Our education system is paralysed - but the Coalition offers only glib, quick-fix solutions
Published 01/10/2015 | 02:30
On this week in 1996, Tony Blair was on the cusp of changing British politics after 18 years of Tory rule. At the Labour Party's conference in Blackpool, he asserted the three main priorities for a New Labour government would be "Education, Education and Education." He dreamed of breaking inter-generational cycles of disadvantage through education.
His vision was to make Britain a learning society through investment and reform programmes. He saw a way forward by setting transparent targets for rapid and radical improvement in schools and colleges. There were literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools, and a mission to develop all secondary schools into centres of excellence. His stance defines the difference between leadership and management in politics and public administration.
Blair was offering idealism, instilling societal values and seeking to empower future generations. We have outsourced responsibility for educational reform to teachers' unions. The latest twist in the Junior Cycle reform saga represents the nadir of paralysis in classroom change.
After two rounds of mediation proposals from Pauric Travers, Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan abandoned any teacher assessment marks to be included in Junior Certificate grades. Teachers' reports were to be school based rather than part of the State Exams Commission (SEC) results. Having backtracked from an assessment component of 100pc to 40pc to 0pc, teacher leaders signed on the dotted line last May to acknowledge victory.
Hopes were that after eight years, secondary schools could include emphasis on developing skills and teamwork rather than just teaching by rote learning. A joint statement of welcome from the ASTI and TUI presidents, both co-signatories to the deal, was issued. TUI members took the advice of their leadership and accepted the deal. The ASTI executive refused to recommend acceptance in the ballot.
More than three months elapsed before ballot papers were issued. Despite substantive concessions of 16 days of training and granting classroom time off in lieu of assessment work, reform was nonetheless rejected by ASTI members 55/45pc.
An abysmal turnout of 38pc would be seen by many as a shocking indictment of indifference on behalf of secondary school teachers. For whatever reason, more than six out of 10 ASTI members (11,000 teachers) failed to vote.
There is now a directive to all ASTI members to refuse to co-operate with class-based assessment, and also not to attend continuing professional development courses. Second-year students are due to receive the first assessments next spring. It's another torpedo into the midriff of minimal modernisation.
The latest rejection, following two previous all-out strike days, sends a blunt warning to the Government and parents: 'Every curriculum issue is an industrial relations gripe'. Teachers' pay and conditions can be dealt with routinely through a string of public sector conciliation processes. The recommended rejection of the Lansdowne Road terms isn't sufficient; they use reform as a pawn in pay rows to blackmail taxpayers. Yet teachers expect to be treated as role models by pupils.
This is just the latest episode signifying a chronic malaise in post-primary education. The teaching profession refuses to be accountable at secondary level through the outlawing of performance league tables.
University tutors complain new undergraduates have poor basic writing and communication skills, and minimal analytical ability.
Problems are compounded at third-level, where universities are punching below their weight in a world league table. Despite incremental grade inflation, our top placed university in these rankings, TCD, is at 160th place today. The Hunt Report of January 2011 planned the consolidation of technological universities; yet mergers are painfully slow. They asserted that by 2020 an additional €500m will be needed to merely maintain current spending per student due to our population bulge from 200,000 third-level students to more than a quarter of a million, with a 29pc increase in places required.
We boast of a 53pc participation rate at third level, but a chronic funding crisis is now emerging. By the end of the year, another expert report is awaited on an optimal college funding model.
The four principal options are: full tuition fees payable by students; 100pc State funding from central taxation; a student loan system, as in the UK; or a deferred graduate tax recoupment scheme. No political party will grasp any of these nettles. They'll evade policy positions that endanger votes, while net investment dwindles.
Basic common sense efficiency measures are vetoed by unions. Some 5,000 teachers of PLC (post-Leaving Cert) courses won't operate on a year-round basis. Unlike Fás training courses, they refuse to work in June, July and August, perks of post-primary working. Key facilities remain closed for three months to unemployed and job seekers wanting to up skill. Instead of confronting the problem by outsourcing PLC lecturers from the private sector, the Government will bottle it.
Another false economy was axing career guidance teachers. It transpires many college graduates are mismatched between their college course and subsequent employment, with 42pc working in areas not equating to their qualifications. We import 50pc of ICT graduates. Lack of a defined career path means we're wasting, according to the OECD, over €1bn in lost productivity and output. Despite a top primary system, teenagers are short changed. Political mis-management of education means no systemic reform, no investment prioritisation, refusal to tackle vested interests and no insistence on classroom accountability.
What will we get come election time? Finance Minister Michael Noonan wants iPads for five-year-olds. The smart economy is to be complemented with smart classrooms. The rudiments of primary school education - reading and writing skills - may be substituted by a slick app. Another glib, quick-fix solution.