The formula is simple: real change

 

Entrenched vested interests are hijacking the Irish education system. Those who care about the future need to take it back

ITS TIME TO end the monopoly of educationalists determining the future of Irish education. Vested interests of religious structures, the Department of Education, third-level institutions and teacher unions have acted in pursuit of their own narrow goals. The results? Unsustainable costs, the shortest school year, the highest-paid teachers, growing illiteracy, declining academic standards and increasing reliance on migrant workers to fill jobs in technical sectors. Education policy debate is a game for insiders only. The inevitable outcome is self-serving agendas that fail to meet current economic needs.

We might have hoped that the Minister Ruairí Quinn would be different. He was previously Labour’s opposition education spokesperson. He’s probably on his last ministerial gig, having been in finance and party leader. His government has the largest parliamentary majority in the history of the state, with reasonable prospects of a five-year term to pioneer reform. Yet last week, he told a student audience in the University of Limerick that it was up to them to deal with poor performing and absentee tutors and lecturers. What an abject failure to tackle dud teachers. Instead of providing accountability he presides over a free pardon.

The pussycat politics of acquiescence seem set to continue. Rarefied university presidents think they deserve to be paid more than the Taoiseach – over €200,000 per annum. Gross unapproved over-expenditure goes unpunished. The Hunt report charted a future course for higher education. It opposed dilution of Irish university status by granting any increase on the current strength of seven. This is already above international norms based on population. The Government blithely ignores this by promising a new technological university in the southeast to placate ministers such as Howlin (Wexford) and Hogan (Kilkenny). Meanwhile, no Irish university is in the world’s top 100.

Hard questions need to be addressed to our universities and institutes. Contracts for lecturers must be renegotiated. Annual tutoring hours of 560 per year or six hours per week is unacceptable. Research commitments are elusive and unfocused. Poor productivity and asset utilisation were identified in the Bord Snip Nua report, along with abolition of the National Universities of Ireland body. These recommendations gather dust while elitist personnel fail to provide value for money. Graduates receive little follow-up support for employment placement or enhancement. But the greatest indictment of our education system is not that half of employees for the ICT sector have to be recruited abroad and brought here for Google, Yahoo and Facebook. No, it’s the decline in basic educational attainments.

OECD surveys of 15-year-olds in essential subjects of reading, maths and science since 2000, reflect poorly on our educational output. We declined from 5th to 17th in reading skills and from 16th to 26th in maths. Adult illiteracy is trending towards 20 per cent.

Finland tops these PISA surveys. Its education budget is 6 per cent of GDP. The average class size is 25 pupils. Their school year is an average of 190 days. Here it is 167 and 183 respectively between secondary and primary levels. Finnish teachers are not paid as much as their Irish counterparts. What are the differences? School entry age is seven years, with a pre-school year at six. All teachers must have graduate qualifications to be recruited. Teacher accountability is devolved to local school management. Poor performance is not tolerated.

Successive ministers for education tend to be ministers for teachers. Upsetting teachers is off limits. Teachers may be fired if they’re found to be drunk in the classroom or fail to carry out the daily roll call. It’s okay that up to 50 per cent of secondary maths teachers are not properly qualified.

There is no insistence on changing this or a timetable for retraining to reach minimum standards. Contracted hours at 1,037 per annum for primary school teachers and 735 hours per annum of secondary level are not up for review. In the Netherlands and Britain, respective comparisons are 1,659 and 1,265 hours per year. The Croke Park Agreement preserves higher pay. Absenteeism is accepted under the supervision and substitution schemes, costing €36 million annually.

Reform under Croke Park is extremely modest. An extra hour here and there represents tokenism. Some schools still don’t do parent teacher-meetings at times to suit parents. Sick-leave arrangements facilitate up to 21 days absence without medical certification. As close to 80 per cent of the education budget is comprised of teacher salaries and pensions, cost reduction depends on productivity adjustments.

It’s a people business, fair enough. At primary level, we could reduce school enrolments from 60,000 to 20,000 by increasing the school entry age to a minimum of five years. At secondary level, abolition of the transition year would remove one-sixth of the cost of the teaching budget. Both measures together would mean school leaving age would be unchanged. Radical thoughts are absent in Marlborough Street.

