For a moment or two let me take you into an aspect of economics that I find very troubling. In the past twenty years the world has discovered globalisation. Living standards, especially in the west, have risen dramatically. Increasingly, however, we feel that we are on a treadmill; the more we work the more we can buy. Then we fall foul to the advertising industry and rush out to buy still more. Then we work still harder. Greed is no longer seen as a Deadly Sin, but rather as the essential driver of economic growth. Often it makes us miserable.
A most perceptive piece of research by two American professors – Bell and Freeman – shows that the greater the differential between the very rich and the very poor in a country, the greater is the willingness of other people to surrender their own private time to make more money. In the United States. where the differential is greatest, 60% of the population said that they would give up even more time to earn more money, even if this were to interfere with their private lives. In Germany, where the differentials are lower, it was only 37%. In England it stands at an alarming 55%. Where stands Ireland? I hope you are coming to accept that children’s’ informal learning experience is not only very important, but is being put at risk by the economic imperative for everyone to be evermore productive. If so I must take you deeper into a reality that few wish to acknowledge.
It’s really very simple. We’re all on average living longer, but we still wish to retire at 60,62 or 65. We therefore need more money in our pension funds. Pension fund managers pressurize businesses to be ever more productive. That means those people of working age have to work even i harder. This is particularly true of those workers in their late twenties and thirties – their skills and energies are very good for business. With an ever watchful eye on economic productivity governments all over the world are encouraging young mothers to return to the workplace directly after the birth of their child. One moderately paid “childminder’ (how I dislike that term!) can release 6 or 7 well qualified adults to return to work. To the economist the logic is faultless – it’s the best way to increase productivity and so fund pensions and investment.
Look this issue straight in the eye.
If a country, be it England, the United States, or Ireland wants to create a society in which the provision for young children is good both in the home and in the school, this can only happen at a cost. The choice is waiting to be made.
The equation is simple, but the difficulties of the implementation are enormous.
If young parents are to have the time and resource to be good parents, then the rest of the population will have to work significantly longer before they retire. Does the Celtic Tiger have sufficient faith in the future to shape its social policy in the interests of its cubs?
In a sense we have to go back to the future to regain our balance. We have to recognise — indeed we have to shout it out from the rooftops and the church steeples – that schools can’t do in 20% of a child’s working hours that which the community is no longer doing in the remaining 80% of those hours. Csikszentmihalyi again: “In all societies since the beginning of time adolescents have learned to become adults by observing, imitating, and interacting with adults around them. The self is shaped and honed by feedback from men and women who already know who they are, and can help the young person find out who he or she is gong to be.”
Ladies and Gentlemen. Heed this warning. The proper education of our young people is our greatest responsibility. You cannot, nor should you even try, to delegate all of that responsibility to schools to do on their own.
Several years ago a conference on this theme was held in Jordan. Many Arab nations attended, conscious of their rapidly burgeoning birth rates. The discussions were long, the conclusions desperately vague. As the participants got up to leave, a woman leapt to the stage. “There is one thing we could all do.” she shouted at the departing delegates. “We can put up posters in every village in our different lands stating “Education is too important to be left simply to the ministry of education”.
I rest my case.