need for the government to gain control of the schools which were under these bodies or, alternatively, force them out of existence. Coupled with the inefficiency which was apparent within the system, there were inevitable religious differences; and whilst most schools professed to be of an undenominational nature in their teaching, invariably societies seem to have been identified with proselytism from their inception.

The Royal Commission on Irish education instigated in 1824 was responsible for investigating how the financing of the societies' schools was being administered. Whilst there were inspectors affiliated to each society, their only role at that time was to inspect the religious knowledge of the children. In its description of the schools the Committee noted that the standard of the three "Rs" was ill attended to. Hygiene, order and regularity seemed to be of little importance to these inspectors or indeed the societies.

It was evident that though the inspectors were not accountable to the government, change would have to be forth-coming. At this time the most favoured by the government was the Kildare Place Society; other-wise known as the society for promoting the education of the poor in Ireland - the forerunner of the National School system. The Commissioners of National Education in Ireland built two model schools in Kildare Place; one each for boys and girls. This was designed to illustrate the plan recommended by the society and the schools were to be used for teacher training. The society published their own textbooks and in general their schools were well above the ordinary standard. In this particular system the society kept in touch with the instruction given in their schools through an inspectorate.

Government grants withdrawn

Due to religious and political differences, and after much serious consideration and deliberation, the government withdrew their grants from the societies in 1831 and introduced a plan which allocated the grants for Education to a National Board. During the pre-1831 period as outlined the role of the Inspector was to inspect the needs and promote the aims and policies of his particular society. This paved the way for inspectors who would be directly in charge of inspecting schools financed through the National Commissioners for education in Ireland.

The National Schools system in Ireland would be one which would not seek to influence or disturb Catholic or Protestant ideals. It was recommended that children of these religious persuasions should be educated together in the same school or class; indeed a contentious issue. Parliament would provide grant aid which in turn would supplement the local contributions in the building of National Schools. Those who wished to teach in these schools would now be subject to examinations in a Model School under the control of the government. Inspectors would be appointed to be responsible to report to the Board for the work undertaken in their schools.

Teachers were generally appointed by clerical managers who had the power to "hire and fire". Lord Stanley, the innovator of the National Board of Education, proposed that it would be organised by the Government and would include men of high character, including individuals of exalted station in the Church.

A contract of employment for Queen Street National School, Lurgan, between the Manager, The Rev Thomas Hamill, and Miss Margaret Mary E Johnston 1/11/1895 states that the Manager shall have the absolute power to determine the said employment without previous notice, on payment by him, at any time, to the Teacher, of three months' salary. This document was authenticated by Mr Dewar, the National Board's Inspector at this juncture.

Needless to say with state grant aid, accountability was a must. Whilst local contributions had to assist with payment of teachers' salaries, maintenance and one-third of the building costs, the board would have overall control of textbooks used, and ensure that the regulations were enforced. Indeed in devising its school inspection system the National Board adopted a scheme which had been pioneered by the Kildare Place Society.

On a provincial basis, four inspectors were selected. This number soon increased to 66 by 1858. Each inspector was allotted approximately 100 schools and he was instructed to make visits. There was no list or order of importance in visiting schools. He could at will visit any school at whim.

As well as extensive writing and bureaucratic checking his duty was to see if the grant aid for maintenance was being properly administered. On entering the school and introducing himself to the master/mistress he had to examine whether or not the fundamental regulations of the board had been adhered to and point out any deficiency to the teacher.

The style adopted by the teacher would be inspected and improvements would be suggested. The inspector's instructions were such that he should observe kindness and respect to the teacher and not address them in an authoritative manner. He was not to comment on the teacher's or pupils' progress and one can immediately see that this placed the teacher in an unenviable and invidious position.

Many condemnatory reports were furnished with actual statements such as "Reading and Explanation are of an inferior character - order and discipline are indifferent and stand in need of immediate improvement". One can see how both the manager and teacher alike were continuously treading warily.

50% of the population illeterate

Perhaps these reports could be justifiable when one considers that in 1841 it was found that 50% of the population over 5 was illiterate; around 20% able to read but not write, and only the remaining 30% proficient in reading and writing.

The inspector continued his visit by giving the teacher a "General Lesson" copy if not already displayed, and a copy of the Ten Commandments if approved by the manager. Children's progress was ascertained as regards literal fluency and arithmetic competency. Checks had to be made to see that Geography, Grammar, Book-keeping and mensuration were being taught. Whilst the inspector did not have to insist on the scriptural extracts being read by children, he did have to observe and report on any aspect within the school regulations which seemed to confine it to one particular denomination.

Invariably the most significant development of the inspector's role was the introduction of the payment of results era; another factor which was not likely to elevate the lowly social standing of teachers at that time. The POWIS COMMISSION (ROYAL COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY INTO PRIMARY EDUCATION) reviewed the education system with particular reference to accountability for public expenditure. During the 1850s the sum had risen to over £294,000 in Ireland. This is understandable in that in 1831 £30,000 was the amount allocated or indeed transferred from the Kildare Place Society. It was also significant at this time that all was not well within National Education. Children's progress, it was reported, was much less than it ought to be.

Programmes laid down in each school

This indeed caused serious concern within the commission. Following this, a list of 129 conclusions was drawn and recommendations were made to the chief, which included Patrick Keenan's payment of results plan, which would serve as a supplement to a fixed salary. Inspectors in schools were now administering a revised system of accountability. Definite programmes were laid down in each school ranging from infants to the sixth grade.

Obligatory subjects including the 3 "Rs" [Reading, Writing and 'Rithmatic], and spelling were taught. Geography, grammar, needle-work (girls), and agriculture (boys) were taken from the third grade. A scale of fees was devised. For example a 6th grade pupil who was successful in all subjects, including two extra, could earn the teacher about 18/-.

The inspector's task was that of examining a pupil in individual subjects using whatever tests he deemed necessary and whilst one may frown upon the efficiency, it did however constitute the requirements for "payment by result". Promotion sheets were drawn up by the inspector and a report was sent as before to the manager, outlining the pupils' progress.

Statistically speaking the accountability produced successful results. As a criticism there was no standardisation or empirical criteria set for inspectors in their daily routine. Teachers were now subject to a set of detailed rules and regulations which by far exceeded expectation. On the visit of an inspector the teacher had to try every conceivable trick to make sure correct answers were given, as their salary depended on it. Nothing else was taught except the required facts for the inspection. This in fact put such an imposition on teachers in general, that it was a contributory factor in a series of events that led to the establishment of the Irish National Teachers' Association in 1868.

In terms of the professionalism of teachers, here was an attempt to raise the status of the teacher on a united front. It was a forum born out of agitation against a system which failed to recognise the importance of the teacher. The payment on results policy was discontinued at the turn of the century much to the relief of all parties. Teachers were compensated for the loss of revenue by a salary increase. It was the end of a half century where salary was really second place to the quest for higher status.

Teachers ignored

The advent of the new century [the 20th century] saw legislation yet again ignore the teacher. The 1902 Act made no mention of teachers and laid down no further condition for assessment of teacher competence or remuneration. In 1904 Dale/Stephens, appointed for the purpose of analysing the system, also made little mention of teachers.