Is our education system fit for purpose in the 21st-century?

Experts believe the Republic’s exam-obsessed model is failing Irish students

Liam Wegimont, principal of Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Clontarf, Dublin, produces a neatly typed letter from his files.

It is from a previous headmaster, Rev William Anderson, to the then minister for education.

“Dear sir,” it reads. “I beg to suggest a simple solution to the current educational problems . . . to instead allow every school ample power to select the subjects best suited to the development of its own character, and to meet the needs of its pupils . . .”

Wegimont smiles. “You can see we’ve been yearning for curriculum change for some time,” he says.


The date? February 7th, 1928.

“I don’t want to come across as suggesting there hasn’t been any change since then,” Wegimont says.

“But the core problem remains: unless we have the right kind of curriculum reform, we’re just teaching to the test.”

Many such as Wegimont say our education system should encourage curiosity and a love of investigation.

But the pressure to secure CAO points means the focus in many classrooms is fixed firmly on learning “what we need to know” to succeed in the Leaving Cert.

Far from being spaces for free inquiry, the modern classroom, say many critics, resembles a military training ground where students are drilled to produce perfect answers to potential questions based on examiners’ marking schemes.

As teachers gather for their annual conventions this week, they will be dominated by concerns over pay and conditions.

But a bigger question looms over the wider education system: is it fit for purpose to meet the needs of school-leavers in the 21st century?

Work skills

Against the backdrop of rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence, the skills required for work success are changing fast.

The must-have career attributes for graduates, according to the World Economic Forum, are creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Some multinational employers grumble that many of these skills are lacking among Irish school-leavers.

Universities, too, complain that too many school-leavers are emerging from an exam-obsessed second-level where students are “taught to the test” and not learning to think for themselves.

Education experts say a combination of a high-stakes exam and a hugely competitive points system means there is little emphasis on a more rounded education.

Reforms aimed at addressing these issues have been talked about for decades. Yet, meaningful attempts to change them at second-level – such as the new junior cycle – have been watered down significantly in the face of resistance from teachers’ unions.

Some of the unions, for their part, insist they are not opposed to change. Many members regard reform proposals with deep suspicion and as an attempt to dumb down the system or undermine standards.

Dublin City University president Brian MacCraith is broadly supportive of changes aimed at assessing students' broader skills.

Whenever he asks employers about the must-have attributes they want in today’s graduates, MacCraith gets much the same answer.

“The head of one of the country’s biggest consultancy firms said to me, ‘It’s as simple as this: the first-class honours nerd is no good for us. It takes us 18 months to get any value from that person – and by then it’s probably too late.’

"Employers tell us they want graduates who can solve problems, lead teams, innovate, build relationships and strengthen their organisations.”

Many experts say our primary education system is working well at developing children’s curiosity and encouraging project work, teamwork and communication skills.

Much of this love for learning continues into the early years of secondary school.

Dampening curiosity

But when it comes to the senior cycle, Prof Chris Morash, Trinity College Dublin's vice-chancellor, is sure of one thing: the Leaving Cert is dampening students' innate curiosity and leading to a culture of dependency among students on class notes and exam expectations.

“We have to do some un-teaching to get students away from that simple, brutal question that always gets asked: Is this going to be on the exam?” says Prof Morash.

“It takes them a while to realise that there is cumulative learning: something in first year might not be on an exam, but you’re going to need it in second and third year.”

There can be pressure from students for notes from lecturers, as opposed to learning the skills of digesting and summarising information themselves, says Morash.

“A lot of it has led to an expectation of special treatment around exams . . . look at the media, too: if there’s a question that isn’t predicted in the Leaving, it’s treated as a national crisis in some quarters . . . this doesn’t happen elsewhere around the world; it’s bizarre.”

Leaving Cert study

A recent study of the Leaving Cert carried out at Trinity College Dublin confirms many of these observations.

It found skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving were “starkly absent” from most exams.

