Secondary schools ‘too academic’ for many teens, says Ruairi Quinn

Some would fare better in vocational training, claims former minister for education

The academic demands of Irish secondary schools are turning off many young teenagers who would fare better in vocational training, former minister for education Ruairi Quinn has said.

Speaking at an education conference in South Africa, he said Irish research showed many 13 and 14-year-olds were "switching off" for a variety of reasons.

“These include a weak educational commitment in the home, disinterest or boredom from the young student, or a disconnect with the relevance of the curriculum subjects to the life expectations of the young person and his or her peer group,” he said.

“This youth cohort, according to authoritative Irish studies, is destined to prolonged periods of unemployment for many, poorly paid short periods of semi-skilled work and an overall sense of alienation.


"This in turn can lead to a life of drugs and crime, or, increasingly in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, to antagonism to foreign migrant workers who appear to be excluding them from the local labour market.

Mr Quinn said it was his strong opinion that our educational system needs to move into an educational and training area which is also about learning by doing.

“This collective group work, under supervision with trainers/teachers and active projects with completed outcomes is more engaging for the participants than the present predominantly academic system in Ireland,” he said.

"It is no coincidence, in my view, that in the European Union, the member states which have the lowest levels of youth unemployment are those countries which followed the German model of vocational apprenticeships in the workplace, leading on to certified qualifications for which there is a real labour market."

Future labour markets

Mr Quinn, who was speaking at a special conference organised by the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme, said the German system could not be simply "culturally transposed" into other countries.

Instead, new ways, appropriate to the 21st century, must be found to prepare young people for the existing and future labour markets.

“Curricular change and a closer connect between the worlds of education and life in the real world outside school can help all students, not just those likely to fall into the Neet (Not in education or employment) category.”

He also told the conference that a significant minority of primary and secondary schools remain single-sex institutions.

All new schools funded by the State to meet the demands of our growing population, however, were fully integrated and co-educational

“But I should tell you that efforts to bring about school amalgamations in old established communities have met with, sometimes, strong parental opposition,” he said.

“For some who may themselves be past pupils of the affected school, sentiment and nostalgia cover a strongly held view that girls will do better academically if boys are not present in the classroom.

“Leadership from the patron and the board of management as well as all the parents in both schools, is a critical component of any process that may eventually emerge.

He said the incentives to help bring that about were the attractions of a greater range of subject choice for all students, along with the improved social skills developed when young people study alongside peers from a representative mix of abilities, backgrounds, ethnicities and genders.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent