Birth rates and snobbery: the factors putting pressure on the education system

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s ability to improve secondary education will be constrained by parents’ desire for their children to go to university and by simple arithmetic

Photograph: Digital Vision/Getty

Photograph: Digital Vision/Getty


Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is attempting to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our secondary schools through a series of measures that he hopes will break the stranglehold that Leaving Cert points have on our education system and on how students select their course options for third level.

His prospect of success will be constrained by two significant factors. Firstly, many Irish students and their parents see securing an honours bachelor’s degree as the minimum for a good job. Secondly, the sharp increase in our birth rate since 1994 means that huge demand will build up in the next 20 years for level-eight places.

The CAO system, set up in 1976 to simplify admissions to university, has had unintended consequences. The secondary system is now dominated by the Leaving Cert exam because of its role in securing points for third-level places. Virtually everything that now occurs in classroom teaching and learning in our second-level schools is judged and valued in terms of how successfully it is in preparing students to secure the highest possible points in their Leaving.

If anything, this pressure for points intensified as a consequence of yet another worthwhile reform in 1999. That year Micheál Martin, as minister, provided students with access to the Leaving Cert marking schemes, and to the scripts themselves after they had been marked. This has turned out to be a double-edged sword.

It has ensured complete fairness, openness and transparency, but it has also put the marking schemes themselves rather than higher-order thinking, or broad and deep learning, at the centre of education.

There was no points system when I took the Leaving Cert, in 1971, and university entrance was not particularly significant in the day-to-day classroom. Then, 80 per cent of young people got jobs straight from school, after Intermediate or Leaving Cert. For the 20 per cent who aspired to go to university, all faculties were available to those who matriculated, which in Leaving Cert terms required a modest two grade Cs in higher papers.

The problem now is that the same examination system that facilitated 20 per cent of school students to enter third level in the early 1970s is having to do the same job for 65 per cent of students.

If anything, the problem of providing a more balanced education to our children as they contemplate their higher- and further-education options is about to get much worse. And it’s because of demographic and parental pressures.

Ireland’s birth rate has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past 18 years and now stands at more than 75,000 a year.

Each year group in our secondary schools now has an average of 52,000 children; in our primary schools it is 60,000.

The real explosion in our birth rate has occurred in the past seven years, averaging 73,000; these children are currently in preschool and infant classes. In the light of this growth, the rise in third-level numbers evident in recent years may be unsustainable.

Irish institutions have done well in catering for more students, but teaching and learning in our schools have been distorted by the CAO system.

More distortion is caused by snobbery. Too many parents want their children to secure a place on a high-status course, at level eight and, preferably, in a university. This creates intense competition for honours bachelor’s courses, especially those offered by universities. To meet this demand, level-eight degrees have grown since 1999 from 55 per cent to more than 70 per cent as a percentage of all courses offered through the CAO.

This market-driven move away from more vocational level-six and -seven programmes and towards level eight has occurred particularly at institutes of technology. Industry needs more people with qualifications at levels six and seven, but students choose otherwise, influenced largely by their parents. Why are we as a society so fixated on securing a university education for our children, over and above all the other qualifications that develop the skills and talents required by every society?

Many of our institutes of technology want to become universities. The Minister, rightly in my view, is determined to preserve the diversity of choice within further and higher education. You can’t run an economy based solely on the skills of level-eight university graduates.

Successful reform needs a commitment to a more balanced second-level curriculum, like the German, Dutch and Danish models, to develop both academic and practical skills; a reduction in the number of marketing-driven specialised courses at third level in favour of broader programmes; and medical courses solely as postgraduate options. The points race would then effectively be over, and its distorting effect on the nature and content of secondary education would hugely diminish.