AT 10.30pm the other night, my 16-year-old daughter was bent over a biology book calling red blood cells a name that cannot be repeated here. She should have been tucked up in bed, reading for pleasure or just simply letting her brain recover from the day. She'd been working since she got home. She still wasn't finished. At 10.45pm she was making airplane noises while trying to force Spanish vocabulary into an exhausted brain. Finally, at 11pm, she gave up, homework unfinished.
This is almost a daily routine. It will be repeated for two years, if she doesn't crack up first. You can imagine how I felt when a recent report card said, 'a more concentrated effort' was required.
I am all for a broad education. I am all for children learning more than three subjects for the Leaving Cert. But if we take that approach, we must understand that there is a limit to what can be learnt in each subject in the time allotted. Teachers are under huge pressure to get through their curriculum. They cannot afford to say: "Oh, I'll take it easy because they have six other subjects." The result: an inhumane amount of work.
What would happen if we cut 25pc off the curriculum of each subject? Would our kids miss out hugely? Or would we just be removing the fat?
Think of what we could do with the time we'd free up. We could keep time free at the end of each class for discussion, encouraging critical thinking, debate and public expression. Students would be more likely to retain what they'd just been taught rather than being propelled on to the next class without reflection, to the next teacher trying to get through an overly ambitious curriculum. It would leave more time to bring outside people into our schools – writers, artists, dancers, scientists, inventors, filmmakers; people who would inspire the next generation to keep asking questions.
We cut down the curriculum, we cut down on homework. We free up our children's time so they can have a life, so they have time to think and wonder and communicate, and so they have time to read. Reading is the single most powerful way to improve a student's competency in English. It also – and more importantly – opens the mind to other worlds, opinions, lives. And yet we leave our children, in the last phase of the system, little or no time to read.
There are schools called Waldorf Schools. Rather than learning from existing educational literature, the students are encouraged to make their own. Teamwork is encouraged. This is not only more enjoyable, it has also been shown to hugely improve learning. Why not learn from this?
To improve our educational system, we don't have to take drastic measures like rem-oving the Junior Cert which, let's face it, is a dry run for the Leaving. All we have to do is cut down on the curriculum.
There is no one more curious than a five-year-old entering our school system. Can we really say the same for the people coming out the other end? Students are still learning off pre-prepared answers to questions they hope will come up in the state exams. Our universities have had to introduce modules in critical thinking.
Instead of providing endless data, wouldn't it be better to send our children out into the world with a love of reading, of learning, of asking questions and wanting to find the answers themselves?
Denise Deegan is author of the teenage series 'The Butterfly Novels'