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.
While the Finnish system is beneficial for students, it is also good for teachers. “Teaching is very well respected in Finland where teachers are among the top 10 per cent academically, having all completed a master’s degree,” says O’Donnell. “Irish teachers would love a curriculum with less content that is more relevant to the real world. I would like our schools to provide career guidance from first year, as well as computer classes and life skills. We need to take a more holistic approach to the development of our young people.”
The Class Swap series producer Mairead Tucker agrees the system in Finland actively promotes individuality. “There isn’t a lot of emphasis placed on state exams and teachers have a lot of flexibility with the curriculum, so teachers and students are freer to study subject matter they find interesting,” she says.
Cutbacks in Spain
Language teacher Emma O’Brien from the Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick, was impressed with how well the Spanish teenagers did at maths.
She found the relationship between Spanish students and their teachers was similar to their Irish counterparts but was surprised at the relaxed atmosphere within the classrooms.
“Classroom management was more laidback than what I am used to. In some classes, students were quite obviously not paying attention and there was a lot of chat around the room. Some were doodling, others were texting and for the most part the teacher ignored the bad behaviour and ploughed on. But the insistence on strict punctuality was unusual. Classrooms are inaccessible from the outside once the lesson has begun and students who arrive late are left to dwell on their tardiness in the corridor.” For their part, the Limerick students were shocked by the way the Spanish students openly displayed affection for each other.
The Class Swap producers felt the students were relaxed and confident and enjoyed a good relationship with their teachers. But signs of austerity were palpable: class sizes have increased and teachers are under pressure to prepare students for exams.
“Austerity has cut deep. The school we visited lost 12 teachers over the past couple of years,” says Tucker. “Spanish teachers said this was directly felt in the classroom, in subject choices, and in the teachers’ ability to give proper attention. Resources to help struggling students has been limited and was frustrating to witness.”
But O’Brien found a technology lesson remarkable. “It was in a very small room with a handful of computers and the IT teacher used a blackboard,” she recalls. “The Spanish students worked quite capably on advanced IT tasks that left our pupils gobsmacked. It was clear their knowledge of technology was way ahead of most Irish secondary students’.”
Old-school learning in Poland
The producers chose Poland because in the latest Pisa tests it rated better than Ireland in both reading and maths despite spending less than half the amount of money per student annually on education.
Class Swap producer Tucker felt students were highly motivated and really valued the opportunity for education. She also noted that the broad age spectrum within schools created a different atmosphere on the corridors in Poland, with fewer visible cliques than often in Ireland.
Robert O’Reilly teaches maths and business in Ballinamore Community School in Co Leitrim, and found the Polish continuity between primary and secondary school helped create a sense of security that promoted learning.
“The school we visited catered for children in preschool, primary school and lower secondary school all mixing freely within the same building, which was quite unusual,” he says.
“This seamless mixture of ages eliminates one of the problems often associated with the Irish system, with the transition from primary to secondary school. Polish students have the same teacher for the first three years of primary school, but for the second three years, have different teachers for different subjects.”
O’Reilly says the Polish system was revamped a couple of decades ago and students are encouraged to take control of their own learning – this, he believes, could be beneficial for Irish pupils.
“After the second World War and the advent of the Cold War, Poland was under a strong Soviet-backed communist regime that suppressed education,” he says. “That all changed in 1990 when the communist system in Eastern Europe collapsed, leading to a massive appetite for educational reform. Education was seen as a vehicle for economic change and parents became active in their children’s education.
“There was a major revamp of the system in 1999, extending compulsory full-time education to age 16, so students were a year older and more mature when making decisions for upper secondary school, which they attend from age 16.”
“The Polish education system believes continual assessment is very important in motivating students, but external standardised exams are also vital. It is so important that the right balance be struck, which is something we could learn when developing appropriate assessment procedures for the new Junior Cycle.”
In the recent Pisa results Poland has continued to improve its position relative to other OECD countries, especially in maths.
O’Reilly believes this is down to a number of factors. “I think it could be a combination of things, such as a massive appetite for education from students, parents and society in general. The major reform of the Polish education system seems to have been a successful catalyst for change. Also the decentralisation of the governance of schools is regarded as extremely important.”
The ability of the Polish students to perform complex mathematical operations in their heads impressed O’Reilly. “Unlike in Ireland, calculators are not allowed. While calculators certainly have many benefits in assisting weaker students and speeding up repetitive operations, I feel Irish students now over-rely on their calculator to the detriment of their mental mathematical ability. Calculators should have a place in Irish classrooms but their use needs to be monitored closely.”
Brian Deering, who is 16, was also surprised at the lack of technology but didn’t feel it impacted on the Polish students. “Although they didn’t have calculators or projectors, they seemed to take their education more seriously than some students in Ireland.”
Class Swap continues on Mondays at 7.30pm on RTÉ One. Next week, the Irish students get to grips with drama lessons in Finland, learn how austerity has affected the education system in Spain and enjoy the novelty of a hot lunch in Poland.