What do you want from education?

Recently I was chatting to a group of intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning people, all of whom have one or more children in secondary schools in Dublin. What, I asked them, are you hoping that these schools will deliver for your children. The optimist in me was hoping for answers around pedagogy, civilised values, knowledge development, life skills, the thrill of science and the arts, that kind of thing. I didn’t get any of it. What did I get? They were hoping for the highest possible CAO points*. That was it.

We really have come to treat education as a board game, where you have to make the right moves and gather points. It is entirely tactical, with almost no intellectual angle. You doubt that? Well, I asked my companions what specific expectations they had of the syllabus in English literature – how much Shakespeare should Leaving Certificate students be doing, for example? And exactly what level of scientific knowledge should their children have acquired by the time they take their exams? Oh yes, they wanted Shakespeare. Was it because he crafted some of what we now know as the English language, and because he disseminated intellectual ideas from the classics to his own day? Not at all – it was because this was an expected part of the syllabus and students know how to prepare for it to get high points.

As I have mentioned before, I have grave reservations about the CAO points system, and its influence on the way in which students work for the Leaving Certificate. This conversation strongly reinforced those reservations. The social and material ambitions of parents for their children are pushing those children into working methods and career choices which are of very doubtful value for the wider society. The points system is turning the final stages of secondary school into a transaction in which student acquire what they are led to believe is the currency that will resource their later lives. And it would have to be said that the universities, as the owners of the CAO project, are allowing this to happen.

I think it is high time we had another look at the whole CAO framework.


* For non-Irish readers, the CAO is the Central Applications Office (which administers university and college entry), and the ‘points system’ is the mechanism by which Leaving Certificate examination results are converted into a points score which determines eligibility for specific university courses.

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6 Comments on “What do you want from education?”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    One of the problems with an embedded system/set of attitudes such as this is fear of change and the risks it might pose to the individual student, particularly when combined with the relatively narrow potential access routes to higher education. But the focus on the number of points achieved rather than on the intrinsic merits or interest in the subjects covered is often disheartening for those working in HE, as I’m sure it must be for many school teachers also.

    But how do you break out of a system such as this without fairly fundamental reform? As you point out, it is fairly ingrained within the minds of many parents who, naturally enough, hope fort the best for their children’s future. Also, from the point of view of a cash-strapped state, it is intrinsically a cheap approach to education, since when the emphasis is on examination practice more than exploration of the finer points of understanding then there’s more scope for large class sizes, less need for laboratory equipment (in sciences), etc.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I cannot help but feel that the dept of social security is reverting to type and with nasty annoying little habits pushing what it sees as a problem out of the State. One would have to wonder what our next-doors think on this.
    So to answer your query, I want any Irish person that has to leave, that he/she/it has value beyond that of cheap labour, unless that is they want. Lets have no more fodder for the likes of McGahern.
    Which, let’s be honest, given the amount of people going through the Uni’s. The majority were going outside the State.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    I am surprised that you’re surprised by the response. Isn’t it common knowledge that schools are largely seen as factories for producing high-point students (& rugby players, of course)? It does have dreadful consequences for learning which we have to deal with in university.
    I wish I knew a better alternative: I think in education we tend to think that there always has to be something better. Every system has its flaws. I certainly don’t know enough to think of a better alternative. The introduction of HPAT in medicine is an interesting development & maybe that idea will catch on.

  4. Cian Says:

    Schools are no longer alone in this results driven education. Certainly, a majority of those I knew in DCU wanted an honours degree,and were ambivalent about any actual knowledge they acquired whilst in University.

    Perhaps it is also time to look at how third level courses are run?And the fitness for purpose of the present university system as a means of providing learning, rather than merely as a means of weeding out those who do not meet particular standards.

    • Cian, I would probably defend most academics – the overwhelming majority of those I talk to (not just from DCU) still have high ideals and want to encourage learning and exploration. Others also want that but have, I suspect, given up on their ability to bring this about. All of this suggests that we need to re-develop a national outlook on learning that is more profound than what we appear to have now. But if you are suggesting that third level courses are not designed to promote genuine learning, I don’t think I agree. Some of the discussions we have had in DCU on the Academic Framework for Innovation have been built around exactly this.

  5. KevinM Says:

    It’s a striking development that the free fees seem to have released money to pay for private schools to flourish, with of much of the teachers’ salaries and a lot of building grants still emanating from the Dept. of Education (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/1106/1224258193326.html). There is another fallout from this tactical play at second level though, the higher dropout rates in colleges, largely from the lack of preparation in secondary schools for what is entailed in studying particular courses. Getting into university is the focus; knowing what will be required in any given course is a secondary matter. Of course, careers’ guidance is stretched as it is, but the loss of the ideals of a university environment and the lack of breadth in education are to be lamented. An example of the lack of preparation: a first year student of computer studies recently complained to his lecturer, a colleague of mine, that he was disappointed the subject involved so much typing. The mind boggles.

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