Tag Archives: school

First Day

Secondary Schools (12 to 18 year-olds) here in Ireland re-opened after the holidays today..


Perhaps it had grown over the summer.

She had passed Kilcoole Community College many, many times, and had never before realised just how big it was. She did now.

It was to be Mary’s first day at Secondary School, and the school was huge. Her Primary School, St Catherine’s, had been tiny, just 120 pupils in six classes. This school had 120 pupils just in First Year.

St Catherine’s had one teacher for each year. She had had the wonderful Miss Kavanagh for the whole of last year (Miss Kavanagh had a husband and four children, but all Primary School teachers are called “Miss”), and on the final day the class had presented her with a T-Shirt with the Class Photo of them and her on the front, and the words “Best School, Best Class, Best Teacher!” on the back. Now Mary would have a different teacher for each subject.

And what subjects. Business Studies. French (an entire class each day! That was so intense that she reckoned she’d be fluent by Christmas). Metalwork. Science. Computers. Something called CSPE (it stood for Civil, Social and Political Education, three subjects in one, which seemed to Mary like cheating). There didn’t seem to be singing, spelling-tests, or chanting the nine-times tables.

There was compulsory gym, even for the unfit kids. This seemed as unfair as having compulsory Theory of Relativity for the less clever ones.

And then there were the size of the pupils. The Sixth Years looked like grown-ups, which of course they were, some of them were already 18 years old. The boys had stubble, and the girls had figures, make-up, and blonde highlights. She felt like a child again.

She was, of course, a child, being just 12 years old, but all through her last year at St Catherine’s when she and her sixteen classmates had ruled the roost she had felt like a grown-up, being Attendance Monitor, picking up and consoling crying smaller kids who had grazed their knees in the playground, saying “aw” when the First Years had stood in their little line on the first day, with their Spongebob schoolbags and their hands tightly inside their mothers’.

Now it would be so different. She and the rest of her year would be the ones that looked like babies. She did not of course have a Spongebob schoolbag, nor did she even have the Harry Potter one which she had used the previous year. Her schoolbag was simple, austere, black, the kind of bag a serious student would wear.

More importantly, the kind of bag that wouldn’t get you noticed, and then picked on.

Unlike the bag belonging to the boy walking ahead of her into class, which had Spiderman on it. Mary knew that Spiderman was popular to all ages, indeed that some adults still collected the comics, but apparently it was cool at school to pretend that liking Spiderman was as grown up as liking Noddy.

The boy also wore short-trousers. Seriously, she thought, he’s practically a walking wedgie.

As they sat into their first class she could see boys pointing him out and starting to snigger. She had known it would be the boys, covering their own fears by hunting in packs and being thoughtlessly cruel. She did not yet know that the girls would form little groups that you would be gleefully part of one week and hurtfully out of the next, without ever really knowing why.

“Nice bag,” said one of the boys. The boy turned red.

“Nice legs,” said a second. The boy turned redder.

“Nice redner,” said a third.

Then the teacher (a man!) walked into the class, the slagging stopped, and Mary was introduced, for the first time ever, to the wonders of the parallelogram.

The morning was a bombardment of information, and at the end of each class they were given homework, school invading your very house. At last, at long, long last the lunch-bell sounded and she went outside.

The boy sat on a bench well away from everyone else. His lunchbox was clenched in his hands, but unopened and upside down. Clearly he was willing to die rather than let any of the boys see the lid.

She suddenly remembered being eight-years old. She hadn’t been at St Catherine’s the whole way up, her family had moved to Kilcoole at the beginning of Second Year and she had arrived into the classroom that first morning with pigtails and a Cork accent, apparently two massive faux-pas (she had no idea what the plural of that word actually was, but had committed two of them anyway). She remembered how lonely she had felt.

She wasn’t lonely here, five of her class from St Catherine’s had come here too and she’d been looking forward to meeting up with them, but she went and sat down beside the boy anyway. She nodded at his lunchbox.

“Batman?” she said.

He looked suspiciously at her, saw her friendly smile, and decided to risk it. He turned over the box, to reveal The Hulk on the lid.

She nodded in understanding, then showed him the lid of her own lunchbox. It had a picture of Jedward on it.

“When I get home this evening,” she said pleasantly, “I will have somehow lost this lunchbox. The fact that I’ve to cross the bridge over the river on the way will probably help.”

