Reforming Irish Education

Reforming Irish education: the challenge for the next minister

Edward Walsh

Spending more does not necessarily mean that schools become better; in fact they sometimes become worse.  During the past decade
Britain increased school funding by 21 percent and the US by 37 percent, yet
standards slipped in both countries.[1]   In Ireland’s case the bad outcome is even more dramatic.  In the past decade funding
per student [2]  was increased in real terms by 61 percent[3]
yet performance decreased by 15 percent[4].  This disconcerting news was further reinforced before Christmas when the international ranking for Ireland’s reading, mathematics and science skills of 15-year-olds was published[5].
Reading skills dropped from 5th to 17th : the sharpest
drop amongst 39 countries; with one quarter of all 15-year-olds classified as effectively
illiterate (more politely termed in the report ‘below the level of literacy
needed to participate effectively in society’).

Irish math performance also took a nose dive and in a three-year period went from 16th to 26th; the second largest fall of all countries. One would expect
that this dramatic deterioration in Ireland’s educational performance would be
reflected in Leaving Certificate grades; but remarkably not.  Perversely there has been grade inflation[6].
This fact raises serious doubts about the integrity of the Irish examination
system.  Minister Coughlan responded to
the news laconically ‘we are disappointed and concerned’; hardly the dynamic action-oriented response one might hope for.  The new UK
government has done more than ‘being concerned’.  On taking office it has acted swiftly and decisively on education reform; setting good example for an incoming Irish government.   But positions are so entrenched in Ireland that even a good minister is unlikely to break the log-jam without the determined involvement of the whole cabinet in facing down
the teacher unions and the inevitable threats to the Leaving Cert, so
frequently used to stop change in its tracks. Even at the risk of closing the school
system, for as long as it takes, disruption to the Leaving Cert and the late
emergence of some  60,000 school leavers,
Ireland can delay no longer in reforming a school system that has become a
liability rather than an asset.

There
is reason to be hopeful that an incoming government will move on education
reform. Why? Because the need is so evident and reform can reduce rather than
increase expenditure.  There is accumulating
evidence[7]
to show that improving the quality of a school system is primarily achieved,  not by spending more, but by improving the
quality and work practices of the teachers. Countries with the best school
systems have resisted the temptation of throwing money at their problems;
instead they have focussed on improving the quality and professionalism of
their teachers.  Successful countries
have made teaching a sought-after and elite profession by strictly limiting
access and being choosey about the suitability of those admitted. There are successful
examples of this strategy across the globe from South Korea to Poland to
Finland.  In addition to demanding high
academic qualifications (often at least a
master’s degree) in the area of specialisation candidates are screened
to establish that they have the personal characteristics suited to educate and
inspire a next generations of citizens. By strictly limiting numbers, and
screening those admitted to teacher education, competition becomes intense; being
selected is considered a matter of personal pride and achievement. New junior
teachers are carefully monitored and expected to remain after school hours and
between terms interacting with experienced teachers and developing their skills
in order to retain their positions and progress.

Ireland’s
school system once ranked well internationally.  But the world has moved on and Ireland has
been left behind without even an average school system:  it has an inferior school system.  As a succession of Irish ministers and education
policy makers have messed about for the past decades commissioning reports,
attending international conferences and tippy-toeing around the powerful teacher
unions, Ireland has been losing ground as competitor countries have successfully
grappled with the new challenges and reformed their systems.

The
inferior ranking of Ireland’s school system arises from a variety of
factors.

Many
teachers at second level are not qualified in the subjects they teach.  For example, 48 percent of mathematics
teachers have no qualification in mathematics[8].
The situation in science is equally bleak where a large proportion of qualified
teachers have majored in the biological sciences and as a result they lack the
mathematical competence necessary to teach physics effectively.

Ireland
has the shortest school year in the EU, reflecting the needs of a 1930s
agrarian Ireland where students needed long summer holidays to help save the
harvest.  Benchmarking was used as a
device to justify major salary increase that made Irish teachers the highest paid
in the EU after Luxemburg.  An incoming
government needs to repeat the benchmarking exercise, but this time relate to EU
norms, such as the length of the typical school year and levels of teacher
remuneration. EU benchmarking could also transform the teaching day.  Teachers would no longer be free to absent
themselves from school when not teaching. They would be expected to remain after
school hours to perform remedial work with students who need it, and undertake
work to improve their own teaching skills and curriculum content.  There would be no question of closing schools
during term for ‘in-service days’. Teachers would be expected to be available
to meet parents on evenings and weekends. Lax sick leave and substitutions
arrangements would be tightened.

