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Why American bosses say Irish schools could do better

US multinationals have caused some soul-searching among teachers and educators after their severe criticisms of the Irish education system.

The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland -- an influential body that represents some of our biggest employers -- believes the school system places too much emphasis on rote learning.

Like many others in the education system, the US employers want more attention paid to problem-solving skills.

The US companies highlighted the weaknesses in our Leaving Cert points system.

The chamber wants problem-solving capabilities rewarded in exams to encourage the innovation and creativity needed in the economy.

In a submission to the strategy body reviewing higher education, it suggested either a specific problem-solving paper that could be taken to supplement points, or awarding more points for problem- solving orientated questions.

In a damning critique of the education system, the US bosses criticise the reluctance to make the necessary change to the curriculum to adapt to changing needs.

It says rote learning facilitates high grades in the science, technology and engineering subjects, but this does not reflect the ability of the students to apply their knowledge effectively later in their career.

The attack by the US multinationals comes as another influential body, the Royal Irish Academy, warns of falling standards at third level in Ireland.

The academy aims to promote high standards of scholarship in Ireland. In its own submission to the National Strategy for Higher Education Review Group, the RIA warns of a decline in standards in science courses in universities and institutes of technology.

The academy says a significant number of students at third level are "inadequately prepared''.

This has led to a reduction in standards, the consequences of which urgently need to be addressed. The implied complaint from the American Chamber of Commerce that Irish pupils are simply required to regurgitate facts and passages of text in order to pass exams is a familiar one.

The use by the country's medical schools of the HPAT aptitude test as an accompaniment to the Leaving Cert demonstrates a belief that our present exam system is flawed.

Poor problem-solving ability has been blamed for the moderate performance in maths of Irish 15-year-olds identified in studies conducted by the international think-tank, the OECD.

Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe is hoping for an improvement in the national performance after Project Maths, a new hands-on maths curriculum, is introduced in second-level schools.

The contribution of the American Chamber to the debate on the future of our education system has received a guarded welcome from the second-level teachers' union, the ASTI.

Moira Leyden, assistant general secretary of the ASTI, said the focus for reform should not just be on maths and science.

"We need changes in other subjects as well. At present there is a root-and-branch review of the Junior Cert.

"It is widely accepted that there is content overload at the Junior Cert, with pupils taking exams in up to 14 subjects. That is patently absurd.

"If we are to get away from rote learning we need to reduce the subject content and put greater emphasis on understanding and creativity.''

Professor Ed Walsh, former President of the University of Limerick, suggests that our present Leaving Cert points system distorts education.

"When you tell someone that his whole future depends on the Leaving Cert it has a perverse effect. People may believe that they can get more points by studying subjects like home economics and geography rather than maths and science.

"So they study those subjects, not because they are interested in them, but because they can get more points. They feel that they cannot make the effort to study maths.''

Some teachers believe that the Government could help to remedy the situation by doubling the number of points given for higher-level maths.

'Pupils must be rewarded for taking higher-level maths,'' says Eileen Scanlon, the ASTI's maths representative on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

"That would help us to place a greater emphasis on problem-solving skills.''

The Government is likely to take note of the chamber's concerns. US companies have invested over €1.4bn in Ireland and employ over 300,000 people directly or indirectly.

The chamber is concerned about the supply of graduates in science, engineering and technology for the economy of the future. At present, many of the best qualified employees in the multinationals are being recruited from abroad.

It argues there is a need "to inherently nurture creativity and innovation from an early stage to excite and engage our second-level students towards pursuing a career in these disciplines".

Irish Independent