How Ireland dumbed down

 

Even as educational standards appeared to be improving, employers were complaining that they couldn’t find high-calibre graduates. SEAN FLYNN, Education Editor, examines the unregulated system that has allowed ever-weaker students to gain ever-higher grades

GOOGLE’S SHINY NEW European headquarters on Dublin’s Barrow Street is precisely the kind of place the Government has in mind when it rolls out those familiar cliches about the smart economy. Google employs more than 1,500 people at the facility. Most are young and multi-lingual, and virtually all are graduates, many from Google’s universities of choice: University College Dublin, Trinity and University College Cork.

It was in Barrow Street last December that the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, was alerted to the full extent of the grade inflation crisis. The meeting was convened by Google vice-president John Herlihy and others present included Jim O’Hara of Intel and Martin Murphy of Hewlett Packard.

O’Hara has already played a key role in alerting the Government to declining standards in our schools and colleges. Last June, he persuaded former Intel boss Craig Barrett to address the Farmleigh summit on Ireland’s economic future. Barrett’s speech was described by one Farmleigh participant as a “wake up and smell the coffee” moment for Irish education. His message? Drop all that guff about a world-class education system and face the truth: Ireland is average on education, and average is no longer good enough.

The Barrow Street meeting – described as “no holds barred” by O’Keeffe – was still more alarming. Many multinationals, O’Keeffe heard, were reluctant to recruit from certain colleges because of concerns about standards. There were even suggestions that several institutes of technology (ITs) and one university were on an unofficial recruitment “blacklist”. At the core of the problem was grade inflation across the education sector, from Leaving Cert to third-level degrees.

On the surface, things looked good. There had been a 100 per cent increase in the number of first-class honours degrees over 20 years. The honours rate in most Leaving Cert subjects had climbed by more than 20 per cent over the same period, and the proportion securing more than 400 CAO points was up by almost 40 per cent. But there was a gulf between these figures and the experience of employers, who often struggled to find students with the range of skills and the flexibility they needed. One Barrow Street participant said the education system was “broken and needed mending”.

THE DUMBING DOWN of Irish educational standards did not begin this week. Evidence of a surge in Leaving Cert scores first emerged a decade ago, and this newspaper has been highlighting the issue for more than five years.

In 2006, the Network for Irish Educational Standards was established by academics in Tralee Institute of Technology to combat grade inflation. It was a grassroots movement, reflecting concern among many academics about a persistent dumbing down.

But no one paid the slightest heed. The teachers’ unions said better grades were down to great teaching. The State Examinations Commission said that Leaving Cert students were working harder and smarter. At third level, many academics were hugely frustratedby the grade-inflation phenomenon, but with the economy booming and all our graduates flying into the best jobs, it seemed churlish to raise the alarm.

Another problem is that Irish education has been suffering from what we might call an “evaluation deficit”. The education debate in this country has been dominated for two decades by issues of resources, not surprisingly given the chronic (and continuing) under-investment in our education system. There has been little focus on evaluating the output from our system. We have no idea, for example, how our 12-year-olds leaving primary school compare with kids in England or France. For reasons of cost, the Department of Education has refused to participate in international reviews.

At second level, the Department does not publish an annual report on the performance of schools. It has a tradition of absenting itself from any awkward questions about overall standards and quality.

Some information is available from external sources. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study of 15-year-olds has Ireland ranked among the top five for literacy in the principal industrialised countries, no great surprise given the relatively homogenous nature of Irish society. But, critically, we are cast in mid-table when it comes to our performance in the key areas of maths and science.

It was concern about these trends in maths and science which first led US multinationals and other industrialists to raise concerns about the state of Irish education a decade ago.

But pressure was also growing from inside the system. With the booming university and IT sectors creating thousands of new college places, CAO points tumbled for virtually all third-level courses except “blue-chip” disciplines such as medicine and dentistry.

Before long, the unthinkable was beginning to happen: it became possible to secure a place on most higher-level degree courses with modest Leaving Certresults. The points requirement for many science and technology courses averaged less than 300 points. In these circumstances, one might have expected a parallel fall-off in academic results – but precisely the opposite was happening.

In the institutes of technology there was a 52 per cent increase in the award of first-class honours degrees in the period 1995-2004. Ever-weaker students were receiving ever-improving grades. Shouldn’t the regulators have noticed and acted?

REMARKABLY, THE Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Science – often dubbed the “department of schools and teachers” – has no over-arching role in quality assurance in higher education. Instead, this responsibility is devolved to the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) and the Higher Education Training and Awards Council (Hetac), which “supervises’’ the ITs.

There are close parallels here with the banking crisis. Essentially, the universities and the ITs regulate themselves. Five university presidents or their nominees sit on the IUQB board; four senior IT figures sit on the Hetac board .

One IUQB member tells The Irish Times: “The whole thing is a cosy cartel. Each of us has our own agenda and we can pursue it without difficulty. Occasional concerns have been raised about grade inflation but there has been no serious debate, let alone any decent research work.”

A former member of Hetac is still more scathing: “The ITs all want to be universities, so there is this relentless push to inflate grades and make themselves look better. There is no sense that anyone is in control of standards. You can more or less do what you like.”

In the Dáil this week, Batt O’Keeffe outlined plans for a new “one-stop shop”, where a single agency would be responsible for qualifications and quality assurance. Legislation is now being drafted.

The new agency will help. But the whole nature of what our students learn – and, critically, how they learn it – must also change.

John Herlihy of Google wants a recasting of the Leaving Cert with less emphasis on rote learning, a greater focus on producing nimble and flexible graduates with a variety of foreign languages, and a new concentration on raising standards in maths and science. But is the Irish second level system, which often appears to be in the grip of the teacher unions, ready to embrace such change?

In raising the grade-inflation issue, Batt O’Keeffe has already departed from the well-worn script casting successive ministers for education as no more than cheerleaders for the sector. Not everyone in the Department of Education, in the teacher unions or in the university halls is best pleased with the harsher light he is turning on quality and output.

For O’Keeffe, this is very much a personal mission to modify the system, protect the economy and, in the process, leave a lasting legacy. But the task of turning around Irish education, with its high level of self-regard, its culture of secrecy and its evaluation deficit, is formidable.