The
Irish school system has drifted over the years and is now seriously out of line
with EU norms. The incoming minister for education, during the first week in
office, has good reason to signal intent by announcing a series of changes that
eliminate the most glaring doubtful practices.
Yes, of course the teacher unions will become excited. Let them. Many of
the established practices in Irish education are as indefensible and as
anachronistic as civil service concession time for cheque cashing or Christmas
shopping.  After winning that skirmish
the Minister can get down to more serious business like bringing the length of
the school year into line with EU norms and implementing the many reports on
curriculum reform that lie ignored.  Rigorous
assessment of teacher performance and the introduction of the kind of process
used in other countries to address underperformance are essential if standards
are to be improved.  So is the thorough
assessment and publication of individual school performance rankings and the reversal
of Ireland’s rather unique refusal to do so.  There is no reason for delay in commissioning
further reports.  These abound and are
sitting there waiting for a Minister with the guts and ability to implement
them.  The incoming Minister will be in a
position to hit the ground running and make things happen: there are good
people in key positions in the Department.
The secretary general Brigid McManus and the new chief inspector Dr
Harold Hislop both appear ready for action, given an able and courageous
Minister who has the support of cabinet in facing down vested interests.

School
language policy needs revision…and a phased reallocation of part of the €1
billion committed each year to teaching Irish is a good place to start.  Certainly all students should be introduced
to the Irish language at primary level but then resources should be directed only
to those who have shown interest and commitment.  The old policies of compulsion that have so
inhibited the restoration of the language should be abandoned.  Resources should be reoriented towards
improving the teaching of English, enriching the offering of continental and
Asian languages and Irish Studies. The incoming minister should commission no
reports on the matter, but make a start in phasing in the policy.  The source of funds controls…and it is
about time that ministers for education used this crude power more effectively
in insisting on action.

Primary
teacher education has yet to be removed from church control.  Too much time is still spent on religious
studies in the colleges of education[9]
and not enough on subjects such as civic responsibility, science and
international languages.  A serious effort
was made in 1990 to weaken church control of primary teacher education when I
was president of the University of Limerick and Jeremiah Newman was Roman
Catholic Bishop of Limerick.  At the
height of the IRA campaign I was espousing the view that church-controlled
schools served to perpetuate sectarianism and a non-denominational school
system North and South should be fostered by selective government funding. I
received a call indicating that the Minister for Education of the day, Mary
O’Rourke, would like to see Mary Immaculate (Limerick’s highly regarded primary
teacher education college) establish a closer relationship with the University
of Limerick.   While I was reluctant to
have the ethos of the university diluted by this influx I recognised the social
implications of her plan and agreed to support it.  I understand that she then met Bishop Newman,
the chairman of the college board, and he reacted by indicating  that he would prefer to have the college closed
than have it integrated with the godless University of Limerick. The Minister
is reported to have responded by saying ‘that’s fine, my lord, there could be a
joint closing of the college.’[10]  She called his bluff and the college became a
recognised college of UL. (More on this in a memoir to be published later this
year.) However the intention that the college should relocate to the university
campus was successfully resisted after O’Rourke moved on. Today it continues to
operate in effect as an independent publicly-funded college under the firm
control of a board chaired by a bishop. Such anachronisms are likely to be
addressed as a new Minister goes about making the system more cost effective
and implementing the recently-published Hunt report on higher education.

Hunt
and his team have generally done a good job: the next minister is provided with
the ammunition to move into action immediately.
First on the agenda must be the funding crisis that has grown since the
abolition of third level fees in 1996.
The Australian-type model, that permits students to repay the cost of
their higher education after graduation, is well proven and should be phased in
as proposed.  The 1997 Universities Act
lumbered the universities with large governing authorities dominated by
internal vested interests.  Proposals to
reduce the size and strengthen external expertise (provided political hacks are
excluded) could much improve the situation.
Proposals to alter the nature of faculty and staff contracts are
controversial but point in the right direction.
The great US universities refrain from providing the large majority of young
academic staff with more than renewable 9-month contracts for many years.  Students grade their lecturer’s performance
and these reports combined with success in research, publication and service to
the community determine the outcome of the annual review and continued
employment by the university. Seeking excellence and tolerating mediocrity are
incompatible.  Most Irish academics work
at levels of intensity and commitment that surprise those from industry that
spend enough time on campus to find out.  Unfortunately some academics exploit the
current system un-assailed and linger as institutional liabilities.  New conditions of employment are needed to
address the matter.

Much
of the necessary reform of the Irish educational system can result in savings,
rather than increased expenditure.  With
this in mind there is good reason to expect that the next Minister for
Education will lose no time in rolling out a major programme of educational reform
and help provide foundations for Ireland’s recovery.

14
January 2011

Dr Edward Walsh is the founding president of the
University of Limerick
087 2376357
oakhampton@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *