Wednesday 26 November 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Ireland can come top of the class again

Studies suggest that what's important is how young people are motivated to achieve their potential, writes Colm O'Rourke

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

The old Chinese proverb said that if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish he will eat for the rest of his life. Karl Marx is supposed to have adapted this in jest by saying that if you teach a man to fish you lose a great business opportunity.



The former statement applies to education now: an investment in education empowers people to improve themselves and by so doing will strengthen their community and country. That is what drove our parents, a belief that by giving their children a higher standard of education, those children would enjoy a better lifestyle than they had. It is no different now.

Cutbacks in education spending mean less choice. They do not necessarily mean that the whole education experience is sabotaged.

International studies would strongly suggest that it is the way resources are allocated rather than the volume of resources which is the most valuable element in education. In this way the teacher is by far the most important variable in the whole process. Or, to put it another way, the quality of the teachers can overcome most obstacles, even if money still talks and the lower classes are at a natural disadvantage.

Of course, those rural schools losing teachers, or teachers who are being asked to teach honours, pass and foundation maths to Leaving Cert level next year in the one class, would have an entirely different view of things. There is only so much any one individual can do, while taking away the human resource from many rural schools has implications for more than just education. The school is the central part of community, and its loss does not figure on any statistics or the upcoming Pisa test. Without the school and the babble of life there is a loss of confidence, even hope, in many rural areas.

This programme for international student assessment, Pisa, has exercised many in education recently. It is a study across more than 70 countries which is carried out every three years for 15-year-olds, and Ireland appears to have slipped down the rankings in literacy and numeracy.

The next survey is imminent and the results will be published in December. I will be surprised if Ireland does not improve its position because Pisa is being treated with greater seriousness this time round. It is not a case of using the system in any way, but changing the attitude of those doing the test will have an impact. If you give 15-year-olds some test which does not seem to have any relevance, they will get bored easily and probably leave it half complete; if they are motivated to perform, then it will be a different story.

This is what all studies suggest is important for education: how young people can be motivated to achieve their maximum potential.

A class is a bit like a team. How do you get the best out of each individual? The talent level is different, but each can make a contribution in their own unique way.

The team manager is the teacher, and, in countries where teachers are well paid, where the profession is valued and attracts high-quality graduates, will ensure high standards being demanded of and achieved by students. This should also mean that there are no failures in the system. This has to be done by capturing the hunger within a student, as all young people want to improve themselves.

But there are limits to what even the best teachers can achieve. This present administration is cutting huge numbers of teachers and promoting the idea that it is the quality of the teacher rather than the size of classes which is most important. But children in overcrowded classrooms at primary level and students at second level who are being forced into big classes where a variety of levels have to be taught are being severely disadvantaged.

I see this in my own school. Up to now we have been able to have small classes to help those struggling for Leaving Cert, in maths and Irish particularly. With more

cutbacks for next year, this won't be possible. This will have a serious detrimental effect on their chances of getting places in third level; the good students will still get by fairly well but the weak will suffer greatly. This amounts to discrimination against particular groups.

It was possible to cut fat from the education system, and initiatives to put more emphasis on literacy and numeracy at primary and secondary level are long overdue. The same goes for science and foreign languages, where a good start can be made at primary level. A reduction of subjects at second level is also very welcome. These are all entirely positive developments and should not be opposed by anyone.

However, I find it very hard to be convinced by Department of Education policy or by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. How any minister can allow hundreds of teachers to retire from the system this week defies belief.

The minister is a long time in office now, and all he had to say was that it did not matter when gardai, doctors, nurses and other Government employees could retire, but that teachers could not jump off the horse midstream.

It is the most stupid decision ever made in education. Not only that, but I find it amazing that any group should get pensions at age 55 -- or even less in some cases. Nobody should be getting a state pension before 60.

What normally happens is that the best leave as they will get a job somewhere else. And schools in most cases won't be able to replace departing teachers with young motivated ones.

It is a total unmitigated shambles which damages morale and creates cynicism. It is being done in the name of reform, but it is nothing of the sort. If Mr Quinn wants reform, he should reform the Croke Park Agreement -- but he won't rock the boat with his friends in the unions. Those same unions are responsible for a lot of poor work practices, and in protecting their members over the years they have never offered any vision of education other than looking for more. They could have looked after their members well and also created a future for young teachers who can't get a job now, but that train has left the station.

Yet, for all of that, I am completely positive about the future and it would not take much to put Ireland top of the class. I feel that teaching standards have improved dramatically in the last 20 years and there are far fewer passengers in the system than previously. Students are motivated, standards are higher, and not at the cost of friendliness, decency and honesty -- traits which won't be measured in any tests but still count for more than anything else.

Education is changing every day and much of it for the better. To survive and prosper we need absolute flexibility to prepare for new ways and new markets.

In the old days in America the motto was, 'Go west, young man'. Now it is maybe, 'Go east, armed with Mandarin or Japanese'.

Despite the great challenges, our young people are in many respects being given the best of educational opportunities, and they need to repay that by creating employment and building communities. It is not a one-way street; there are responsibilities for our younger generation and the main one is to put something back. As Luke wrote in the gospel: "From those to whom much is given, much is expected."

Colm O'Rourke is principal of St Patrick's College Navan and a noted Gaelic football commentator

Sunday Independent

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