Maeve Dineen: Modernise archaic education system -- or fall further behind
CHILDREN and teenagers across the country return to school today and an education system that is failing them by teaching the right subjects in the wrong way and not teaching many valuable subjects at all.
Perhaps the most obvious problem lies in maths and science, where the latest PISA reports by the Organisation for Economic and Co-Operation Development show that Irish children are a long way behind children in many other OECD countries.
These problems were well signalled by the chief executives of companies such as Intel and Google earlier this year and the Government has begun to look into the problem, although the solution suggested so far -- to force universities to give bonus points for honours maths rather than, say, honours French -- are depressingly mundane.
What's needed are new ways of teaching, new subject matter and less emphasis on outdated maths, which computers have made obsolete. We also need to offer more maths-related subjects. It is little short of extraordinary that students cannot study computer science or computer languages at Leaving Cert level when this is something many kids would enjoy and it would be useful in later life.
Languages of all kinds, computer and spoken, are the real weakness of our education system and economy. For a country that depends on exports and technology for survival, it is nothing short of scandalous that both are taught so badly.
Irish children are among Europe's worst linguists, beaten only by the monoglot British in many surveys. The main reason is that we start too late; most Europeans begin learning languages at 10, while our children begin at 12 or 13. This means Northern European children often have at least three years or 50pc more language learning that ours; no wonder they are so much better.
While the way we teach languages leaves much to be desired, even more lamentable are the languages taught. Consider this: students here must study Irish and may study Latin, Greek and Hebrew for the Leaving Cert but not Mandarin, Hindi or Portuguese. Russian is the only language of the four BRIC countries that can be studied at Leaving Cert level, while four dead languages are available. This makes no sense either culturally or economically.
In a week when China overtook Japan as the world's second biggest economy, we need to create an education system that reflects the world as it is.
The economy of the future will be shaped in China and other developing countries -- not in the sense that the citizens of these countries will become better off than Americans, Europeans or Japanese, at least not in any of our lifetimes, but in the sense that most of the growth and innovation in the world economy will depend on meeting the physical needs of Asia, Latin America and Africa, rather than the consumer desires of Europe or the US.
Language is the key to understanding this new world. We are betraying both our students and the population at large by failing to give them the tools to look beyond that part of the world that speaks English, Irish and French.
It is time to look to countries such as those in Scandinavia and learn what they are doing right and what we are doing wrong. It is time for the officials in the Department of Education to go back to school and rethink the curriculum.