He smiled for the first time that day. “Good idea,” he said. “Any idea how to lose a pair of short trousers?”

Losing It

Last week I wrote a post about the 1976 English Leaving Cert exam, filled with fury about the fact that the question about Yeats was so hard that I didn’t even know what they were asking, and had to answer a question about Paradise Lost instead.

Today I read about something that happened in 1974 and remembered that when it happened I was involved in the school play (it was a pantomime, The Cooley Connexion, based upon the story of Irish legendary folk-hero Setanta – oh, and I wrote one of the scenes, my first ever venture into writing for an audience).

This brief burst of nostalgia left me with both a warm glow and a slight feeling of unease, the mental equivalent of a vindaloo curry. What bothered me was the fact that the school play was always performed almost exclusively by students in Fifth Year. Those in Fourth Year were doing the state’s Intermediate Certificate Exam, those in Sixth Year were doing the Leaving Cert, so participation in something so time-consuming as drama rehearsals was not encouraged during those two years. This would imply that I was in Fifth Year in 1974, which could lead to only one conclusion.

To settle things I undertook some complicated mathematics involving a pen and paper, the year I was born, the addition of seventeen years to that date and my tongue sticking out of the right side of my mouth as I concentrated. It was as I feared.

I did my Leaving Cert in 1975.

I don’t feel so bad about the Yeats question now. With a memory as bad as that I’d have probably have made a balls of it anyway.

That Is The Question

When I was 17 I sat my Leaving Certificate English exam (the Leaving Cert is the big state-set exam that we all do at the end of secondary school, the points we get from which determine whether we can get into university and what courses we can do when and if we get there).

Every year on the English exam they asked a question about Yeats since he is Ireland’s greatest ever poet, so I made sure that I knew more about him than even his mother did (in fairness this wasn’t hard, she probably didn’t read his poetry any more than my family read my blog).

Anyway, on the morning of the English exam I took the paper and turned confidently to the Yeats question, read it calmly, then read it again, a little less calmly. By the third reading I realised that I was in trouble.

I couldn’t answer the question because I didn’t understand it. It was as if someone had taken a collection of common English words and hurled them at the page, like one of those artists hurling paint from a tin onto a wall. No matter how often I read it I had absolutely no idea what they were asking me to do.

It is unfortunate that I cannot reproduce the question here. Ask Google about the dinosaur or the paleolithic era and it offers page upon page of information, but ask it about the 1976 Leaving Cert English paper and it says sorry, history doesn’t go back that far. Admittedly it was 35 years ago, the exam paper was printed on papyrus and we wrote our answers on parchment using a quill made from the wing-feather of a dodo, but there were computers about, even if they were the size of a battleship and long division referred to the length of time it took them to answer. The question is lost, however, so you will just have to take my word for its impenetrable density, something like my own during the maths exam the following day.

In the end I had to answer the question on Paradise Lost instead, a poem which, because it was long and dull, I had read exactly once.

Of course I was young then. Years later, when I was about 30, I found the exam paper while I was clearing out a load of old stuff. I was now older, more educated and more widely read. I turned confidently to the Yeats question.

I still had no idea what it meant.

And why do I bring this bitter memory up today? Because I think I know now what became of the person who set that question. Yesterday’s suggested WordPress topic was “would you rather laugh with the sinners, or cry with the saints” and I have absolutely no idea what that means either.

So my tormentor from 35 years ago now works for WordPress as a topic setter.

And to make extra cash he ghost-writes spam comments.

