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James Downey: Our very survival depends on an education revolution


CAREFUL what you wish for! Ruairi Quinn longed for the job of Education Minister. Now he has it. And now he has begun to learn the gigantic size of the task ahead of him.

He summed it up on Tuesday: "We have been codding ourselves in Ireland in saying to ourselves that we have one of the best education systems in the world. The reality is we don't."

Not that this came as news to him, or to anyone else who has kept in touch with the question. The figures are scary. Since the year 2000, we have slipped from fifth to 17th among OECD countries in the ratings for reading skills, and from 16th to 26th in mathematics. In second-level schools, almost half of our maths teachers are not qualified in the subject.

There are two other figures which should be read together but up to now have not been. Almost a quarter of 15-year-old boys are illiterate. And 200,000 of the unfortunate people on the live register are long-term unemployed.

And all this in the middle of a technological revolution which Quinn compares, rightly, with Gutenberg's printing press. The revolution has created opportunities -- many of them already realised -- which were barely dreamed of, except by writers of science fiction a generation ago.

But too many people, and in Ireland far too many, have been excluded from these opportunities. What are the life prospects of the illiterate 15-year-olds or the 200,000 long-term unemployed? What on earth have we done with the Celtic Tiger?

At the other end of the scale, we think we have engendered a generation that has mastered the arts of both technology and entrepreneurship. Not so, according to representatives of the multinational companies on which we rely so much and which we must emulate.

They complain that our young people, including university graduates, have not been taught to think. They have gone through what amounts to "rote learning". The examination system has little interest in criticism and analysis. It demands the regurgitation of knowledge, useful or otherwise.

If university graduates, with all their intelligence and all their advantages, lack the capacity for rigorous (and unorthodox) thought, the chances of those at lower levels must be poor indeed.

Yet education begins at the lowest level. Experts say that the most important years are those between birth and the age of four. Infants learn through their senses. But they also have to have stimulation for their imagination.

If, through family and social circumstances they lack this, we need kindergartens. Now that we have swapped boom for bust, can we afford them? A better question might be, can we afford not to have them?

Maybe questions like these should be discussed in the Forum for Partnership and Pluralism set up by the new minister. But this body will have as its chief concern what amounts to the abandonment by the Catholic Church of its control of up to half of our primary schools.

In the debate, there is no doubt about one thing. Years ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin signalled a strategic withdrawal. The church simply does not have the resources to manage the present arrangement.

This week we got another signal, a suggestion that the church should cede control of only 10pc of the primary schools. That strikes me as a negotiating position, perhaps influenced by some conservatives' reluctance to make any concessions.

It also strikes me as quite unrealistic. But there are dangers, too, in the figure of 50pc at which I expect the minister to aim. Are we to have 50pc all-Catholic, all-white, all-middle class primary schools? And what becomes of the rest? Have the VECs, or voluntary bodies, or the minority religions (whose interests need special attention) the capacity to maintain standards?

At second-level, reform has become urgent. Is there any value at all in the Junior Certificate? Or even in the Leaving Certificate, except as a gateway to university entrance?

I have always been a strong supporter of the points system. It has the great merits of fairness and incorruptibility. But it boosts cramming and downgrades imagination. And too often, the practices it inculcates will survive into the third-level. Once again, the accumulation of knowledge -- this time, knowledge appropriate to a specific profession -- will crowd out something more precious, independent thought.

Finally, to one of the most contentious issues of them all: third-level funding.

We have to spend money, a lot of money, on higher education. Our very survival depends on it. Brendan Keenan has described the Department of Education as "the most important economic ministry".

Where is the money to come from? A Labour Party minister abolished tuition fees -- to widespread acclaim, but no acclaim from educationists. Either we must bring them back, or find some other source of revenue. I incline, with some misgivings, to student loans, though I wonder what would happen when the graduates emigrate.

I wonder, too, whether we should pay top academics' colossal salaries. In the private sector, the market decides rates of pay. In the public sector, I have advocated in the recent past that nobody should have more than €125,000 a year. Academics, like politicians, could live comfortably on much less. Their real reward is the satisfaction of rendering a public service. And that of course is also the real reward for the person in charge.

Many years ago, the poet and sage Maire Mhac an tSaoi was asked what was her greatest wish for the country. She replied: "A good education minister. We've never had one."

Now we have the makings of a good education minister. Ruairi Quinn is eminently qualified, and the enormous challenges he faces work, in an important way, to his advantage. He has been in office for one month; he has perhaps a year to show that he has begun the much-needed revolution. If he succeeds, he will become, not just a good education minister, but a great education minister.

Irish Independent