Finding the muscle to fix our failing education system


It is time to stop commissioning reports and tiptoeing around the teacher unions. Ireland is being left behind with an inferior school system and it’s up to the new Minister for Education to stop the decline - urgent action has to be taken, writes ED WALSH


Spending more does not necessarily mean that schools become better; sometimes they become worse. In the past decade, Britain increased school funding by 21 per cent and the US by 37 per cent, yet standards have slipped in both countries.

In Ireland’s case, the result has been even worse. In the past decade, funding per student has been increased in real terms by 61 per cent, yet performance has decreased by 15 per cent.

This disconcerting news was reinforced before Christmas when the international ranking of the reading, mathematics and science skills of Ireland’s 15-year-olds was published. Reading skills dropped from fifth to 17th, the sharpest drop among 39 countries, with one quarter of all 15-year-olds classified as effectively illiterate. This was more politely termed in the report as “below the level of literacy needed to participate effectively in society”.

Irish maths performance also took a dive. Over three years, it 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.

This raises serious doubts about the integrity of the Irish examination system. The Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan, responded to the news by saying, “We are disappointed and concerned.” That is hardly a dynamic, action-oriented response.

The new UK government has done more than concerned. It has acted swiftly on education reform, setting a good example for an incoming Irish government. But positions are so entrenched here 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 on the inevitable threats to the Leaving Cert, so frequently used to stop change in its tracks.

Ireland can delay no longer in reforming a school system that has become a liability rather than an asset even if it means closing the school system for a time, disrupting the Leaving Certificate schedule and causing the late emergence of about 60,000 pupils.


Ireland’s school system once ranked well internationally. But the world has moved on and this country has been left behind. It doesn’t even have an average school system, it has an inferior one. As a succession of Irish ministers and education policy-makers have messed about for decades commissioning reports, attending international conferences and tiptoeing 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 per cent of mathematics teachers have no qualification in the subject.

The situation in science is equally bleak where a large proportion of qualified teachers have majored in biological sciences. As a result, they lack the mathematical competence necessary to teach physics effectively.

Ireland has the shortest school year in the European Union, reflecting the needs of a 1930s agrarian economy where students needed long summer holidays to help save the harvest.

Benchmarking was used as a device to justify major salary increases that made Irish teachers the highest paid in the EU after Luxembourg. An incoming government needs to repeat the benchmarking exercise, but this time relate it to EU norms, such as the length of a typical school year and levels of teacher remuneration.

EU benchmarking could also transform the teaching day. Teachers would be expected to remain after school hours to perform remedial work with students who need it, and undertake work to improve their 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 substitution arrangements would be tightened.


The incoming minister for education should announce a series of changes that will eliminate the most glaring dubious practices during the first week in office.

Yes, the teacher unions will become excited. Let them. Many of the established practices in Irish education are as indefensible and as anachronistic as the civil service concession time for cashing cheques or doing their Christmas shopping.

After winning that skirmish, the minister can get down to more serious business such as 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 processes used in other countries to address underperformance are essential. So is the assessment of individual school performance and the publication rankings. Ireland cannot continue to refuse to do this.

There is no reason to delay by commissioning further reports. These abound and are 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 to 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. All students should be introduced to the Irish language at primary level, but after that 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, and enriching the offering of continental and Asian languages and Irish studies. The incoming minister should commission no reports on the matter, but should make a start in phasing in the policy. It is about time that the ministers for education used their power more effectively in insisting on action.

Primary teacher education has yet to be removed from church control. As a recent teaching council report on Mary Immaculate College noted, too much time is spent on religious studies in the colleges of education and not enough on subjects such as civic responsibility, science and foreign languages.

Mary Immaculate and other teacher-training colleges continue to operate as independent publicly funded colleges 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.


Dr Colin Hunt and his team have done a good job with the National Strategy for Higher Education. It means that the next minister has the ammunition needed to take 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, which permits students to repay the cost of their higher education after graduation, is 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 do not provide the large majority of young academic staff with more than renewable nine-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. Unfortunately some academics exploit the current system and linger as institutional liabilities. New conditions of employment are needed to address the matter.


There is reason to be hopeful that an incoming government will move on education reform, because the need is so evident and reform can reduce, rather than increase, expenditure.

There is accumulating evidence 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 to throw money at their problems; instead they have focused on improving their teachers.

Successful countries have made teaching a sought-after and elite profession by strictly limiting access and being choosy about the suitability of those admitted. There are successful examples of this strategy from South Korea to Poland to Finland.

In addition to demanding high academic qualifications (often at least a master’s degree) candidates are screened to establish that they have the personal characteristics suited to educate and inspire the next generation of citizens.

New junior teachers are 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.

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

Dr Edward Walsh is the founding president of the University of Limerick. This is the latest in a series of articles about how the Irish education system might be reformed. More next month.