Rate My Teacher

WordPress recently asked us to write about our least favourite teacher. I more or less covered this a year or so ago when I wrote a post about a savage beating I got from a psychotic git when I was about ten, so I don’t feel like doing that again.
So I’m going to write about one of my favourite teachers, the one who most encouraged my interest in writing. My economics teacher.
I’m not sure how I ended up picking Economics as a subject, I can only assume that the other two choices must have been something like Olde Latin and Marine Psychology. I have no real interest in economics and must confess (since I know the Tinkids never read this, I don’t want them to think it’s a good idea) that I left the Leaving Cert exam with half-an-hour to go – not because I was finished, but because I was bored. Half way through some sentence about currency devaluation or something I suddenly thought “I know I’ve done enough to pass, I’m going home“, and just stopped writing and left.
If I was that bored when writing for my academic future you can imagine the degree of excitement with which I had looked forward to economics homework essays. One evening we were asked to write about economies of scale and how bigger shops could afford to underprice smaller ones, and I wrote a story about the owner of a little corner shop, describing his feelings as one by one his old customers deserted him and headed off to shopping centres, leaving him struggling.
I handed it in and, to my surprise, got the comment “good work” and a B. That was enough to get me started.
I can’t remember everything I wrote from then on, of course, but if there was any way at all of straying off the topic of economics then I took it. I do remember one where I tried to list “supermarket”, “megastore” and “hypermarket” in order of size. A task of watching adverts on TV and guessing at the thinking behind each one (a game I often still play) led to a tale set in a truly heartless marketing company.
And each week he graded it, sometimes highly, sometimes not. At a Parent-Teacher Meeting he told my mum and dad that he gave me high scores as long as there was at least some thought relating to economics behind the stories. He told them though, that he loved reading them and really looked forward to them each week.
He moved not long after I left, becoming School Principal somewhere nearer to where he lived. I was going to say that he’s probably retired now, but we didn’t realise then how young and how close to our age our teachers really were, so perhaps he isn’t.
Anyway, his name is Dominic McQuilllan. I owe him a lot.

Exam Time

Tinson2 started his Junior Cert exams this morning.

The Junior Cert takes place half-way through your Secondary School career and is not, therefore, the most important exam you’ll ever undertake, since you’ll be back next year either way. It does, however, help determine which subjects you’ll do for the Leaving Cert and which level you’ll take them at, so it does play a part in shaping your entire future. So it is not to be sneezed at, and not just because they disapprove of noise in the exam hall.

And it is your first contact with State-run exams, and I well remember back when I did it (it was called the Inter Cert in those days, and there were no regulations prohibiting calculators, mobile phones or iPods as there are now, for the very good reason that they didn’t exist. You were, however, allowed to bring in a knife to sharpen your quill). Until you saw the very first question on the very first paper there was always this tiny fear that perhaps your school wasn’t teaching at the same high level as other schools, or perhaps was teaching the wrong syllabus altogther. One you saw that first question, even if it was a real stinker (Leaving Cert English 1975, WTF were they thinking, no I’m not still bitter), you felt yourself start to relax.

I was planning to write about the stress we put our kids under at such an early age, but I’ve thought back over the super-calm way Tinson2 has handled this over the last few months and my heart’s not really in it.

I’m deliberately writing this post early, before he’s finished today, before I find out how he’s got on. Because, in the long run, that’s not what’s important.

He’s a great kid, I’m proud of him as him, and that’s all that matters.

Bottom of the Class

The Tinkids go to a Secondary School called Coláiste Chraobh Abhann, a brand new school in Kilcoole and a real pronunciatorial challenge for my overseas readers. 

The school started just six years ago, and last year 82 students, including Tinson1, were its first class ever to face the state’s Leaving Certificate exam. They all seemed to do fine. Tinson1 is (I may have mentioned this) doing Science in Trinity, as is one of his classmates. Other friends are in UCG, UCD and NCI, and these are just the ones that I know about.

But last week the Irish Independent and the Irish Times published league tables regarding students going on to college from each school. And while I don’t read rubbish like that, apparently CCA sits at the bottom of County Wicklow’s list, with just 18% of its students listed as going on to third level education.

The school has sent a letter home to all the parents, pointing out that many colleges didn’t have the school’s name in their database, and simply put down “unknown”. They also point out that many students, from all schools, enter pre-university courses or take a gap year before entering college. In an established school, the roll-over of such students from previous years would cancel out the ones taking time out this year, while our school didn’t have any past-year pupils. 

In conclusion, they tell us that 86.6% of of the 82 are in further education of some sort, and 11% are in full-time employment or apprenticeships.

Hopefully the letter will reassure the parents of pupils in the school. Now all they have to do is find some way of spreading the message to the rest of the county, to the parents of younger children, and even to those just at the child-planning stage.

There was a long and vigorous debate when the idea of school league tables, copied slavishly from the UK, was first promoted. Many of those who opposed them were dismissed as schools or teachers fearing that their inadequacies would be exposed. Others pointed out that schools in disadvantaged areas, many of which would have virtually no pupils going on to college, were in most cases excellent schools doing excellent work, and that a simple league table would not recognise this. These concerns were ignored.

