Education: Secondary Education, Male

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Secondary Education, Male

Defining the state's role in education and establishing an appropriate curriculum for middle-class Irish adolescents complicated the question of how best to provide a system of secondary education during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Attempts to address these issues were affected by the Catholic bishops' determination to manage their local schools and thereby shield their students from proselytization, and by debates over the value of including subjects with Irish cultural and historical content in the curriculum.

After 1831 the national schools provided primary education to an expanding number of children, but in 1870 less than 5 percent of the pupils, or some 25,000 students, advanced to the secondary level. Secondary schools were managed either privately, or by dioceses, or by Catholic religious teaching orders. They varied widely in endowment, enrollment, quality of facilities, and skill of the teaching staff. There were few religiously mixed schools, and boys and girls attended separate schools. Only forty-seven secondary schools were under Catholic management, and the hierarchy, among others with an interest in education, looked for a way to provide further education for middle-class youths with scholastic ability.

Proponents of educational reform collaborated in 1878 with the Conservative government to secure passage of the Intermediate Education Act (Ireland). The act maintained the principle that Ireland would have publicly funded and locally managed denominational education—the defining characteristic of the Irish national schools. The legislation established the Intermediate Board of Education; additional parliamentary activity in 1900, 1913, and 1914, several official inquiries, and annual reports provided information for subsequent administrative adjustments. Prominent Irishmen were selected to represent Catholic or Protestant interests on the seven-member board, which was responsible for a system that encompassed, on the eve of partition, 356 schools and 27,250 students, 16,093 male and 11,157 female, aged fourteen to eighteen. The annual interest on a grant of one million pounds, made available from the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, was designated for intermediate education; later, a percentage of customs and excise taxes supplemented the budget. No provision was made for building, equipping, or maintaining new schools, and no provision was made for the training of secondary teachers. The Irish Christian Brothers operated the only training college for secondary teachers. Lay teachers, who were outnumbered by teaching members of religious orders, were chronically underpaid and enjoyed no security of tenure. The salaries of women teachers (forty-eight pounds in 1905) was about half the amount earned by male teachers; both earned less than the better-trained national-school teachers. For good or ill, secondary teachers, unlike their national-school counterparts, were not subjected to the periodic visits from school inspectors until 1908, when officials were appointed for the principal subjects.

The curriculum for preparatory, junior, middle, and senior grades was conceived along classical lines: A liberal education was considered by policymakers to be the best preparation, particularly for males who hoped to enter the professions. Subjects included Latin and Greek (important to Catholic leaders, who saw intermediate schools as fruitful recruiting grounds for the priesthood), English, German, Italian, French (favored by girls), drawing and music, history and historical geography, the natural sciences, algebra and arithmetic, and bookkeeping.

A dominant feature of secondary pedagogy was the payment-by-results policy. At the beginning of the academic year the board issued a program of study that effectively determined the amount of instructional time that teachers devoted to various subjects. At the end of the year students presented themselves for public examinations in which their demonstrated ability was recognized by prizes, exhibitions, medals, and certificates. The board awarded teachers extra fees according to their pupils' achievements. This policy prompted teachers to encourage students to cram into their heads as much detail as possible in order to roll up points on a given examination. In the early 1880s, about four times as many boys as girls presented themselves for examination, but that gap was closing by 1920. Boys, however, generally maintained a slightly higher overall pass rate: 52 percent to 48 percent was a typical margin.

The payment-by-results policy seems stultifying, but contemporaries believed that preparation of the memory was appropriate for postsecondary students, who would encounter similar examinations for the civil service, for clerkships in businesses, and for admission to universities. Catholic schools found the policy especially lucrative. They quickly surpassed Protestant schools in the production of prizewinning students; by the end of the century Catholic students were regularly sweeping up over three-fourths of the exhibitions. Catholic secondary schools also competed with their rivals—one teaching order versus another—to boast of the highest number of awards. The negative effect of the emphasis on testing was the psychological toll on those students, about half, who were deemed insufficiently prepared to take the examinations, and on those who failed the examinations, thereby hurting their schools' financial and competitive positions.

In time the Christian Brothers' secondary schools in Dublin and Cork, which attracted male students largely from the lower socioeconomic strata, were winning nearly 50 percent of the fees payable after the annual examinations. Renowned for their teaching ability at the primary level, the Brothers' success at the secondary level was remarkable because their schools enrolled only about 3,000 students, less than 10 percent of the total receiving a secondary education. Moreover, their curriculum did not coincide with the standard intermediate program, as the Brothers placed heavy emphasis on Irish subjects and did not offer much Latin or Greek, subjects that the Intermediate Board favored with some 25 percent of prizes awarded. The Brothers' success strained their relationship with both the elite Catholic boarding schools and the Intermediate Board: The former complained that the Brothers had overstepped their bounds by presenting lower-class boys for examination; the latter would not heed the Brothers' requests to implement curricular reforms in Irish history and the Irish language that would further increase their students' opportunities on the examinations.

The Brothers were not alone in criticizing the curriculum. Various advocates complained that the classical curriculum was inappropriate for Irish needs and that it ought to be revised to prepare students for specific careers, including agriculture. The most persistent critics, however, were cultural nationalists who demanded curricular reform to promote the development of the students' knowledge and understanding of their nationality and heritage. Cultural nationalists, sparked by the ideas of Young Ireland writers of the 1840s and following the lead of the Gaelic Athletic Association and Gaelic League in the 1880s and 1890s, fostered widespread interest in Irish history and culture, particularly the language and its literature. Cultural-revival enthusiasts protested rightly that courses in these subjects were relegated to minor positions in the curriculum, and pointed out that the thousands of students who studied them were discriminated against in the awarding of points on the annual examinations. The board would not bow to this pressure and was consequently branded an antinational institution that aimed to transform Irish youths into anglicized West Britons. This criticism became a crucial part of the revolutionary rhetoric that advanced nationalists in the Sinn Féin movement levelled against Dublin Castle rule. Many significant Sinn Féin leaders and supporters of the movement for Irish independence were Christian Brothers' boys.

The administration of the intermediate system was divided when the country was partitioned in 1921. The new government in Northern Ireland did not disrupt local control of Catholic secondary schools, and the existing curriculum remained largely in place. The Provisional Government in Dublin, however, abolished the Intermediate Board in 1922 and instituted a dramatically revised curriculum designed along cultural nationalist lines.

SEE ALSO Duffy, James; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Literacy and Popular Culture; Religion: Since 1690; Religious Orders: Men; Rice, Edmund; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


Coldrey, Brian M. Faith and Fatherland: The Christian Brothers and the Development of Irish Nationalism, 1838–1921. 1988.

McElligott, T. J. Secondary Education in Ireland, 1870–1921. 1981.

Titley, E. Brian. Church, State, and the Control of Schooling in Ireland, 1900–1914. 1983.

Lawrence W. McBride

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Education: Secondary Education, Male

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Education: Secondary Education, Male