How good are our teachers?

Ireland has some great teachers. But is our teaching profession meeting the highest international standards? And can parents measure teaching quality at one school against that at another?

Queen of Angels Primary School, Sandyford introduced a ‘nurture room’ and ‘sensory room’ to help students struggling with self-esteem and behavioural problems. Three years on, parents and principal Susan Gibney say it has made a big difference.


Shaun Holly doesn’t just teach science. He likes to bring a bit of razzmatazz to the subject. “I do a bit of chemistry magic – explosions and off-curricular stuff. It keeps them interested,” he says.

Holly is a household name in Kinsale, Co Cork, thanks to the success of local girls Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, whose winning Young Scientist exhibition project went on to victory at this year’s Google Science Fair.

The globetrotting trio have paid tribute to Holly for mentoring them through the process, sparking ideas in maths class that helped to identify a research topic, and putting countless extra hours into prepping.

The affable Kerryman scoffs at the notion that he’s in any way exceptional – “I do be lazy when I want to be,” he says – and stresses that the school’s success is a team effort. “There was a Saturday last Christmas we had the principal in, two teachers, some parents and a couple of retired principals, getting the projects ready before we went to Dublin.”

Nonetheless, his enthusiasm and sense of curiosity will be recognisable to anyone who has had an inspirational teacher down the years. “I would promote practical, active learning, and try to make it a bit more fun,” he says. “The day of doing ‘textbook, textbook’ is going out.”

That Ireland has some great teachers has never been in doubt. But how do we know they’re meeting the highest standards? More precisely, is it possible for parents to measure the quality of teaching at one school against that at another?

Ireland is a world away from the UK and US in terms of measuring teacher performance. And that’s just as well, say most education experts. The OECD, which has become the most influential player internationally in shaping education policy, is urging countries to avoid the mistakes of the Anglo-American model, with its focus on league tables and results-related pay.

But it has also warned Ireland against complacency, and our scores in the latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results leave room for improvement.

Beyond that there is a growing demand for localised information and greater transparency. As the Department of Education’s chief inspector, Harold Hislop, said in a recent address to school managers, “Parents now have rights to access much more information about the progress that their child is making,” and it’s “not unreasonable” for them to expect information about how well their child’s school is operating, too.

Right now, parents have an unsatisfactory range of sources. There is data, like that produced by The Irish Times, on feeder schools for third level. (This year’s is published next week.)

There are whole-school-evaluation reports published periodically by department inspectors. Typically written in diplomatic terms to keep the troops on board, they contrast greatly with the UK’s punter-friendly scheme of grading schools from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.

There are also exam results and standardised test scores, recorded in the second and sixth class of every primary school, but these are shared selectively with parents.

From this academic year all schools are meant to publish self-evaluation reports, outlining improvement plans, and they include scope for including details of test scores and other statistics.

But, as with many education reforms, implementation is patchy. For the average parent, what you know about your school’s performance still begins and ends with what you hear at the school gates.

Slump in scores

So how can we vouch for the quality of our teachers? For starters, they are already clever people: undergraduate teacher-education programmes attract recruits from the top 15 per cent of Leaving Certificate students. At primary level this standard of trainee is “almost unknown in the English-speaking world”, says Prof Joe O’Hara, of the centre for educational evaluation at Dublin City University.

O’Hara points out that nearly everyone instructing trainee teachers has a doctorate, and a new postgraduate programme for teachers – now a two-year master’s rather than a one-year diploma across all training colleges – helps to create “research-informed practice” and continuous learning for the profession.

A further guarantee of quality is the establishment of the Teaching Council, which, from 2016 or so, will oblige teachers to prove their competence periodically to remain on a professional register.

Teachers can only be as good as the system they operate in, however, and indicators are mixed about the standards of education our children reach.

Ireland had a dramatic slump in the Pisa scores in 2009, falling to 17th place in the OECD, from fifth place in 2000, in reading scores. The decline was the largest across all 39 countries that participated in both years, and it resulted in the setting up of a new literacy and numeracy strategy.

In the last Pisa tests, of 2012, Ireland bounced back to fourth for reading ability, among 34 countries, and to ninth for science literacy, from 13th in the previous survey. The reasons for the 2009 slump are still debated, but its impact continues to be felt.