Instead, the study's author, Dr Denise Burns - now a researcher at DCU's institute of education - found the main method used by students preparing for the exam was to predict questions, prepare answers and learn them off.

Many of those who defend the current system point out that while exams are not perfect, they are at least fair.

Thousands of students in schools across the country sit the same exam on the same day which is marked externally.

Prof Sharon Todd, head of Maynooth University's school of education, says this argument doesn't stack up.

“The State exams are somehow a bit sacrosanct here,” says Todd, who is originally from Canada.

“It seems to be embedded in a deep, cultural tradition and maybe was seen as a way of getting away from the elitism that previously existed in Ireland, and a levelling of the playing field. But that doesn’t bear up.”

The fact that, in some subjects, 100 per cent of marks are based on how a student performs in a single exam on a given day is unfair and unusual in international terms, she says.

There are also inequities over families who can afford grinds

“There are also inequities over families who can afford grinds. There is a clear social class issue at stake with the Leaving Cert, when it comes to these kinds of strategies for boosting performance,” says Todd.

The broader role of education – such as citizenship and the kind of self-directed learning which can contribute to students’ sense of self-worth and confidence – is sorely lacking.

“Talk about what type of person we want at the end of an educational experience often gets totally underplayed in the system we have,” she says.

There is also a wealth of research which shows this system isn’t working for many students.

An influential ESRI report published a decade ago revealed major problems over the engagement of students.

This research by Dr Emer Smyth found two distinct groups emerging.

While girls from middle-class backgrounds were highly engaged in school work, a second group – especially boys from working-class backgrounds – were switching off and disengaging from school work.

Junior cycle reforms

Prof Michael O’Leary, director of Dublin City University’s (DCU’s) centre for assessment research, policy and practice, says junior cycle reform plans produced a decade ago were aimed at boosting children’s engagement and promoting a much broader range of skills.

Broadly speaking, the changes being introduced in Ireland mirror those being adopted in many developed countries: a greater focus on developing skills rather than mastery of a set body of knowledge, along with a greater emphasis on individual learning and teacher autonomy.

The reforms envisage a change in the role of teachers, moving towards being less of a “sage on the stage” to more of a “guide by the side”.

O’Leary says policymakers regarded the junior cycle changes as a dry-run for the more challenging task of reforming the Leaving Cert.

But, he says, they never anticipated the scale of backlash that greeted the junior cycle plans.

“One Minister called the original plans a Rolls Royce version, though some would say what’s now being touted as change is more of an old Nissan Micra,” says O’Leary.

While the changes embrace modern teaching, learning and assessment methods, the new junior cycle still retains a high-stakes written exam at the end of third year which accounts for 90 per cent of marks.

The changes are being introduced in English this year, and will expand to other subjects over the coming years. If successful, similar changes are likely to occur at Leaving Cert level over the coming years.


But there’s a big speed-bump in the way of policymakers’ plans. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), the State’s biggest second-level teachers’ union, has directed members to refuse to engage in any training linked to the changes, and not to provide cover for any colleagues who are being trained.

Their biggest source of opposition is that teachers will be assessing their own students for the first time in a State exam.

O’Leary says it is unfortunate that most debate about the reforms has focused on assessment rather than the kind of skills it is hoped the reforms will produce.

“There are a whole bunch of skills which we are not emphasising at the moment which we should have a conversation about,” he says.

We need to go down the route of future-proofing children's skills. Look at the jobs being created nowadays. They couldn't have been conceived of 20 years ago

“We need to go down the route of future-proofing children’s skills. Look at the jobs being created nowadays. They couldn’t have been conceived of 20 years ago.”

He says he understands why many teachers are worried or fearful over change. Teachers, he says, recognise that they can be left high and dry when it comes to implementing changes. They are also acutely aware of the pressures linked to the CAO system.

“Many say they would be more than happy to change, as long as the CAO does, and as long as children’s and parents’ expectations change,” he says.

Michael Moriarty is general secretary of the Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETB), which manages about a third of all second-level schools.

