THERE'S been a renewed focus over the last week on the Education Minister's plans to reform the junior cycle and to effectively abolish the Junior Cert exam and replace it with a system of continual assessment for our second-level students. The response to Minister Ruairi Quinn's plans has been far from universal acceptance.
Change for the sake of change, we are told, is not a good thing. But anything that can move us away from the over-reliance on rote learning at second level and towards a system where adaptability and creativity is encouraged and enhanced has the potential, in my view, to be something very positive.
Our education system, particularly at second level, has become hugely reliant on rote learning in recent decades, leaving us with a situation where the students getting the highest grades are those who can learn huge tracts of text off by heart and reproduce it in an exam situation. The foundations for this approach are laid in the run-up to the Junior Cert and are cemented at Leaving Cert level.
This system has not served us well. Our adult numeracy and literacy rates are very disappointing. An international study published by the OECD and the Central Statistics Office in October ranked Ireland at below average. While there has been marginal improvement in literacy levels when compared with earlier studies, Ireland is placed at just 19th out of 24 countries for numeracy.
Any reform of our education system must place a huge emphasis on improving our numeracy and literacy levels. Mr Quinn has expressed his wish to drive forward implementation of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in our schools. As a fragile economy emerging from a bailout, we need to strive to constantly update our skillset and reform the way we teach core subjects and skills. This needs to start at pre-school level and extend to lifelong learning.
I want to see an education system where children are actively involved in their own learning, where teamwork and collaboration are encouraged and where students are taught skills, rather than just subjects. The new junior cycle has the potential to deliver this kind of education system.
"But where are the resources?" the cynics shout. Resources, and the perceived lack thereof, can act as the single biggest excuse to resisting reform. You can never have enough resources in the education system or in any of our frontline public services. But that's not a reason to preserve the status quo. The teachers with whom I have worked in the past are creative and dedicated individuals, who want to do their best to improve their students' educational experience. It is these teachers who will deliver real change.
Education should prepare children for a future of constant change; it must teach them how to be adaptable and creative. This must start at the earliest possible stage. At pre-school level, we have an internationally recognised curriculum framework, Aistear, which puts learning through play and exploration at the heart of education for children under six.
At primary level, parental involvement becomes increasingly important. Some parents who may not have had a good experience of school themselves must be helped to identify how important it is for their children to make the most of their time at school. Children reflect parental behaviour, and so schools must empower parents to empower their children.
Each tier of our education system must be flexible and adaptable. Under the new junior cycle, schools will be able to offer short courses in subjects like Chinese or IT coding, exposing teenage students to all sorts of subjects that might otherwise have seemed beyond their reach.
While an expanded subject choice is often a positive, how we deliver that choice must be closely considered. For example, the number of degree courses available at third level has ballooned in the last decade. In 2000, 44 higher education institutions offered 287 level eight honours degree courses. This year, 45 institutions will offer 919 degree courses.
At the same time, our universities are slipping down the international rankings. In my view, this is proof that we need to get back to basics and concentrate on improving our numeracy and literacy rates before we offer almost 1,000 different degree programmes across the country.
Equally valuable in our education system are apprenticeships and courses offered in our ITs and colleges of further education, which provide options to students who don't progress to university.
We need to ensure we are giving our young people the right skills to partake in our changing economy. But education is about much more than employability, and if the experience of the last five years or so has taught us anything, it should be that nothing is certain. We must always be ready to change, to adapt.
The aim of our education system should be to prepare young people and students for life and help them reach their full potential, whatever that may be.
Mary Mitchell O'Connor TD is chairperson of the Fine Gael Internal Education Committee and a former school principal