Liberating secondary education

The nature of Irish secondary education is determined by two things: the Leaving Certificate syllabus, and CAO points (the score calculated from Leaving Certificate results that determines higher education entry). In the overall scheme of things, very little else matters. As higher education participation goes up and up, the purpose of secondary education is not to provide a pedagogical experience in its own right but to shepherd students through the access points to higher education. On the other hand, this is done not by preparing students to be analytical and thoughtful in order to manage higher education, but rather by making them word perfect in a purely mechanical way in regurgitating the ‘right’ Leaving Certificate answers. This lethal combination of influences has totally undermined the post-primary intellectual purpose of education.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not making this point for the first time; most recently I addressed this issue here. Yesterday, however, there was some strong support from Tom Collins, acting President of NUI Maynooth and a highly respected educationalist, in an opinion piece for the Irish Independent. Here is how he characterised the issue facing us:

‘Apart from [the points system’s] impact at second level, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the system is no longer fit for purpose at third level either. There is a palpable concern in higher education regarding the capabilities and dispositions of students entering it straight from second level. The manner in which the points system rewards rote learning, instrumental learning and memorisation while simultaneously discouraging exploration, self-directed learning and critical thinking means that even relatively high achieving second-level students can struggle on entering third level.’

Professor Collins also suggested in his analysis that students entering higher education may be too young to benefit from it properly. He concluded:

‘Over many years of working in higher education, I am increasingly convinced that the student who has spent a number of years after second level in the world of work, volunteering or some other form of useful activity will perform better in higher education than the student who enters straight from school.’

In Ireland there tends to be a major rush to get students through education and into employment. I suspect that Tom Collins is right: that a break between secondary education and higher education may have significant advantages, allowing the students to enter university with a more mature outlook, and having perhaps left behind them some of the less useful aspects of the secondary sector. It is certainly worth a thought.

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6 Comments on “Liberating secondary education”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The politicians will not touch this with a barge pole. At one time I thought that the greens might be lunatic and brainy enough to do something but they are little more than an annex to larger gene pools.
    But why on earth are you lot putting up with it if not inertia. You’ve known since it came in that it’s actions are detrimental to the usefulness of your intake. And as to the fairness and transparency so touted by all and sundry, bullshit. It is THE most active bit of social engineering outside of the murderous health system.

  2. Liam Delaney Says:

    I usually agree with you Ferdinand yet mostly only appear on this site when I am am convinced you are completely wrong (apologies for that!). Can I just be a nagging voice of conscience here and remind you that Professor Collins is just venting a feeling rather than talking about any evidence on this topic. His main citation is “growing anecdotal evidence”. I really don’t know anything that would say that being away from college for a few years before starting is a good thing. I can think of many reasons why it would be a bad thing not least of which the potentially massive earnings costs that accrue if a person starts full-time college later in life. Again, there is a real feeling that the wrong problem is being addressed.

    • Kevin O'Brien Says:

      There is the assumption that people will continue in the same field as their degree. The fact is that there is massive variations from field to field.

      Long ago I was an engineering student in UCD (I have had a very varied career). I am fairly knowledgable about how the careers of many of my peers turned out since. Taken out the civil engineers (construction sector collapse), only about half have ever worked in engineering, and that is an optimistic estimate. (3 or 4 dozen out of about 7 or 8 dozen).

      The fact that many of the “never worked” went on to jobs that required good numerate skills, like actuary and finance, must be noted. Also I knew quite a few computer science students too and nearly all are still in IT.
      It is plausible that many of the civil engineers, who I have left out, will never work in that field again.

      How many are going to college, but dont or cant use their degree later on? This is an important question.
      A proper study of this issue needs to take place before the debate can progress; proper surveys rather than me looking at my FB friends list. But when it does, I anticipate that Collins’ “anecdotal evidence” will be supplemented with some thought provoking figures.

  3. Liam Delaney Says:

    John Walshe runs with the ball in the independent. The suggestion that certain third-level courses could give extra weight to certain leaving cert results is completely sensible. The lottery is just daft and does nothing for university autonomy and would infuriate lots of bright students.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    As ever there are a number of distinct issues here. I don’t see any huge advantage from people startng 3rd level later though if they choose to do that thats their business. But starting professional degrees (medicine,vet, architecture etc) is a different matter. Moving them to graduate level I think could have major benefits like reducing the points craze. The Minister seems to think the present system is tickety-boo which shows how out of touch she is.
    It would also address unequal access to educational opportunities as basically low SES people can get into general degree programs without too much difficulty and then by the time it comes to getting into graduate professional programs they will have got over any initial disadvantage. This is what the evidence shows.
    Something more than anecdotal evidence from the Professor would help though.

  5. Vincent Says:

    To-day the Leaving results are out. And I’ve been hearing that there were errors in some accountancy exams.
    There is something of a washover on this error by pulling a number of Statistics together that we have been told could not be tabulated.

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