September 21, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Why Minister Norma is the best girl in class

Norma Foley is the best pupil in Micheál Martin’s class. That’s not a great distinction, for they are an unruly bunch of under-achievers. They fight, talk behind the teacher’s back and tell tales out of school. And some of them never do their homework.

But the Education  Minister did her homework when it came to planning the re-opening of our schools. She ignored the clamour for interviews and  public statements from many in opposition parties and the media, and stuck doggedly to her difficult task.

She took advice from school principals and senior civil servants and learned from the experience of other countries. She cleared her lines with the teacher unions and with representatives of all the interests involved.

Although Ms Foley is an inexperienced politician, she was careful to leave no hostages to fortune. She marked out the limitations of her authority and made it clear there were times when she would defer to the public health professionals – if, for instance, they called for the closure of a class or an entire school.

An incredible amount of work went into re-opening the schools – from the teachers, of course, but also from the caretaking and catering staff and the people who run and drive school buses. To equip an entire fleet with protective screens, hand sanitizers and reserved seats was a considerable achievement.

Naturally, there  have been some problems. There has not been enough bus seats for everyone, everywhere, or enough space for every class in every school. Nevertheless, the operation has shown the hallmarks of sound planning, a trait rarely exhibited by this Government.

Ms Foley does not deserve all the credit. But ministers get a lot of blame when things go wrong so I think she has earned a pat on the back. Maith an cailín – you’re the best girl in the class!

The minister also deserves praise for her handling of the Leaving Cert under the system of predictive grades. She took advice and changed her plans when she saw the problems caused by the use of computer algorithms in the British exam system.

And she has refused to be panicked by the few cases of wrongful downgrading or the fear that grade inflation might devalue some results from previous years. These are individual problems; they do not detract from what was, overall, a successful conclusion to an exam year fraught with difficulty..

Ms Foley’s calm and considered approach stands in total contrast to the chaos surrounding the ill-judged plan to make pubs keep details of every meal they serve.

At least, that was the plan as first leaked to newspapers. Then it turned out that the pubs would only be required to keep their till rolls, which they have to do anyway for VAT purposes. And we barely had time to absorb this change before we learned that it didn’t really matter because the wet pubs would soon be allowed to re-open without any food requirement.

The Government, and its individual ministers, employ an army of advisors and spin doctors, yet nobody seems to have thought through this mad measure or briefed back-benchers on what was intended and how it might work.
I’m not sure which minister deserves the blame in this case, or who is the worst boy in the class.

But I will say this: the more I see of Stephen Donnelly as Minister for Health the more my respect grows for Simon Harris.

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