Monday 19 February 2018

Our rigid education system is an unfair points game largely unchanged since '70s

"My daughters are choosing subjects from the very same list that I did. But whereas I got to choose what interested me, with the emphasis now on gaining maximum points, we have kids taking on subjects they have no interest in" (Stock)

Barbara Scully

Some months ago I began to think I should start getting my head around the labyrinth that is the CAO application process, the points system and college courses.

Not for myself, you understand, but I have two daughters currently in secondary school, the eldest of whom will be heading into fifth year in September. But it seems that events have overtaken me. Changes are apparently afoot.

I read the reports with interest. I was hoping to discover that finally this 'points' madness, which has transformed our system of education into a game, was going to be addressed.

But sadly, no. My heart sank as I read that, in fact, these changes will include allocating points to what, in my day, was a fail (below 40pc) albeit in a higher-level paper. These newest bonus points are the latest addition to a system which also includes bonus points for Higher Level Maths, introduced a few years ago, and the longer- standing and more modest bonus that can be accrued by sitting your exam 'as Gaeilge'.

Remember the days when we prided ourselves on having one of the best systems of education in the world?

I don't know if ever there was any truth in that but certainly Irish people could go anywhere in the world and hold their own in conversation, in business and in other areas of life.

We still have a tendency to talk about our highly educated workforce, which is largely due to the high number of college graduates - a fact which, as far as I can make out, hides the big problems that exist in second-level education.

The secondary school curriculum is rigid and stagnant and consists largely of the same subjects I studied in the 1970s. I hear friends in the United Kingdom and the United States talk of the education of their teenagers and wonder how we in Ireland have managed to get so stuck.

My British and American friends talk about their youngsters studying philosophy, psychology, politics, drama, film studies and, wait for it... critical thinking.

Meanwhile, my daughters are choosing subjects from the very same list that I did. But whereas I got to choose what interested me, with the emphasis now on gaining maximum points, we have kids taking on subjects they have no interest in, merely because they are seen as soft points options.

Instead of totally overhauling the curriculum, we fool around creating false results by offering bonus points for Higher Level Maths and now rewarding students for attempting honours papers - even if they fail.

Secondary education is indeed a game. And it's an unfair one too, given that the students best positioned to win are those with the financial resources to buy extra help if required, from grind schools, which are thriving in many parts of the country.

The education game also requires that students become largely passive recipients of information. Sure, project work has been incorporated into some subjects. However, I am somewhat cynical about how much the students work alone on these elements. But I hope I am wrong on that.

The education game culminates in those awful few weeks in June.

Any achievements our children have made in the course of their six years in secondary school will be formally forgotten, as Ireland brands them a 'success' or 'failure' on their ability to remember facts and regurgitate them correctly on the day.

It's exactly the same situation I endured, way back in 1979, in an Ireland where women had only recently been given the right to stay at work after marriage, where there was no divorce, no over-the-counter contraception and no internet.

The whole world has changed in such dramatic and diverse ways, but our system of secondary education has largely remained the same as the 1970s.

Some months ago, I was talking to the head of a third-level institution about how different the third-level experience must be from the spoon-fed environment in secondary school. He said that many lecturers have to spend too long teaching the 'freshers' how to research, how to analyse information and how to think before they can begin to educate them in their chosen field.

There is one bright light in our secondary education system, however, and that is Transition Year.

This year did not exist in my day and provides students with opportunities to explore far outside not only of the curriculum but also themselves. It embodies what education should be - an opening of minds, an exploration of our world, a pause in which to think and debate and sing and climb and challenge.

And, of course, it is the only year out of the six spent in secondary school that you will only very rarely hear the words "points" and "Leaving Cert".

We need a radical overhaul of secondary education and there would be no better start than with continuous assessment, which operates successfully in other countries.

However, the difficulty surrounding the introduction of such change is obvious, as the teachers have already gone on strike for two days over reform of the Junior cycle and they do not seem to be for turning on the issue after more than 20 years of discussions, study papers and expert groups. Resistance to change is endemic.

I cannot possibly contemplate my grandchildren (I am getting a bit ahead of myself here, I know) having to undergo the same education that I did.

Irish Independent

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