Junior-cycle reforms

The planned junior-cycle reforms are one related consequence, but there is talk of a more “professionalised” occupation, centred on the overhaul of teacher training.

Ironically, this wave of innovation is coming “in Spartan times”, according to John Coolahan, an emeritus professor at Maynooth University, points out. “You’d think it would be easier to do when the money was there,” he says. “But the political action wasn’t occurring.”

Coolahan has chaired numerous departmental policy groups over the past 30 years, and he presented a five-year plan to Mary Hanafin, when she was minister for education, with some of the current reforms in it, “but she didn’t do anything about it. Some of the things we are doing now is what we could have done in 2005 in catching up with international practice.”

The Pisa scores show that Ireland remains “very well positioned” by international standards, says Coolahan. “We have strengths that others would give their hind teeth for; we have weaknesses which we are addressing.”

Sweden and Norway have taken a step backwards, he says, and “Germany is weak enough”.

Coolahan describes the approach in England, whose schools are managed differently from in other parts of the UK, as hara-kiri. This is “deeply rooted in the cultural tradition of England”, he says. “Teaching was never really respected as a profession, particularly with Conservative governments. For a long, long time you didn’t even have to have a teacher qualification to teach in public schools.”

The two countries the OECD holds up as exemplars are Finland and Singapore, even though they have very different cultures. Finland has almost no inspection regime and “don’t take Pisa too seriously”, says Coolahan; Singapore has a target-driven system bolstered by grind schools and performance-related pay.

Such concepts are alien to most Irish staffrooms. In 2008 the OECD found that the percentage of teachers in Ireland who had received an appraisal of their teaching, or feedback from their principal, was the lowest of 24 countries surveyed.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals last year introduced a pilot peer-observation project in six Cork schools. The initial response was positive, but overworked principals are lukewarm about the idea of a formal review system, and teachers are largely opposed.

The heavily unionised nature of the profession can be an obstacle to such initiatives, but another factor is Ireland’s high concentration of small schools.

Forty-three per cent of primary schools here have fewer than 100 pupils, compared with 30 per cent in Wales and 25 per cent in Victoria, Australia, and Coolahan says this directly affects the quality of education.

“If you’re first concern is the wellbeing of children then you’ve got to try to structure the system so children have an equal chance, to some extent, of quality. One of the disadvantages of so many small schools is the isolation of teachers, particularly in the past,” where there was “no opportunity” for continuing professional development.

Although Coolahan says he understands the close identity people have with their local school, its importance is “exaggerated in the modern context”. “It seems to me, particularly in the west of Ireland – in east Galway and places like that – the idea where you have three or four schools in the same parish is just absurd.”

Small schools limit opportunities for team work and collaboration and increase the risk of “atrophy”, he says.

It’s a view that is challenged on the ground, however. “Bigger is not better in education,” says Michelle Bonner, teacher principal – which is to say she teaches as well as managing the school – at the 26-pupil Stokane National School, in Enniscrone, Co Sligo. “Schools with 800 or 900 children are very anonymous. I have 10 children from junior infants to first class, and the attention I can give them is wonderful.”

Class sizes

Ireland has the second-biggest classes in the EU (behind the UK), with an average of 24 pupils per primary class, and teachers believe further consolidation will be driven by cost rather than quality considerations. As well as guaranteeing greater personal attention, smaller schools can adapt and innovate more quickly, says Bonner, who has led Stokane to success in Lego Robotics and Ericsson Primary Science competitions.

Every two years she swaps classes with the school’s other teacher, Christina Flynn, “to keep things more interesting for the children and for us”. Does that mean more work? “Definitely. Some teachers might have the same teaching scheme for years and years, but it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. We are forever collaborating and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

The quality of teaching at Stokane was acknowledged by inspectors who visited the school two years ago. “The staff team displays exceptional dedication to teaching and to learning in the school,” the report read. “Very high levels of pupil engagement and motivation are evident and pupils are encouraged and challenged to do their best.”

Few rural schools get such high praise in whole-school evaluations, which in this way can act as a certification of quality. Such reports are not strictly comparable across schools, however, which leaves parents still wondering how they can tell if their children are getting the best education.

‘Fitness to teach’ 

The Teaching Council offers a certain guarantee of minimum standards, but its planned “fitness to teach” hearings will shed no light on the vast majority of teaching in Irish schools. The council’s director, Tomás Ó Ruairc, admits there is a gap in information but says this can only be addressed locally.

“The question I need to be asking as a parent, and others need to be asking [of teachers], is not so much, ‘Are you fit and qualified?’ – and there are ways of verifying that – but, more importantly, ‘What are you prepared to do as a professional to learn about my children, so you can adapt your methodology to their needs?’ That is not as easily boxed into a league table, or test scores or exam results, but it is far more meaningful and reassuring,” he says. “It’s down to the level of, to what extent does a school open its doors to invite parents in on a periodic basis to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing; here’s what we are achieving’?”

Ó Ruairc shares the same aversion to league tables as the teacher unions, successive ministers, department officials and, in fact, almost everyone in Irish education. One of the last acts of Ruairí Quinn in office was to get Cabinet approval for legislation to ensure that standardised test scores would be excluded from the extension of the Freedom of Information Act.

O’Hara’s DCU colleague Prof Gerry McNamara stresses that “for the vast majority of parents outside cities there is no real choice of school”. So comparative league tables would serve only a small, middle-class, urban population, with potentially harmful consequences for the system as a whole.

“The bigger the sledgehammer you use the more unintended consequences,” says McNamara, pointing out that in England teachers now spend 40 per cent of their time filling in forms.

McNamara and O’Hara contributed to a recent Europe-wide research paper identifying negative effects of “high stakes” school inspections. Unlike the UK and US, which have seen some turmoil over schools doctoring national test results, Finland allows schools themselves to decide what criteria – if any – should be measured.

The DCU pair have long been advocates for more data- and evidenced-based policy, but they stress that to identify the “value added” in teaching you need to eliminate other variables, like social class. “We have always been very reluctant to admit that postprimary schools in particular are fundamentally different in their intake,” says McNamara.

Similarly, Don Myers of the National Parents Council Post-Primary says that “league tables do not offer a complete, accurate report” and that there is no great clamour from his members for going down the UK route. Rather, he says, “we would be articulating that parent involvement in schools is a must. The more openness and transparency in the operation and running of the school the better.”

Some parents’ view of teachers has been formed by classroom experiences that are now 20 or 30 years old. But the culture of the profession has greatly changed, and continues to do so with new mentoring and induction programmes at entry level.

“The people engaging in teacher training now come from an era where they are used to being inspected, and expect to be inspected, so it’s much easier for them to adjust to the current situation,” says O’Hara.

At the same time he dismisses talk of a generation gap in terms of quality, pointing out that teachers for decades have studied for master’s degrees and PhDs, often at their own expense, to develop their skills. “There are incredible success stories from the Irish education. When you look at how Ireland – a relatively homogenous society – has dealt with an influx of migrants, and done so successfully, with very little additional resources, that demonstrates the core ability of the teacher.”

McNamara also strikes a positive tone, identifying “joined-up thinking” in the department for the first time in many years. In the move towards school-based assessment for the junior cycle “we are seeing a completion of that circle: more highly trained teachers given additional roles and responsibilities in the system”.

Investment is high

So how good are our teachers? Naturally, it depends on the measure you use. If our schools are simply meant to be results factories then look to performance in end-of- year exams, and perhaps cheer at the improved Leaving Cert honours rate in science and maths. But assessing quality also depends on who you are comparing our teachers against.

By international standards Ireland invests more in education per student than the vast majority of OECD countries. Teachers will say it’s still not enough, but in 2011, the last year for which comparative data is available, Ireland spent 4.6 per cent of its GDP in the primary and secondary sectors, compared with Finland’s 4.1 per cent.

Since then further pressure has been heaped on Irish schools, through cuts in capitation grants and the creation of a more casualised workforce.

The limited data available suggests Irish teachers can hold their heads up high internationally, but there are weaknesses – and a real risk that younger teachers could become demoralised in a system under retrenchment. As McNamara says, “We have to be very careful we don’t make teaching an unattractive proposition for the best and the brightest.”

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