‘Lazy’ strategy set to result in poorer learning - expert

Dr Pasi Sahlberg: Parental choice likely to mean educational inequality in Ireland

Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg in an image from his website.

Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg in an image from his website.


By making parental choice the cornerstone of its education system, Ireland is following a “lazy”, market-based strategy which is likely to produce greater inequalities and poorer learning outcomes, renowned educational expert Pasi Sahlberg has said.

Addressing a Department of Education policy seminar in Dublin, the Finnish scholar said “either you are serious about equality” or you rely on parental choice “and you just hope that this will somehow create good things”.

The latter was “a clear sign of a lazy or reluctant education policy: If you don’t know what you are doing you say ‘Let’s expand parents’ choice’ ”.

“If you want to have a more equity-based system, that requires very systematic and deliberate policy by the Government,” he said.

Equality does not materialise at local level by accident, said Dr Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

A best-selling author who has advised governments around the world on the Finnish educational model, Dr Sahlberg said there were two models of education taking hold internationally: one was more “masculine”, market-based and focused on competition and choice; the other was more “feminine”, and concentrated on equity, creativity and decentralising authority, as in Finland.

Swedish ill-effects

He noted Sweden had moved towards a parental-choice model, with ill-effects in terms of educational outcomes.

The results elsewhere “are not very convincing”, he added. In contrast, Finland abolished private schools more than 40 years ago and now tops international school performance tables.

Other speakers at the seminar, including Maynooth University deputy president Prof Aidan Mulkeen, questioned whether Ireland was really committed to equality in education.

It was no good policy makers promoting equity if Irish society had not “bought into” it, he said.

Prof Dympna Devine, head of UCD school of education, said education was still considered a “private” good, and asked why schools still depended so much on volunteerism if education was regarded as crucial to society.

TUI general secretary John MacGabhann expressed concern about the effects of the new drive towards parental choice in school patronage.

‘Middle-class option’

He said choice was “largely a middle-class option”, and the impact could be seen in an area like Firhouse, where two new schools were being created - one for Educate Together and the other a Gaelscoil - on playing fields that were once used by the whole community.

The development “will facilitate a choice for a particular segment of Irish society”, but the community “feels it has been robbed blind” of a much-loved facility, he added.

Dr Salhberg, who held a meeting with Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan in advance of the seminar, also spoke about the need for more modern teaching and assessment methods.

Instead of tweaking the State exam system, he recommended Ireland introduce iPads and computers in the exam hall.

“That would change everything. You would leave behind this Junior Cycle debate,” he said.