Katherine Donnelly: Reforming education isn't as simple as ABC
IN a fast-moving world where change is the only certainty, it may be no surprise that the debate about how the education system could do better has made a sudden leap in focus from bonus points for maths to learning Chinese or Japanese.
Earlier this year, a report drawn up for the European Commission stated that many of the jobs in 2015, and most of the jobs in 2030, do not currently exist and cannot even be foreseen yet.
So how can an education system prepare students for the unknown, for jobs that no one has even dreamed of yet? By giving them the capacity to change by fostering new ways of learning how to learn, and by equipping them with skills such as problem-solving, innovation, communications and creativity.
That, and acknowledging the importance of particular academic subjects.
In the past few years, the talk has been of the need to raise performance in maths. Make a 10pc failure rate at ordinary level in the Leaving Certificate history, and encourage more than a lowly 16pc of Leaving Cert candidates to do higher level, seen as a foundation for smart-economy jobs.
Despairing employers greeted the annual Leaving Cert results with calls for bonus points for higher-level maths to incentivise students to put the effort in. The new minister, no doubt influenced by her contact with employers in her former role in the enterprise and trade brief, succumbed, although there are many educational arguments against it.
The minister does not yet have the ink dry on that proposal -- she is awaiting word from the third-level colleges, which have sole authority to decide -- and it was like the Fianna Fail election poster of 2002 came back to haunt her in Donegal yesterday. 'A lot done, more to do', minister.
Martin Murphy, managing director of Hewlett Packard (HP) Ireland, which employs 4,000 people, is the first to acknowledge that there is a lot of good in the Irish education system.
Mega companies like HP wouldn't be here otherwise, he told the MacGill Summer School, whose attendance included the minister, yesterday.
But if HP is to stay, and others are to join it, the education system must do even better. The country needs them. The 60,000 school-leavers a year need them. The 77,000 people who applied for a college place this year need them.
The education system may have more strengths than even Murphy gives it credit for.
The key thinking skills he wants every school-leaver to have are being embedded in teaching and learning and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is seen as a leader in this field internationally.
We must look East to its big powerhouse economies and give all students the option of learning an Asian language by 2012 -- two years time -- and send the message that Ireland is open for business.
A big ask in a country where a handful of schools teach Japanese, and where Mandarin Chinese is being piloted in a few schools. Lovely idea, says the Government, but we have no money to broaden it across the system. Murphy says the way to make it happen is to have "virtual classrooms", with students in more than one school linked up with an online teacher.
It ties in with his idea for more online learning, another example of the sort of big change he says is needed if Ireland is to be up with best practice: breaking down school walls and introducing new thinking and modern teaching methods to meet the needs of students. HP is piloting a virtual classroom project in French in Northern Ireland.
The technology may be there to allow that to happen, but technology is in short supply in Irish schools. Murphy says giving fifth- and sixth-year students personal laptops should not be too much to dream of -- with parents sharing the cost. Even Portugal has given its students personal laptops. Current government policy in Ireland is based on providing schools with one laptop per classroom.
Murphy says high-speed internet access should be a basic human right and available in every school. Figures released this week show that only 78 of 4,000 schools have the high-speed, 100MB per second connectivity.
At a minimum, every schoolchild in Ireland should have access, he says. The reality in Ireland is that some don't, and, in some schools, the connection is too slow or unreliable.
His education reform dream would see science as a compulsory subject at second level, while also introducing a requirement for fluency at Leaving Certificate level in at least two international languages.
There are constant complaints about curriculum overload and the requirement to study Irish makes it difficult for students to take on two other languages, as well as the all-important maths, and now science, along with whatever else they want to study.
Finally, the points system, which Murphy says should be adjusted to take account of multiple intelligence by the use of aptitude tests for particular third-level courses.
One of the problems with tinkering with the points system is that, while it may be brutal, it is fair -- and it's the devil everybody knows.