These ETB schools (formerly known as VECs) are dominated by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which has accepted the junior cycle changes and is introducing them.

He says teachers have bought into the changes and are embracing classroom-based assessments which help capture a broader snapshot of children’s skills.

Victorian model

Moriarty feels the senior cycle system is stuck with a Victorian model of education with students sitting in rows, listening to teachers transmit knowledge, rather than fostering group or individual learning.

His ideal classroom is very different to what most of us have experienced: there are no serried ranks of desks lined up before a blackboard, but seats placed in pods or a large circle.

This arrangement sends a message: here is a space for open discussion and the free exchange of ideas.

This, he says, is happening in a growing number of ETB schools, influenced by “instructional leadership”, a new approach to teaching and learning which is engaging students in new ways and making them active participants in their learning.

At the heart of the approach is research that indicates that a teacher’s “instructional repertoire” is one of the single biggest predictors of a student’s performance.

It is, he says, energising students, while teachers are rediscovering a professional pride in their roles; classes, he says, are filled with energy, experimentation and enthusiasm.

“There is a comfort to doing the same thing over and over,” says Moriarty.

“The pressure of the points system has killed creativity in the Leaving Cert. If we could take that away, we could really respond to the changing needs out there. But if we don’t, the system will wither.”

Points system

Any reforms , experts agree, will have to focus not just on changing the curriculum, but also the points system operated by universities.

It may be administratively easier to operate for colleges, but the pressure caused by competition for points linked to high-stakes exams would likely undermine any well-intentioned reforms.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has ambitious plans to ensure Ireland has the best education and training system in Europe within a decade.

“Education is central to all our ambitions as a nation,” he says. “It is central to our economic, scientific, cultural and social ambitions.”

While his action plan focuses on coaching, mentoring and re-skilling teachers, as well as meeting skills gaps and broadening routes to training, it is relatively light on education reform.

It is, perhaps, an acknowledgement that it is better to get junior cycle changes over the line rather than wading into the nettlesome issue of the senior cycle.

Despite the slow pace of reform, most acknowledge that our system is doing well overall. But they warn that it will need to adapt much more to meet the shifting needs of students in a rapidly changing world.

O’Leary feels that while the system does well in the more traditional areas such as knowledge and comprehension, it is struggling with the kind of broader and higher order skills we will increasingly need.

“They’re the areas where we may not be fit for purpose. We’re not alone in this: high-achieving countries do a really good job with most traditional skills. As you go up the scale, there are fewer kids at those higher levels.”

Todd, too, says we have much work to do but adds that we are coming from a strong base.

“Ireland’s is a strong educational system, it has its problems but I don’t see them as insurmountable,” says Todd.

“It has a basic ethos of wanting to educate the whole person; we need to build on that, and resist some of the tendencies to marketise the education.”

How Ireland’s education system compares internationally

The release of the OECD’s Pisa rankings every three years is a revealing moment for twitchy politicians.

It’s a two-hour test designed to measure a student’s ability to think. It does not measure what students have memorised.

Instead, it asks them to solve problems they haven’t seen before, to identify patterns that are not obvious and to make compelling written arguments.

In Ireland’s case, there was sharp relief earlier this year when the results were released: Irish teenagers were among the best in the world at reading and significantly above average for maths and science.

Fifteen-year-olds in Ireland ranked third among students in 35 OECD countries for reading, while they performed significantly above average in maths and science (13th place).

Many national experts agree that Ireland’s relatively positive overall performance masks a problem with student engagement and poor outcomes for our high-achieving students.

The same research found there were relatively low numbers of high-achieving students in science and maths, for example.

This appears to reinforce a long-standing trend where students in Ireland often struggle with “higher order” skills such as creative thinking and problem-solving.

“We’ve fewer kids at higher levels than a lot of other developed countries,” says DCU’s Michael O’Leary.

“That is the part where there is growing evidence that the kind of work we’re doing – especially at 15, 16 years of age – is not challenging enough, and there’s not enough critical thinking or creativity,” he says.