Wednesday 19 December 2018

Teachers! Don't leave our kids on their own

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Teaching is my first love. And a good teacher tries to find fresh ways of saying the same thing until it sinks in. So let me repeat two points I have been hammering in recent weeks regarding Fine Gael and Sinn Fein.

First, I said that Fine Gael would be foolish to go for an early change of leader or an early general election. For weeks, the supporters of doing something dramatic have dominated the media discourse. But The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll returned them to reality.

Second, I said that pressing on the buttons that lit up Sinn Fein’s links to a Provo past would eventually erode its standing in the polls. And the MRBI poll shows a small dip for the party but a bigger dip for Adams.

Third, I said that the pressure of the Mairia Cahill case is panicking Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald’s bizarre behaviour proves my point. Desperately seeking a distractor from Cahill, she first flounced out of the Dail and then acted the Trot on Ansbacher.

All to no avail. Sinn Fein is in a flap. And the fluster is causing the fake pluralist mask to fall from its face and show us the tribal scowl within.

Alas, most Government politicians lack Joan Burton’s and John Deasy’s determination to soften the cough of Sinn Fein. Last weekend on RTE, Minister Alex White failed to follow up Burton’s attack on Sinn Fein. But John Deasy of Fine Gael delivered a dressing down to Mary Lou McDonald that left her lost for words.

* * * * *

I said teaching was my first love. But a minority of time-serving teachers are a disgrace to that noble profession. And the teachers’ unions are allowing them to set the agenda for two bad reasons.

First, teachers will lose marking money if in-house assessment replaces state exams. Second, teachers’ unions are trying to regain ground lost with members who have had to take fairly modest cuts — modest, compared with private sector workers who don’t have permanent and pensionable employment and long holidays.

The core of the current problem is the continuing division between good teachers and bad teachers. Every staffroom in the country is split between these two groups.

The good teachers can be trusted to assess their own pupils with both honesty and competence, but a small rump could not be trusted to mark a bingo card.

There are two further fundamental problems. First, it is almost impossible to fire the dossers so as to free up jobs for young, passionate entrants who could energise their classrooms. Second, the teaching unions will not break the umbilical cord with the dossers.

And that’s the nub. Short of effective sanctions that will rid our classrooms of bad teachers, decent teachers doubt the Department’s promise that proper standards can be enforced.

Assessment is acceptable only if rigorous standards of implementation are enforced. That means procedures like cross-moderation, internal review and external monitoring. Put these in place and parents, teachers and pupils can have confidence in the new system.

Dossers are dragging down reform. It’s time parents put pressure on a teacher-dominated Dail to deal with the dossers. Marking teachers comes before marking students.

* * * * *

Let’s turn from teachers to education. Teachers are real people we can relate to. Education, however, is an elusive concept that divides people into many camps.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames forced me to find my own camp by inviting me to an NUIG conference she chaired last Friday called ‘Reforming Learning: Driving Success’. Although I could not attend, I did some thinking. Mostly about apprenticeships.

Let’s start with the great apprenticeship gap between Germany and Ireland. Ireland has 22 apprenticeship courses, largely in construction; Germany has more than 300.

German apprenticeships play a big part in youth employment. In Germany, only seven young people out of every 100 are out of work. Compare that with 30 out of every 100 here.

Going German with apprenticeships is the only way to go. We already have an enviable track record in the World Skills Olympics. What we need to do now is look beyond the craft areas.

So why haven’t we done it so far? Snobbery plays a big part. The snob factor arises from the excessive value Irish society places on a third-level education.

Ireland has the highest level of third-level attainment among 30 to 34-year-olds in the EU — 53pc compared with the EU average of 37pc. But our passion for college degrees, like our passion for property, creates a vicious circle.

We have too many students doing college courses for which they are not a good fit. Far too many are not fully engaged. Far too many drop out without access to an alternative apprenticeship scheme that might suit them better.

Snobbery wears blurred spectacles. After all, what is a University Hospital? Basically it mean a centre which provides on-the-job training in medicine. In plain language, it’s an apprenticeship course, the apprenticeship aspect of which is hidden by a veil of social prejudice.

Lidl in Ireland shows how little time Germany has for such social snobberies. Given that Ireland is stuffed with business colleges — and unemployed business graduates — why does Lidl provide its own degree qualification to applicants and those already employed by it?

The answer is that like all great German firms, Lidl believes in the apprenticeship model of education. Because college courses on their own are often not enough.

A number of OECD reports reveal that the skills and competences required by industry are not being taught at our universities.

Solas, the new skills training body, must now set about tackling snobbery and seeking new strategic partnerships with industry. Cork would be a good place to start.

Cork Harbour is the pharmaceutical hub of Ireland, with a large variety of good, sustainable employers such as Pfizer,

Eli Lilly, and Schering-Plough.

Solas and the local ETBs (Education and Training Boards) should start a conversation with these giants to find out future employment needs.

Here are two more suggestions. College-based courses should be delivered on a masterclass basis by industry specialists, not just by teachers. And courses should be conducted in the summer months, at college centres kept open for that purpose.

Finally, the first aim of all education should be to create a fully rounded person. We have proof that there is nothing airy-fairy about such an aim. Recently, DCU asked the top global employers to tell them what they wanted in business graduates.

The employers said they wanted young people who were comfortable as part of a team, capable of critical thinking, and who could share decision-making.

But above all, they wanted graduates with good communication skills. There was no mention of a 1:1 honours degree, Master’s or PhD degree.

No demand for a south County Dublin accent. Global employers wanted what classical educators wanted: well-rounded men and women who could think and talk.

Online Editors

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