Waking up to grade inflation


PRELIMINARY RESULTS of the report sought by Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe into grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate examination and across higher education should become known tomorrow. But the thrust of the main findings is already in the public domain: there is incontrovertible evidence of serious grade inflation within the education system.

The rate of the award of first class honours degrees in a majority of universities has increased by more than 100 per cent since 1994. In the Institutes of Technology there was a 52 per cent increase over the same period. All of this took place against a background of tumbling CAO points for most courses; in many cases much weaker students have been receiving much better grades. A similar pattern is evident at second level where the percentage gaining 500-plus points is up by 124 per cent since 1995.

None of these figures come as a surprise to those with even the slightest acquaintance with the Irish education system. This newspaper has repeatedly pointed to the “dumbing down’’ phenomenon. An excellent lobby group, the Network for Educational Standards, was established to highlight the problem. But those responsible for the regulation of standards – the State Examinations Commission, the Irish Universities Quality Board and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council – did not pay the slightest heed.

Curiously, it was only when former Intel chief executive Craig Barrett alerted policymakers at the Farmleigh economic summit in June and again in Dublin last month to declining educational standards that the Government took notice. Barrett’s message – that the Irish education system is average and that average is no longer good enough – had a brutal clarity. It has helped to lift the complacency which had come to characterise the system.

There is much to be done to reverse the decline in academic standards. But Mr O’Keeffe has acknowledged the scale of the problem, albeit belatedly, and is breaking with the tradition where the Minister sees himself as no more than a cheerleader for the education sector. It is also appropriate that a minister should respond to concerns raised by major employers such as Intel and Google. As he said yesterday, we can no longer afford to ignore the views of these and other US multinationals which provide jobs for more than 200,000 people.

In this regard the advice of Google vice-president John Herlihy represents a good starting point. He wants a recasting of the Leaving Cert with less emphasis on rote learning, 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. The Minister for Education can expect plenty of opposition from vested interests in education if he embarks on this road. He has little choice, however, because in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, Ireland Inc needs to raise its game in education.