Thursday 30 October 2014

Children are not cherished equally by education system

Awarding bonus points just to students taking higher-level maths is unfair and immoral, writes Colum Kenny

Published 25/08/2013 | 05:00

SPARE a thought for school-leavers who cannot take the college courses that they want, despite the fact that they have done better overall than other school-leavers.

For some, it is a matter of money. We may be celebrating 1916 and other worthy centenaries this decade, but we do not cherish the children of the nation equally. Grants are inadequate, and the system is flawed.

If you are born into a certain class, your chances of completing college are slim no matter how intelligent you are.

Last week, in a broken marriage case, the High Court ordered that a boy be sent to a private school as his mother wished, and as best suited his top talents. The judge took into account the boy's "scholastic aptitude", his family's means and the unusual fact that the private school was willing to cut its normal fee by half. Bright boys who cannot afford the best schools must usually go elsewhere.

For some children there is a new kind of unfairness too, one introduced last year by higher education institutions and approved by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn TD of the Labour Party.

This is the 25 extra points that students taking higher-level maths get. It gives them an unfair advantage over others in respect to courses where maths is not directly relevant.

Your son might make a great teacher of subjects other than maths. Your daughter may be the best budding journalist. Or both could be perfectly suited for social work, and have set theirs heart on it.

And they may have more 'normal' points than someone who is not as well suited to such professions. But because that other person takes honours maths and gets a bonus, they can usurp your child's place at college even if the course is only their second or third choice.

It is unfair, a privilege carefully fostered by the Government. Yet it is least relevant to those very courses where mathematics is most needed. Children who want science or accountancy degrees should all be taking honours maths anyway, and so cancel out the extra points that each gets.

Is this injustice not meant to matter because it affects relatively few students? It is irrational and immoral.

Was the measure introduced to spare the blushes of the Department of Education at EU meetings when the standard of mathematics in European schools is discussed?

And then, to make matters worse this year, the State Examinations Commission messed up the maths paper. For which error they are pleading in a 22-page report the loss of corporate memory and critical experience due to this State's early retirement scheme for public servants.

So how many bureaucrats does it take to write a competent maths paper? Colleges, also badly hit by cutbacks and early retirements, are staffed by lecturers who must write key exams on their own.

And the cost of going to college is also growing. Entry fees are going up. Then last week came reports that rents have risen rapidly in Dublin, by 10 per cent in two years. It will make it harder for students to afford college.

Yet certain media seem to think that this is a kind of good news story about property. Few gave it much hard analysis, a sign perhaps of the tame state of journalism today in Ireland.

RTE's main news on Monday night reported the whole story without a word from those to whom it is a blow. There and elsewhere, there was not a tenant in sight. Too much of the media coverage had no critical edge.

For many young people at college or in jobs, the rise in rents is another blow to their prospects. Eighty euro or more a month for a young couple is by now a lot of money when they are already stretched by other price rises and when wages are cut or frozen in real terms.

When so much is happening in society, a relatively minor injustice such as the extra points awarded for maths alone can slip by unnoticed.

For many college courses, it would be better to give bonus points in other subjects. Much closer co-ordination between the content of particular college degree programmes and a range of Leaving Cert subjects could be very beneficial.

Instead of undermining the points system by increased continuous assessment or by bringing in dubious aptitude tests or interviews, which are measures that might soon result in the kind of corruption and cronyism most recently evident in the penalty points scandal, a sliding bonus system per subject on a degree-by-degree basis could radically improve the current system.

Such a process would immediately reveal the impoverished thinking that rewards a bonus to maths in cases where it is not directly relevant. It would also, in my view, reveal the subject of history to be more valued than current statistics suggest.

Only about three out of every 13 schoolchildren now study history to Leaving Cert level, and many of those only at ordinary level. New changes in the Junior Cert are feared to reduce its importance there too. People can leave school ignorant of the past, or knowing only about narrow segments of it.

Some people may wish to forget our past and Ireland's long struggle for justice and independence. But without a good idea of where we have come from it is hard to know where we are going, or to avoid future errors.

Despite the time and money poured into second-level education, we cannot say that the great majority of teenagers leave school with coherent high-level English, a decent knowledge of history and culture, the ability to speak fluently at least one useful foreign language and a competitive standard in mathematics and science.

The maths bonus scheme is an example of how we are still toying with minor social changes instead of daring to make necessary radical reforms.

Sunday Independent

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