No more Republic of average


RAISING OUR GAME: HOW EDUCATION IN IRELAND CAN BE IMPROVED: Part two:There can be no economic recovery until our education system is radically reformed to meet the needs of today’s young people. Here, Fine Gael TD BRIAN HAYESsuggests 10 ways to break the grip of smugness

I ENJOYED my time over the past three years as Fine Gael’s education spokesman. Every day close to one million people in the Republic are in some way involved in education as either providers or students. From the teaching unions to parent representatives, I met great people who are committed to educational excellence. As a politician it’s one of the few areas of public policy where you can make a direct difference. Unlike being at, for example, the Department of the Environment or the Department of Transport, EU directives don’t really stand in the way of what you’d want to do if you were to arrive in Marlborough Street as minister for education.

Our economic recovery and educational reform here in Ireland go hand in hand. The current crisis provides us with a great opportunity to push through the type of reform agenda that is required.

The former Intel chief, Dr Craig Barrett, was right when he said that average isn’t good enough any more. But Irish education is exactly that: average. What’s needed is a new higher standard, underpinned by radical reform. When the Finnish economy crashed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, educational reform was seen as crucial to rebuilding Finland. Over 10 years Finland went from being a basket-case to a smart economy where new technology replaced old.

What stands in our way in trying to create a world-class educational standard here? Why can’t we have the best? Clearly we don’t spend enough on education, but that’s not going to change any time soon. New funding ideas, particularly at higher level, are needed. The central command system of the Department of Education needs to be broken up. While the voice of teachers must be heard, too often their voice drowns out everyone else, especially those of students and parents. Even the slightest change in work practice takes years. In short, what stands in the way of progress is a variety of vested interests.

Brendan Behan once spoke about the Irish being “popular amongst ourselves”. There is a terrible smugness about the education system we have. It is largely built around ignoring obvious problems, particularly with literacy, maths, post-primary dropouts and teacher underperformance, to name but a few. Rote learning and the obsession with points does not prepare young people for the challenges they face in today’s world. A transformation is needed to confront those problems.

1 Change the points system and abolish the CAO

One measure which has the potential to transform post-primary education and remove our unhealthy obsession with the points race would be the abolition of the CAO. I’m not in favour of downgrading the Leaving Cert but why should the State remain at arm’s length from the higher education sector in providing a system to determine who goes to college?

Let universities decide their own entrance system, using maybe a combination of interview, Leaving Cert results and some form of college intelligence test. The introduction of the HPAT aptitude test for medicine has opened up an interesting debate on this subject.

The problem is that the points race frames the entire context of post-primary education. Secondary school needs to be about a lot more than some gigantic entrance exam to one university rather than another.

2 Publish school reports

The school evaluation system is not working. Do parents truly get anything from reports on a school that are completed every eight years and written in language that nobody understands?

Parents are more interested in how their children are doing and what can be done to help them. Send the inspectors back into the schools to work with teachers and help principals. Publish a school report every year, including results of State examinations. Take the mystery out of the school league tables published every year in our newspapers by getting schools to publish an annual report.

3 Introduce a graduate tax

The universities of this country are a bit like the Irish banks: they are broke. The international reputation and standards we aspire to simply cannot be achieved if the funding base for higher-level education is so dependent upon the State. I developed an idea for a funding system whereby graduates would make a contribution towards their education when they could afford to do so. The graduate tax, as some call it, could represent up to one-third of the unit cost of an undergraduate degree. The more expensive the course, the more a student would contribute. Those who benefit should make a contribution at a time they can afford to do so.

The priority for funding must always be primary and post-primary education. Improving standards in higher education is also essential, and that requires new money and a more rigorous approach to quality. If students have to make a contribution towards their education, instead of parents, I believe that standards will rise and the relationship between students and colleges will be transformed. Paying something back when you can afford it, as against paying it upfront when you start college, is the system of funding we should favour.

4 Abolish compulsory Irish

I passionately believe that Irish should not be a compulsory subject for the Leaving Cert. Sixteen-year-olds should make up their own mind if they want to study Irish. In my view the destruction of the language is based upon compelling every Irish student to study Irish whether they like it or not.

We need to introduce other European languages at a much earlier stage. Less than 15 per cent of all primary schools provide a modern European language, excluding Irish and English. Our performance in this area is not good enough. Our future success will be based on our students having greater aptitude in all languages. The earlier we offer new languages in the primary curriculum the easier it will be to reach the European average later in a child’s development.

5 Boost teacher quality

Good teachers make all the difference. We want the best graduates in our schools, people who love their subjects, who are open to change and are prepared to be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Leaving a teacher in the classroom for 40 years is no way to run a system. Ideally teachers should be postgraduates. There needs to be flexibility on teacher contracts, and schools should be allowed to introduce specialist teachers for set periods. Teacher evaluation, mentoring and incentives for real professional development is at the core of improving teacher quality.

6 Invest in school leadership

Show me the bad school with the good principal – it doesn’t exist. The leadership of good principals is essential and their role needs to be changed. They should be less the office manager with endless administration and focus instead on leading educational outcomes and knowing what’s going on in the classroom. The problem is that we have too many principals who are teaching full time due to the number of small schools.

7 Schools know best – give them real power

What Irish schools need more then anything else is a devolution of power from the centre. Schools should decide how they use teaching budgets, what subjects to teach, where additional help should be aimed. The national curriculum should be used by teachers and principals to suit the needs of their students. We have had enough of edicts from the department. A major cull of educational bodies is also needed. If we liberate our schools to follow their own agenda, greater creativity and a better learning environment can be built. Stalin would be proud of the current composition of Irish education.

8 Let the money follow the student

We need to look at the “disadvantaged” tag that we give schools. Why is it that 50 per cent of children in disadvantaged areas do not attend disadvantaged schools? The introduction of a pupil premium could enable children from poorer backgrounds to go to any school they want and bring with them the financial support that school needs. Money should follow the student. The key to ending disadvantage is a much wider social mix in our schools. Peer-group and parental expectations are very strong factors in why some students go to college and some don’t.

9 Improve the teaching – and learning – of maths

We need a major improvement in maths at all levels. While the debate on bonus points is important, the teaching of the subject is the real issue. Students who fall behind in maths need help. Why not use summer courses, online technology and weekend TV tutorials to provide options other than parents paying for grinds in private colleges? Teachers also need guidance on teaching methodology.

10 Give parents a greater role on school boards

One good thing about Irish education is its variety, including religious, vocational, non-denominational, community and language schools. Choice is a good thing. But we need to give a clearer role to parents on local boards of management and to clarify questions of ownership by the various schools.

Brian Hayes is the Fine Gael deputy for Dublin South West. More in the Raising Our Game series next month