Business Irish

Monday 24 October 2016

Future-proofing the Irish schools system should be a priority

The disconnect between the educational conveyor belt and an expectant workplace is becoming more pronounced and demands a thorough overhaul, writes David Keenan

David Keenan

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Build a path from school to industry, says David Keenan of Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals
Build a path from school to industry, says David Keenan of Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals

As another summer draws to a close - and as certain as the trees will lose their leaves - the annual debate about the points race, maths grades and the overhaul of the examination system plays out.

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I wonder what fundamental changes have actually taken place in our education system so that the touchscreen, tech-savvy five-year-olds starting school this year will graduate with a very different educational experience than previous generations.

From a socio-economic perspective, Ireland has a pivotal year ahead - and as September beckons, we would appear to have grounds for cautious optimism. Outside of a correction, our increasingly buoyant economy should assist in attracting investment and skilled employees to Ireland (including those Irish graduates who have left in such high numbers in recent years).

A new science strategy from the Government will be published in the autumn; details on the much-anticipated 'Knowledge Development Box' will emerge from Budget 2016 in October. And at some point between now and next April, the country will go to the polls to shape the government that will devise and deliver key economic policy into the next decade.

However, while these visible signs of economic recovery are welcome, they mask what I believe is an underlying problem in how Ireland's educational system readies its students - at primary, post-primary and even third-level - for the workplace, regardless of sector.

In so many ways, the traditional pathways marked through our schooldays no longer seem fit for purpose and too frequently do not lead to the required destination. Though technology has moved on in previously unimaginable ways, I do not see a fundamental difference in the subjects or methods of teaching and assessment that my three children are exposed to today, compared to those I experienced nearly 30 years ago.

Education has not kept pace with the evolution of world-class work systems and we need to be looking at re-setting our next-generation GPS.

Starting a new job - either one's first job or any job at any stage in one's career - is a daunting prospect. And failing to prepare the next generation for entry into the workplace is short-sighted.

But the disconnect between the educational conveyor belt and the workplace is becoming more pronounced. For example, Ireland continues to miss a trick by not sufficiently educating second-level and third-level students about world-class manufacturing developments taking place in state-of-the-art facilities across Ireland each and every day.

In some of these facilities and processes, Ireland actually leads the way on a global basis - yet we don't exploit that fact to the advantage of our children.

It would be foolish to think that the intuitive and instinctive technological literacy of the young - acquired through daily exposure to a raft of new devices in our lives and through more organised settings, such as CoderDojo - is sufficient to adequately prepare them for the workplace of today or tomorrow.

In my view, the massive missing piece of the picture in Ireland is process learning - the fundamental grasp of how current workplace processes are run, how problems are solved, how standards are managed, maintained and improved, how data and performance are measured and how adherence and compliance are the bottom line for most highly regulated industries and businesses.

We need to move beyond a stage where old things are taught in new ways to a point where all things - old and new - are taught in new ways. Only then will we have a transformative path leading from the classroom to the workplace.

This is not simply a debate about the importance of the Stem subjects - we already know that - but rather a point about the teaching of all subjects across a syllabus in a more practical, employment-focused fashion that ensures all students are 'match-fit' to start their first job, whatever or wherever that may be.

This means establishing more direct, job-orientated links between individual schools, between schools and industry, and between schools, industry and development agencies - meaningful, long-term linkages.

If we agree on the need for a more structured classroom to workplace assimilation - and it should be nothing short of a national strategy - the question then arises as to who should lead, if not own, this critical stage in the journey.

Industry, certainly, needs to demonstrate leadership on this front, while government should seek to play a key facilitating role by incorporating a formalised system of workplace exposure for students that stretches far beyond what transition year can deliver.

Vested interests, regardless of what sector or vantage point they come from, should reflect upon the benefits from having a more informed and more aware burgeoning pipeline of graduates from which to choose in the near future. This future-proofing strategy would be in essence a model of social partnership today for the workforce of tomorrow.

Thankfully, we have the resources to address the problem. Most if not all of the factors and resources we could hope to have present in Ireland are already here.

We have an improving infrastructure in transport and telecommunications. Ireland is fast becoming a high-end global biotech manufacturing hub. My company, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, recently announced a €45m investment in a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Blanchardstown and many pharmaceutical industry notables (such as Alexion, Bristol-Myers Squibb and others), have been expanding their Irish presence with major infrastructural developments.

In the technology arena, Apple, Facebook, Google, eBay, PayPal and countless other corporations are growing continuously in Ireland, complemented by an overhauling of national broadband services.

A host of other global heavyweights in the financial services, professional services and other industries are also expanding their Irish presence and creating jobs. We have a Who's Who in various sectors that is the envy of Europe.

And yet, our students and graduates are not receiving the necessary theoretical and practical experience to adequately prepare them for the day they enter that very first job.

We have the necessary raw materials, skill sets and aptitude to deliver solutions. If only we can pool them and then co-ordinate them with the next generation of graduates specifically in mind, we would be champions rather than contenders.

My call to action is that the Government should initiate a consultation process on the idea and then mobilise and empower employers, employees and anyone with a view on how the Irish workplace - and worker - of the future should look.

Such a process would provide direction, clarity and a sense of purpose.

Dr David Keenan is vice president, global external supply and managing director, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals Ireland. Views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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