Educating Irish people to live and work success


EDUCATION:Educating Irish people to live and work successfully in the 21st century requires adopting two objectives in updating the system that by and large has served us well up to now. The first is in recognising our deficit vis-à-vis a fast-changing world, the second is getting our teachers to a place where we can deal with those changes.

The good news is that reform is not going to require substantial extra funding, unlike the 1970s when my colleagues and I began what became the University of Limerick, and despite current economic woes.

The Celtic Tiger success of the 1990s was built on high-tech manufacturing. While this is still important for Ireland there has been a steady shift in activity and job creation towards knowledge-based service enterprise. Products, rather than being exported on trucks, now more usually travel over the internet.

Competition in the knowledge economy is a global race for talent. The talent required is different to that which won races in the industrial economy. Competitor countries have been taking radical action to transform their educational systems. Ireland has not. Our international rankings, especially those of its school system, have been plummeting.

The startling rate at which the Irish school system is falling behind within the OECD was highlighted in its Programme for International Student Assessment report (Pisa) last December.

Reading levels in Ireland have dropped from fifth to 17th in a decade, while 23 per cent of male teenagers are functionally illiterate. In only three years, Ireland’s ranking in maths has dropped from 16th to 26th place.

These problems are carried over into the third level and, once more, employers in such key enterprises as Google find it necessary to look abroad for the talents they require, such as mastery of two or three modern European languages, entrepreneurial skills, and an understanding of interpersonal relationships as well as national and international affairs.

For example, Finland, ranked as having the best school system in Europe, does not rely on passing a national Leaving Certificate equivalent. Instead, the assessment of student attainment is primarily dependent on the professional judgment of the teachers who themselves are carefully selected, nurtured, monitored, assessed and trained to perform their work.

Studies by Calvin Taylor of the University of Utah and others have long established that the typical formal examination is capable of assessing only some one-quarter of those attributes that contribute to a person’s success in later life.

Formal examinations measure mathematical and linguistic competence, but are less likely to detect those human characteristics associated with success as a citizen, an employee or a parent. Ireland’s narrow assessment system provides no scope for recognising such valuable characteristics as reliability, determination, entrepreneurship, intuition, common sense, sensitivity and consideration for others; characteristics vital for personal success and the wellbeing of the community.

In 1972 when we were admitting the first 100 students to National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE) Limerick from the group of more than 1,000 who applied, we decided that, in addition to requiring achievement in the Leaving Certificate, applicants would be expected to submit an assessment by their teachers.

Looking back on my diary for that year, there’s a note from Friday January 7th, 1972. “A day designing student application forms. The Leaving Certificate alone did not identify communication ability, involvement in classroom activities, pursuit of independent study, critical and questioning attitude, personal responsibility, and consideration for others. Our form required teachers to give ratings under these headings.”

The response told us that teachers had little difficulty in providing the assessments we required. Their judgment played a key role in the admission of what turned out to be an exceptional group of pioneering students.

In this we were reverting to an earlier era when educators were expected to emphasise nurturing and recognising those personal skills and values that contribute to healthy and stable society, success at work and a caring family life.

The narrowness of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and the tyranny of the CAO points-based system have produced a situation that neither fosters nor rewards those human characteristics that society most needs and employers cherish.

It is not that we have not tried. Like Ireland, the US, the UK, Germany and others increased educational funding yet failed to improve the performance of their school systems. McKinsey, the international consultancy firm, produced a key report in 2007 providing the reason. It showed that while funding is important, the key to increasing the performance of a school system is improving the quality and capability of the teachers.

Finland, South Korea, Singapore and Canada have the world’s best school systems primarily because they are fastidious about who they admit to the teaching profession, and then demand teaching excellence. Good teachers are cherished and recognised.

Teachers and schools are regularly assessed, school performance is made public, pupils are assessed by their teachers. Lax or poor behaviour is not ignored. Teachers routinely remain after regular school hours to give special attention to those students who may have had difficulty and fallen behind during the day to ensure that they are in a position to keep pace with the class the following morning. Not permitting any student to fall behind is a core objective.

Expecting the existing church-controlled teacher education colleges to produce entrepreneurial, innovative, scientifically literate teachers is unrealistic. If primary teacher education is to be reformed, as it should, control must be wrested from the churches.

And there you have it. Update the curriculum and examinations so understanding and creativity replaces blind learning by rote.

Upgrade the skills of those who teach, and value their work, paying less attention to the diehards in the teacher unions. I set out below some measures by which these overarching objectives might be achieved.

* Secularise and reform the education of primary teachers: more civics, science, math and modern languages.

* Limit places in teacher education, making it an elite profession from which all but the most suitable are excluded

* Upgrade the performance of existing teachers by boosting in-service education undertaken outside school hours and between terms

* Increase the length of the school year to the EU average and reduce teacher holidays to new public sector norms

* Introduce rigorous teacher assessment and link outcomes to award of annual increments

* Publish separate competitiveness school rankings within disadvantaged and other categories

* Permit religious denominations to offer, at their own expense, religious instruction to those students who wish to receive it outside regular school hours

* Place major emphasis on continuous assessment of pupils by teachers during the school year

* Restructure the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment by limiting its size to 11 members of international standing; of which 5 are educators and 6 are from the private sector.

* Reform university governance, as Denmark did in 2003: limit size of governing boards to 11 members of which 6 are external from the private sector

* Introduce the Australian funding system whereby third level fees are repaid after graduation when income reaches a certain level

* Permit universities to compete in the market for international talent by removing limits on individual salary offers, while imposing strict limits on average salary levels within the university.

* The 2010 recommendation to create a technological university has triggered a distracting political and academic dynamic making it appear essential for most warm-blooded academics and local politicians to seek university status for their institute of technology.

The institutes of technology form as vital a component of regional infrastructure as the universities: both are required. The technological university recommendation should be shelved. One anomaly exists however: Waterford is Ireland’s only regional city without a university and there is a strong economic case for addressing this major infrastructural deficit in the southeast. The Waterford Institute of Technology should be transformed into the University of Waterford with possible outreach programmes in Kilkenny and Carlow. Sub-degree work should be reassigned to the adjacent IofTs. Finance should not be an issue; most of the capital investment has already been made.

We are fortunate in the current minister for education Ruairí Quinn who has the courage and ability to introduce the necessary change. Most of the key reforms do not require additional funding: indeed savings can arise. Given the state of the jobs market, national finances and congestion at third level, the Department of Education is in a strong position to take on vested interests. It can insist on reform and if necessary face down industrial action, recognising that the exchequer has to find some €100 million a week – or €5 billion a year – to pay teachers.

Ed Walsh’s memoir Upstart: Friends, Foes and Founding a Universityis published by the Collins Press, Cork.