Thursday 21 November 2019

Our education failures cannot be put on backburner

Teachers' unions put too much focus on money and not half enough on students, writes Celia Larkin

DISCUSSIONS: Delegates at the TUI conference in Tralee, Co Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh "It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught."

-- R J Baughan

Forgive me if I got it wrong, but I thought teaching was about imparting knowledge and equipping the student with the skills necessary to cope with the ever-changing circumstances of today's society, and to give the best possible advantage.

Listening to the reports coming out of the teachers' conferences in Tralee and Cork last week, one would be forgiven for thinking that the only matter of interest to teachers was money. The whole theme of the conferences seemed to be about teachers' pay, state funding in private schools, embargoes on promotions and recruitment and nothing about the education system and its fitness' for purpose.

I know the teachers' unions are, well, unions, but surely they should have some care for the ideology attached to teaching? Surely there should have been a sense of intellectual excitement among these well educated people, putting forward ideas and suggestions relating to the curriculum and systems of education? No, it was all back-pocket stuff.

Education and Skills Minister Ruairi Quinn must have felt a bit like the man talking to the apocryphal actress who says, "Oh, but enough about me, let's talk about you. What did you think of my performance?"

Not once did I hear any reference to improving or developing the system of education to cater for the changing needs of today's world. Not once did I hear any reference to objectives for education and training. Objectives that would impact on social and economic circumstances for students, many of whom will be forced to emigrate, post-school or post-university. It drives home how shockingly coercive and constraining money has become in this country.

A generation ago, we'd look down our noses at the visitors who, we believed, knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. The ones who came on pre-paid packages, travelled around the country at break-neck speed on luxurious coaches and never ventured into the bar at night, or strayed beyond the package deal.

Now, the teachers' meetings suggest Ireland has become so materialistic that to contemplate any flexibility or adjustment in teaching practices necessitates massive financial investment, or the promise of it, before such matters can even be considered.

Nonsense. We have to consider a radical upgrade to our educational system -- right now. One of the key problems we know we have is how few Irish people emerge from the system with good maths. Because of the scarcity, we have too few science graduates at the top level.

Now set that against recent research that shows 28 per cent of Irish primary school teachers consider themselves poorly prepared to teach the mathematics curriculum.

This being the case, we should be discussing what specialised training is required for teachers. In Norway and Sweden, it is necessary for an educator to have the equivalent of a master's degree in mathematics.

The Leaving Certificate has changed from a terminal examination to an entry examination into third level. This has driven the student to select courses in secondary school that are less difficult and more easily memorised (in effect, rote learning), in order to obtain sufficient points for third-level entry.

Subjects such as geography and home economics take precedence over mathematics when submitted for the points system. That would be fine for third-level candidates if it equipped them with skills on how to study or to research subject matter when they are in college. Unfortunately, the present secondary system does not encourage students to internalise skills and learning tools. It fails to foster intellectual flexibility.

As a result, students are often completely at sea in their first year, so much so that the dropout level in the first year of university is unacceptably high. Coupled with that, the present mathematical skill of entrants is such that universities are finding it necessary to run what are, to all intents and purposes, 'maths boot camps' in an effort to bring students up to par.

These are not issues that will go away. These are issues with damning implications for our future. These are issues that need to be tackled in the classrooms. These are issues that one would expect to be debated at teachers' conferences.

Even when there was some reference to the proposed overhaul of the Junior Cert, most of the comment seemed to be negative, with no alternative proposals put forward. One delegate stated that the drop in literacy ability in students was "the fault of society". No enthusiastic pooling of ideas. No discussion. Just hand-washing: blame it on society.

Germany offers a choice to the secondary school student depending on their educational needs. The Gymnasium focuses on academic study and entry into university. The Realschule also leads to a higher qualification of a vocational nature, and the Hauptschule caters for those wishing to enter the workforce early.

Of course, there are three programmes in the senior cycle here -- Leaving Certificate; the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), which focuses on technical subjects; and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) Programme, a two-year course, which cannot be used to gain entry to third level. But you know and I know that there is an intellectual snob value attached to the Leaving Certificate, which discourages some students from taking the LCVP or the LCA. A potentially valuable option, paradoxically, isn't an option for them.

Mr Quinn made variants of the same speech to the ASTI, INTO and the TUI. It was a speech mostly about economic matters. The bulk of it could have been delivered to any association or group of professionals. Reduction in funding in any sector results in hardship, and teachers -- like all public sector workers -- have taken a hard hit in their pay packets.

The minister knows that, and he sympathised with the teachers on the issue. But if there's one minister who needs to think beyond the problematic present, it's Ruairi Quinn. He knows that Ireland has been coasting on an out-dated myth of having a brilliant education system. He's going to have to do a lot more than sympathise with and be firm with newly impoverished teachers. Ireland has a limited time to get this right.

Emer O'Kelly, Page 27

Sunday Independent

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