Education should listen to business

Tue, Sep 25, 2012, 01:00

LEFTFIELD:EARLIER THIS year Ireland’s business community launched an ambitious campaign entitled Driving Ireland’s Recovery built around four priorities: restoring domestic demand; keeping Ireland strong in Europe; supporting job creation; and delivering world-class public services. It singled out education as the most important investment block for Ireland’s growth and prosperity. It pointed out that outcomes have slipped over the past decade and this decline must be reversed through innovative and radical reform.

While the education sector might welcome Ibec’s support for investment in education, it can be more ambivalent about the legitimacy of the business voice in the debate on what shape this reform might take. Not surprisingly, business will emphasise the link between education and innovation, jobs and economic growth. It will also highlight disconnections between skills developed by the education system and where potential employment opportunities exist. Most recently, this has manifested itself in demands to improve competence in mathematics and modern languages, and in the quantity and quality of science, engineering and technology students.

However, providing a business perspective should not be confused with having a utilitarian view of education. In its education commentary, Ibec emphasises a broader view of education that relates to the development of individuals as independent and creative thinkers and to the promotion of active citizenship and support for ethical values.

The goals of satisfying the needs of enterprise and developing well-rounded, ethical and culturally literate citizens are not mutually exclusive; they are closely aligned.

Business needs employees with knowledge and skills, but with the capacity to reflect, analyse, reason, articulate and argue, and with the confidence to challenge.

We might have a less elegant language around these attributes – “employability”, “competences” or “ thinking outside the box” – but they reflect the principles and values of learning.

Last year the international management consultancy McKinsey singled out three factors that ignite educate reform across the world: an economic crisis; a critical report about system performance (usually in the shape of OECD/Pisa rankings); and new political leadership with a strong appetite for reform. Ireland has all three conditions in place.

In terms of policy rhetoric, we have a highly ambitious reform agenda: the literacy and numeracy strategy; reform of the junior cycle; Project Maths; school patronage; the reconfiguration of further education and training; a college-entry system that could alleviate the tyranny of the points race; and a new landscape for higher education, to name but a few initiatives.

The challenge remains to turn this rhetoric into reality. International experience suggests that many reforms fail to deliver because they have little effect on what happens inside the classroom or lecture hall.

The US commentator Larry Cuban suggests they have a similar effect to that of a storm on the ocean: “The surface is agitated and turbulent, while the ocean floor is calm and serene (if a bit murky). Policy churns dramatically, creating the appearance of major changes while deep below the surface, life goes on largely uninterrupted.”

So the emphasis should be on implementation. Education reform necessarily proceeds at a relatively slow pace. If business brings a new product or service to market and it fails, it can go back to the drawing board. If an education reform fails, young people’s lives are profoundly affected.

The need for an innate conservatism should not be an excuse for inaction or the protection of self-interest. There is an inevitable tendency for education practices at all levels to develop their own dynamic, independent of the world of work and unresponsive to changes in the needs of the economy. Business doesn’t know best but it provides an important perspective.

Tony Donohoe is head of education policy at the employers’ group Ibec

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