How do Irish classrooms compare with others in Europe?
A new TV documentary series sees Irish students and their teachers going to school in Poland, Finland and Spain
Blackboard jungle: For the RTE series Class Swap, pupils from Ireland attended school in Poland (above), Spain and Finland
Ireland has a good reputation in education but how do our curriculum and teaching practice compare with our European neighbours? While the OECD’s recently published Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results suggest Ireland’s 15-year-olds are above average when compared with other developed countries, Class Swap, a new TV series gives a flavour of how our schools differ on the ground.
For the six-part documentary made by Esras films for RTÉ, a group of transition-year students from Kells, Limerick and Leitrim, and their teachers, got to grips with the culture and curriculum in Finland, Spain and Poland, contrasting teaching styles, atmosphere and attitudes to ambition and learning.
Commenting on the project, Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn said it can be very beneficial. “I spent a year in Greece as part of my postgraduate studies in architecture and this was a very rewarding and enriching experience for me. It was a great adventure living and studying in Athens. My time there opened my eyes and mind to a new culture, language and a host of friends. I hope Class Swap has done the same for the students and their teachers.”
Freedom in Finland
In Finland many schools are run by the local community and, although there is a national curriculum, it is seen as a guideline and teachers choose the content they want to teach, which is designed to meet students’ individual needs.
Veronica O’Donnell, who teaches maths and science at St Ciaran’s Community School in Kells, Co Meath, visited a Finnish school with some of her students to see how it compared. “As Finland has been seen as the poster child of education for a number of years and always ranked at the top of the Pisa results, I was very interested to see how they motivated their students and how lessons were conducted compared with how I teach,” she says.
“Students are regularly assessed rather than doing formal exams. Although teachers can choose to enter students for state exams, the teacher’s assessment and an interview determine whether a student goes on to an academic or vocational higher secondary school. In contrast to the Finnish system, she says, the Irish curriculum causes problems for both students and teachers.
“In Ireland the curriculum has too much content and teachers are constantly under pressure to ensure pupils perform in an exam,” she says. “This means we don’t take a holistic approach to our young people’s education, as Finland does. There they develop the student socially and morally as well as academically. This approach would definitely benefit Irish students as many young people find it difficult to interact socially or think for themselves when they go into the world of work.”
The students from Meath were amazed at the relaxed atmosphere in the Finnish classrooms. “It was brilliant that the students called the teachers by their first names and were allowed their phones,” says 17-year-old Tara White. “And nobody abused that privilege at all.”
Her teacher also felt the Finnish students seemed very happy, with no real need for a formal discipline system and no evidence of bullying. O’Donnell believes our system is too rigid and if teachers were given more freedom to deliver their own curriculum, Irish schools might be calmer.