Reforming Irish Education

Ed Walsh

The Celtic Tiger success of the 1990s was built on high-tech manufacturing. While this is still important for Ireland there has been a steady shift in activity and job creation towards knowledge-base service enterprise. Products, rather than being exported on trucks, now more usually travel over the internet.
Competition in the knowledge economy is a global race for talent. The talent required is different to that which won races in the industrial economy. As a result competitor countries have been taking radical action to transform their educational systems. Ireland has not. Its international rankings, especially those of its school system, have been plummeting.
The startling rate at which the Irish school system is falling behind within the OECD was highlighted in last December’s PISA report
• In a decade reading levels in Ireland have dropped from 5th to 17th.
• 23 percent of male teenagers are functionally illiterate.
• In only three years Ireland’s math ranking has dropped from 16th to 26th place

The problems of the deteriorating school system are carried over into the third level and, once more, employers in such key enterprises as Google find it necessary to look abroad for the talents they require, such as mastery of two or three modern European languages, entrepreneurial skills, and common sense, based on an understanding of interpersonal relationships as well as national and international affairs.
Finland, which is ranked as having the best school system in Europe, does not rely on a national examination equivalent to the Leaving Certificate. Rather the assessment of student attainment is primarily dependent on the professional judgement of the teachers who themselves are carefully selected, nurtured, monitored, assessed and trained to perform their work
Studies, by Calvin Taylor of the University of Utah and others, have long established that the typical formal examination is capable of assessing only some one quarter of those attributes that contribute to a person’s success in later life. Formal examinations can readily determined mathematical and linguistic competence, but are less likely to detect those human characteristics associated with success as a citizen, an employee or a parent. Ireland’s narrow assessment system provides no scope for recognising students who exhibit such valuable characteristics as reliability, determination, entrepreneurship, intuition, common sense, sensitivity and consideration for others; characteristic that in adulthood are so vital for personal success and the wellbeing of the community.
In 1972 when we were admitting the first 100 students to NIHE, Limerick from the group of over 1000 who applied we decided that, in addition to requiring achievement on the Leaving Certificate, applicants would be expected to submit an assessment by their teachers. The following is an extract from my book ‘Upstart: Friends, Foes and Founding a University’, and just published by The Collins Press

Friday 7 January 1972
LIMERICK A day designing student application forms. The Leaving Certificate alone did not identify communication ability, involvement in classroom activities, pursuit of independent study, critical and questioning attitude, personal responsibility, consideration for others. Our form required teachers to give ratings under these headings. It also notified the entire school system that change was in the third level air – courtesy of NIHE, Limerick.

Teachers appeared to have little difficulty in responding and providing the assessments we required. Their judgement played a key role in determining the admission of what turned out to be a most exceptional group of pioneering students.

In seeking these assessments from the school system we were reverting to an earlier era when educators were expected to place emphasis on nurturing and recognising those personal skills and values that contribute to healthy and stable society, success at work and a caring family life. The narrowness of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and the increasing tyranny of the CAO system have stimulated the development of a perverse Irish educational system that neither fosters nor rewards those human characteristics that society most needs and employers cherish; characteristics that contribute so much to personal success and satisfaction in later life.

McKinsey, the international consultancy firm, produced a report in 2007 that has had global impact on educational policy. Countries such as the US, UK, Germany and Ireland, that increased educational funding yet failed to improve the performance of their school systems, were puzzled. The McKinsey report provided the answer. It showed that while funding to a certain level is important the key to increasing the performance of a school system is improvement of the quality and capability of the teachers. Countries such as Finland, South Korea, Singapore and Canada have the world’s best school systems primarily because they are choosey about who they admit to the teaching profession and then demand teaching excellence. Good teachers are cherished and recognised. But teachers and schools are regularly assessed, school performance is made public, pupils are assessed by their teachers in the school. Lax or poor behaviour is not ignored. Teachers routinely remain after regular school hours to give special attention to those students who may have had difficulty and fallen behind during the day to ensure that they are in a position to keep pace with the class the following morning. Leaving no student fall behind is a core objective.

The Irish educational system is failing to compete and is in need of reform. Expecting the existing church-controlled teacher education colleges to produce entrepreneurial, innovative, scientifically literate teachers is unrealistic. If primary teacher education is to be reformed, as it should, control must be wrested from the churches. That’s not difficult: the source of funds controls.

We are fortunate that we have a fine Minister for Education in Ruairi Quinn who, I believe, has the courage and ability to introduce the necessary change. Most of the key reforms do not require additional funding: indeed savings can arise. The following are proposed

1. Secularise and reform the education of primary teachers: more civics, science, math and modern languages.
2. Limit places in teacher education, so that it becomes an elite profession from which all but the most suitable are excluded
3. Upgrade the performance of existing teachers by boosting in-service education undertaken outside school hours and between terms
4. Increase the length of the school year to the EU average and reduce teacher holidays to new public sector norms
5. Introduce rigorous teacher assessment and link outcomes to award of annual increments
6. Publish separate competitiveness school rankings within disadvantaged and other categories
7. Permit religious denominations to offer, at their own expense, religious instruction to those students who wish to receive it outside regular school hours
8. Place major emphasis on continuous assessment of pupils by teachers during the school year
9. Restructure the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment by limiting its size to 11 members of international standing; of which 5 are educators and 6 are from the private sector.
10. Reform university governance, as Denmark did in 2003: limit size of governing boards to 11 members of which 6 are external from the private sector
11. Introduce the Australian funding system whereby fees are repaid after graduation when income reaches a certain level
12. Permit universities to compete in the market for international talent by removing limits on individual salary offers, while imposing strict limits on average salary levels within the university.
13. The 2010 recommendation to create a Technological University has triggered a distracting political and academic dynamic making it appear essential for most warm-blooded academics and local politicians to seek university status for their Institute of Technology. The IOTs form as vital a component of regional infrastructure as the universities: both are required. The Technological University recommendation should be shelved. One anomaly exists however: Waterford is Ireland’s only regional city without a university and there is a strong economic case for addressing this major infrastructural deficit in the South East. The Waterford Institute of Technology should be transformed into the University of Waterford with possible outreach programmes in Kilkenny and Carlow. Sub-degree work should be reassigned to the adjacent IOTs. Finance should not be an issue; most of the capital investment has already been made.

Given the state of the job market, national finances and congestion at third level the Department of Education is in a strong position to take on vested interests. It can insist on reform and if necessary face down even extended industrial action, recognising that the exchequer has to find some €100 million a week….or €5 billion a year…to pay the teachers.

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