When you see the kind of statistical failings upon which the table is based you see that it’s about as useful as the website ratemyteacher as a basis for selecting a school for your child. But the flaws in the data just mask the real problem, which is that a league table for schools based purely on college placement is as meaningful as a list of top films based purely on the number of people who’ve seen them (for example, do you know anyone who hasn’t seen Sister Act? See?).

A couple of moments’ reflection tells you that the fact that School X has Y% of its pupils going on the college (look, I remember algebra, and my own school probably isn’t very high up the list) is meaningless. How many of them got into the course they had their heart set on? How many will send their own children to the same school? How many, in short, enjoyed their school life?

There is so much more to a school than the number of points that its cleverer students get. CCA (have a quick look at the website, Tinson1 is in one of the pictures) is a great school with remarkable facilities, young and enthusiastic teachers, terrific extra-curricular activities and a real sense of pride in itself.

Our children are happy there, and there is no table for that.

Wheat, Maize and Grain

When I was at school Geography was the educational equivalent of the Big Mac gherkin, unloved and discarded by virtually everyone.

This was because it was unrelentingly dull. We were a given a light snowfall of information about a number of countries, none of it deep enough to actually stick. Generally speaking we were taught the name of the capital city and the chief exports. As far as I can remember the exports always included wheat, maize and grain, and these three words featured in the first sentence of every exam answer I ever gave (“the chief exports of Ireland are wheat, maize and grain”…. “the chief exports of Antartica are wheat, maize and grain”… “the chief exports of the Sahara…” etc, etc).

Doing “projects” meant being a handed a map of Ireland stripped of all characteristics other than an outline of the counties, and being asked to fill in the names. This was as exciting as Geography got.

And because it was so dull, we all ended up forgetting about half of what we learned. I presume that’s why, although I can tell you where the North and South Poles are, I haven’t a clue about the whereabouts of the East and West ones.

When people slag Americans for how little they know about Europe, they assume it’s because they never learned about it. In fact, they were taught about it, but just couldn’t be arsed remembering. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the same goes for us in reverse. One night in my local we managed to name 48 of the 50 US States. I was told to find out which two we were missing and returned the following night to report that we were actually missing five, since one of the ones we had listed was actually in Canada and two others weren’t States at all.

But somewhere along the way Geography upped its game. I think it began when the six-nation Common Market evolved via a series of leaps and bounds into the 27-nation EU (well, to be strictly accurate, 26 and Britain, who were given Free Trial Membership back in 1973 and still haven’t fully decided whether they like it or not). Suddenly Geography was no longer a dead, fixed subject, like Latin, it was changing all the time.

The collapse of communism halved the number of Germanies, while the number of Balkan countries exploded, often explosively. The roll-call of world nations changes with a rapidity that keeps atlas publishers in Ferraris and World Cup organisers in therapy. And climate change and global warming means that the very shape of countries and continents is changing.

The Burren

The Burren

Tingirl is doing Geography and has three projects to hand in by Christmas. These are on the Burren, earthquakes and tornadoes. The Burren is a wild and lovely part of County Clare, earthquakes are strictly speaking Geology and tornadoes are just weather, but all three are more exciting than drawing the path of a river or a relief map of a fjord, which is the kind of crap homework we used to get. As a result kids these days love Geography.

Everyone has a Trivial Pursuit achilles heel. I’m sure you’ve guessed mine. I’d slide my wedge-filled pie-dish into the very centre, my fellow players would say “geography” in unison, I’d be asked some baffling question containing the word “scree” or “delta” and I’d retreat in humble embarrassment.

Hopefully the kids of today will be spared that humiliation.

About A Boy

Yesterday was Leaving Cert results day, so my post should have been about Tinson1 and how he got on, but hey, I had mental issues to write about, and I don’t have a whole category called “It’s All About Me” for nothing.

Anyway, he did fine, he got 470 points. I got 26, which gives the impression that he’s 18 times cleverer than I was, but of course the system has changed.  Back when I did it (in quill and ink, on parchment) there were simple A’s, B’s and C’s, and you got 5 points for an A, 4 for a B, etc. Now there is A1, A2, A3, etc, and the whole thing is much more complicated. Funnily, if you use the simplified version then he got exactly the same number of each grade as I did all those years ago, though in very different subjects.

