SSC Gives A Graduation Speech

I’ll tell you what really makes a difference in schools, and that’s a functional library, with a properly trained librarian. Not a room with a few books, or a library that was supposed to be a library but got turned into an extra classroom because you’re squeezed for space, or a library that depends on a teacher who can spare an hour here or there to keep it open.

Evidence? School where I worked is classed as DEIS (basically, we’re a disadvantaged area). Back in 2002 we lucked out – we got picked as a pilot school for the JCSP – a schools library project.

What it meant was that we got a trained librarian and support. It was supposed to be a year’s pilot programme, but our principal begged and cajoled and we got it renewed from year-to-year for about five years (then the programme money ran out, and our librarian had to leave, but luckily we managed to hire another trained librarian).

These kinds of programmes and supports make a huge difference. Lots of the kids come from homes with no books, parents with literacy problems of their own, and no idea about how to join the public library. The resources of the school library meant that they were enticed in, got books and magazines suitable to their interests and abilities, and gradually learned about reading for pleasure.

Classes aren’t about education. They’re about learning what you need to pass the test, which is how schools are graded on whether they’re succeeding or not, and politicians measure ‘success’ by “Are we turning out button-pushers with the skills businesses tell us they want?”

I came out of a home with no books. What school did for me wasn’t so much teach me in class (I could read before ever I started school) but what it did was give me access to books that were lying around on shelves and in cupboards that were left over from the past and were ignored. I dived into these and learned all kinds of things that I never encountered in class.

Now – is college worth it? I have to say – if you want anything above a job at minimum wage level, yes. You don’t need a college education for work, but you will have to have one, because businesses use it as a filtering device.

The bad old days in 1980s Ireland, when I was a school-leaver, meant that (a) one of the few main employers in the town – since closed down – was the dairy co-operative. To get a job in the laboratory there, you needed a minimum B Sc in Dairy Science from U.C.C.

(b) Did you need a degree to do the lab work? No, because I was there as a work experience lab monkey with my National Certificate qualification from the technical college. I was able to run the tests because I had the practical training. What’s more, when the summer milk rush was on, and they were short of hands, they’d get one of the operatives in from the yard, teach him how to operate the FOSS automated Kjeldahl tester and turn him loose on the samples.

(c) But if I wanted a job, I had to have a degree. My lab boss was quite frank about that. I was doing the same work for half the pay, and they were honest about taking on ‘work experience’ students from the technical college for the seasonal rush, but to apply for a permanent job, you needed the degree.

I’m seeing the same pattern playing out in the economy now. I’ve a nephew who will be leaving school next year, and he’d better go to university because I don’t see him having any chance of a job otherwise – unless he goes for an apprenticeship as a plumber, electrician, etc. and emigrates to Australia (this is the current solution to our unemployment woes in Ireland – go to Australia).