Education debate 'should move on' from resources to quality


DISCUSSIONS ON education must move beyond the debate on resources and focus relentlessly on teacher quality, according to Don Thornhill, chairman of the National Competitiveness Council.

In a major weekend address, Dr Thornhill also backed greater competition between schools which would give parents and students wider choice and boost quality.

The former secretary of the Department of Education told the Irish Primary Principals Network conference that Irish society needed to raise its collective ambition for our education system.

“We need the best education system in the world, not just one that is good enough.”

He said that while Ireland was strong on literacy, our international ranking on maths and science was average. He also pointed to the danger that the debate on education could be dominated by resource questions when the real challenge was boosting outcomes.

There was little compelling evidence, he said, that smaller class sizes, for example, would automatically boost standards.

Dr Thornhill said the Government should pay relentless attention to teacher quality, which is already excellent from primary through to third level. This could be done by making teaching a prestigious profession, by ensuring attractive pay, reasonable exit arrangements and effective training and professional development.

He also paid tribute to teachers and parents.

“The commitment and skills of our educators and the support of parents make strong educational outcomes possible, notwithstanding historical underfunding.”

Dr Thornhill, a former chairman of the Higher Education Authority, is one of the most influential figures in Irish education. He has questioned the quality of the Irish education system, insisting that standards could be improved.

In recent months, former EU commissioner, Peter Sutherland and former Intel chief Craig Barrett have both also raised concerns about the quality of some aspects of the education system here.

Dr Thornhill said Ireland’s ability to take maximum advantage of global economic recovery would be enhanced if the quality of education could continue to be raised.

He also backed a formal pre-primary education system to address disadvantage.

On leadership, he told the conference that principals needed the freedom to focus on learning outcomes, instead of being bogged down in administrative duties.

At primary level, he said teaching time for maths and science should be given priority. Too many pupils were leaving primary schools with very low reading ability and a poor grasp of basic mathematical concepts.

Dr Thornhill also criticised the poor availability of computers in Irish schools and the continuing failure to integrate ICT into teaching on a system-wide basis.