Anyway, he has enough points for Trinity (just down the road from my office. “Hey, we’ll be able to do lunch”, I said yesterday, just to see his attempts at hiding the flash of horror that shot across his face), though not for the Theoretical Physics course he was thinking of. This means that my recurring nightmare, where the world explodes in a fiery molten ball while he stands in his lab going “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!” (he’s not laughing specifically at you there, Mwa), will not now take place.

He is planning now on taking General Science. As a scientist there are many directions in which his career might go – he might invent a small device which will make cars run on baby-sick (a never-dwindling resource), or he might become one of those No-Shit-Sherlock scientists who, after two years of research, produce a report stating that men spend more time than women thinking about boobs.

Either way, that’s all in the future. As for today, he’s delighted with himself, and we’re as proud of him as usual.

Put Away Childish Things


School’s Out… forever. Tingirl had her last day in the Bray School Project today (the picture above is from one of her first), and we now have no children left in primary school.

Tinson1 had his first day there on September 1st, 1996 when Tingirl was only six-ninths er, cooked, so the Tinfamily have had a connection with the BSP for her entire life. As indeed has she, as she was accompanying Mrs Tin on school runs and sitting quietly at school meetings long before she ever became a pupil there.

If leaving there is upsetting her, though, she’s hiding it very well (though not as well as Tinson1 did. In the car on the way home from his last day there, in a conversation with Tinson2 he referred to the BSP as “your school”). She is eager and excited about the prospect of secondary school, and keen to get on with what young people regard as the terribly urgent process of racing through their lives as quickly as possible.

Mrs Tin is similarly unfazed by the thoughts of leaving a school where she has been on so many boards and committees for so many years. She received many plaudits I think she will miss it more than she thinks she will, but only time will tell.

The school itself is wonderful, run by a bunch of really terrific teachers backed by ranks of dedicated and hard-working parents. It will still feature on the Blogiverse, as both Jo and Ciara still have kids there, and I’m looking forward to being able to keep up with events through them.

In earlier years I did a lot of the driving to school, so got to know the BSP quite well, but latterly have rarely been inside the door (today was only the third time in Tingirl’s final year) so I should miss it less than any of them, and I suppose I do. But I do feel that today is a significant one. Our youngest child has finished at primary school, and is growing up. She’ll be a teenager later this year, joining her brothers on the ever-shortening road to young adulthood. I’m happy for her, and proud of her, but I do feel a little bit sad.

We still have kids, but as of today we no longer have children.

Life’s Simple, in Theory

So Tinson 1 has finished school.

He sat his final exam, Chemistry, on Tuesday and left his schooldays behind him. He got home, gave us a carefully analytic summary of the exam (“piece of piss”) and invertebrated down in front of the telly, as if already settling into his future role as one of the unemployed.

After a while he admitted that he felt a bit strange, watching TV without a hearing a nagging voice inside his head telling him he should be studying (he usually had a nagging voice outside his head telling him the same thing, and I think Mrs Tin is now as at a loss as he is).

Anyway, when some friends rang to say they were going to play football down in the leisure centre he jumped at the chance. He played the game, went back to someone’s house and then walked home, getting in at about 4 a.m.

During the football apparently he got some sand or dirt into his sock, but instead of stopping and removing it he played on, so now most of the skin has come off the sole of his foot. Therefore he spent his first day as a grown-up lying on his bed with his foot in a bandage.

As his father, it is my job to worry about him when he does silly things, and I have to thank him for giving me so much practice.  But remember, this guy has applied to college to do Theoretical Physics, so now I’m starting to worry, not just for him, but for all of us, for our planet and indeed for the populations of distant worlds in galaxies far, far away.

EinsteinThe Principle of Cause and Effect seems to have passed him merrily by, and the thought of him in a very few short years spilling coffee into a worm hole, getting sand in the Large Hadron Collider or sneezing violently into a bowl of Dark Matter (it comes in bowls, doesn’t it?) should strike fear throughout the entire universe.

Was Einstein that scatty? Actually, looking at his hairstyle (a generous use of the word “style” there) he was possibly worse. The Principle of Cause (using a comb) and Effect (neat hair) seems to have escaped him too.

At least Tinson1 always knows where his hair-gel is.