Friday 15 November 2019

Colum Kenny: Educators are leaving pupils short-changed

School-leavers are ill-prepared for life after classroom and reform is needed now, writes Colum Kenny

WHAT are we doing to our young people? Unemployed, emigrating, scared. Where is the urgent national debate about what we want them to learn at school for life? Is Ireland today capable of radical and urgent reform at any level?

Last week's second round of offers of college places has resulted in little change. But the problem is much worse than a shortage of college places and jobs. If the education system is fit for purpose, then someone needs to explain clearly what that purpose is.

More than three in every five school leavers are taking the honours paper in English. So why is it that so many of these who enter college appear unable to express themselves clearly, have not grasped the basics of punctuation and cannot write a simple essay well?

The numbers ignorant of history are growing, too, as only a small minority now take it each year in the Leaving Certificate. Hardly anyone studies major world languages such as Arabic or Chinese. In physics and the "hard sciences" our policy lags behind other EU countries.

The random award of bonus points for maths was symptomatic of the kind of lazy thinking and short-term 'fix' that continues to plague Irish public life. Making no difference whatsoever to a student actually wanting to take a course that requires honours maths (because every one of those will automatically get the 25 extra points), the measure no doubt makes the Minister for Education look good in some EU league table.

We are stuck with a sprawling educational system that was not designed for the modern world. But beware of some of those who want to change it. From employers through teaching unions to politicians and universities, they have their own agendas.

The points system should be fixed by fixing what children are taught. But that does not mean simply dancing to the tune of Ibec or of writers who like to sound hard-nosed about education. Our young people are facing into a foul world of uncertainty, where even if they get jobs their working and living conditions are likely to be more difficult than those of their parents. Their world will also be threatened by major environmental and social instability.

There are two things that each child needs. One is a set of values that give them a reason to get out of bed even if they have no job. The other is a set of useful skills.

Ireland is not too good on values. The church is in a state of collapse. Religion may have had too big a place in our schools for too long, but it was not all bad and the void in its place does not help young people when they wake up worried about the future.

Badly damaged and betrayed too is the national story that drove generations to believe that we were building and developing a new Ireland. The State has been ravaged by people who have gone unpunished. It is a discouraging example for young people.

With scarcely more than one in five pupils now taking history in their Leaving Certificate, what sense can most school-leavers make of the complex world into which they are emerging? Political taboos around the teaching of Irish, another massive national failure without consequence, prevent its replacement by an exciting Irish studies course that might actually inspire people to speak the language while teaching them much more about our culture.

Without a foundation that locates us in the world and provides some kind of motivation that transcends our immediate material needs, our young people are more likely to despair of the future. A person with a sense of purpose also performs better.

Meanwhile, discussion drags on about the points system. The system does need some tweaking but should not be undermined by the introduction of vague psychometric testing, and even less so by some kind of interviews and personal "references".

Apart from simply adding costs and administrative burdens, random testing and letters from old boys would be grossly unfair and open to corruption, of which we have quite enough in Ireland.

Psychometric testing is one of the ideas raised by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) as being of possible benefit in picking suitable school-leavers for particular courses.

It may make sense in companies where there are clearly defined needs that can be matched to the personality of applicants, and where those picking candidates have to answer for their performance, and where the company can do what it likes and does not have to be objectively fair.

But it would be unrealistic to pretend that Irish university degrees are so clearly defined and matched to future workplace needs, or that school leavers are so mature and developed, that you could design a fair system based on scientifically verifiable criteria that gave one applicant an advantage over another.

Besides, even if one might agree, for example, that a good bedside manner is desirable in a doctor, do we really want someone in an emergency who can chat about golf over someone who is smarter when it comes to medical matters?

And who would administer such a system? A whole new bunch of non-teaching staff at the colleges? And where would the money come from? If psychometric tests are a good idea, then they should be administered as part of the Leaving Certificate.

Even worse is the idea that we abandon points in a percentage of cases and opt instead for subjective judgement based on letters of reference and other random assertions of ability. That is a recipe for Irish cronyism and self-delusion. And yet another administrative burden on an overstrained system.

The IUA does have useful practical ideas, particularly a proposal to award points based on the relative performance of all students taking a subject. This would stop students getting an unfair advantage by picking 'easy' subjects. The problem of students being able to use the same material in two related courses is also identified.

But how can the secondary level system be changed radically? Just imagine the problems if one tried to extend the school years by a couple of weeks. Or take languages. Half of our Leaving Cert students took French this year. It is a lovely language and a lovely country, with great cultural and intellectual traditions. But English has almost completely replaced it as the international language. Six times as many students took it as learnt Spanish, which is far more widely spoken.

Yet French is what our teachers know how to teach. They simply could not start to deliver Arabic or Chinese or even Spanish courses tomorrow, even if that were deemed best for our children.

Meanwhile, at every level, our educational system is losing many of its most experienced employees as they reach retirement or leave early. Because of shortages they are not all replaced, and when they are it is often by people on far inferior contracts.

Most of all, what we lack is a clear and shared national vision for the future, a vision based on the real needs of our young people as human beings in a transformed world.

Dr Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU

Sunday Independent

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