It’s important to acknowledge the dedication and professionalism of the vast majority of teachers and academics. Their commitment is undermined by a lack of uniformity throughout the service. We need to reward good teachers. Payment of increments to teachers is automatic, irrespective of performance. Incentives and rewards in the pay structure is anathema to unions.

Good schools, irrespective of whether they are private or public, should be highlighted. Comparative tables providing fair analysis should be freely available to parents who seek choice. The points system, for all its shortcomings, can focus on poor results that can be traced to underperforming teachers. The private grinds industry is testament to this reality. Who cares? Not the professional politicians. Cursory reading of Dáil education debates reveals the extent of former teachers who are TDs.

Irish society is changing rapidly. It is becoming more cosmopolitan and secular. It is also growing. Demographics indicate an increase in the school population of 20 per cent in the decade ahead. The challenge of extra demands and less resources won’t be met with “policy as usual” prescriptions. At primary level, this means consolidation of smaller rural schools. In every other walk of life, rationalisation has occurred.Half parishes cannot sustain individual schools. Improved facilities and greater subject choice are results of mergers. It’s already occurred at post-primary level, with obvious benefits.

The vexed question of consequences from declining adherence to organised religion must also be tackled. This not only means relinquishing of chairmanship and control of local school boards of management, but also alterations to the curriculum. Teaching two-and-a-half hours per week of religious studies could be done by visiting chaplains/ clergy at the end of the school day. Other vital subjects could replace it during the normal timetable. Preparation for first Communion and Confirmation, while on school property, should be conducted outside of the teaching day.

Resistance to change equals postponement of the inevitable. Church leaders such as Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin deserves support for modernisation moves.

Whilst slaying sacred cows, we must confront cultural insecurity.

Despite the critical competitive advantage of having a natural English-speaking workforce, we persist with compulsory Irish language teaching and exams. A diminishing 3 per cent of the population converse in our official tongue. Declining relevance of Irish is swept under the carpet. If both Irish and religious studies were replaced by computer studies/information technology learning, we could greatly enhance economic performance. Heresy? Let’s embrace a future of options rather than obligations.

In summary, educationalists and their specialist cheerleaders in the media believe they alone must chart the future course of Irish education. Most businesses can’t operate in such a bubble. They have to perpetually adapt to their consumers’ needs. Parents, taxpayers, jobseekers and employers observe a system that is living off its past reputation.

Tardiness in reforming the curriculum to meet job requirements is self-evident. We produce excess arts graduates and insufficient trained young adults. We preserve inefficiency and protect bad teachers. Educational systems of emerging markets of South Korea and Singapore are kicking our ass. Endless introspective chants for more money will have to be met by borrowings from creditors of last resort. Special pleading is a dialogue of the deaf, where the troika is concerned. We must integrate the needs of the economy into Irish education, because the converse is unsustainable.

Ten changes needed in Irish education

1 INCREASE SCHOOL ENTRY AGE TO FIVE AND ABOLISH TRANSITION YEAR

2 REVIEW TEACHER CONTRACTS TO INCREASE HOURS AND REMOVE INCENTIVES TO ABSENTEEISM

3 INCENTIVISE GOOD TEACHING WITH FINANCIAL REWARD

4 INTRODUCE COMPARATIVE SCHOOL LEAGUE TABLES

5 CONSOLIDATE SMALL RURAL SCHOOLS

6 MOVE RELIGIOUS TEACHING OUT OF SCHOOL HOURS AND OUT OF THE TEACHERS’ JOB DESCRIPTION

7 ABOLISH COMPULSORY IRISH LANGUAGE LEARNING AND REPLACE WITH COMPUTER STUDIES

8 RENEGOTIATE CONTRACTS IN HIGHER EDUCATION TO INCREASE LECTURERS HOURS AND DEFINE THEIR RESEARCH COMMITMENTS.

9 ELIMINATE OVER-EXPENDITURE IN OUR UNIVERSITIES AND INSTITUTES OF TECHNOLOGY AND REDUCE THE SALARIES OF OUR UNIVERSITY HEADS

10 REDUCE THE NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES AND ABOLISH THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND


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