Educational anguish

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

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8 Comments on “Educational anguish”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It’s funny but I believe the way to crack that nut is to publish the stats on the 2nd level schools as given to the CAO down to student level (without naming anybody of course). As you say you own the thing, and writing a few lines of code if you don’t have those stats to hand cannot be that difficult.
    Why you ask do this, well the main selling point about the CAO is that fictional fairness and if you show this to be utter bunkum you can be certain the system will change.

  2. Colman Says:

    What would an alternative system look like? The big fear for most people, give the nature of Irish society, is that a replacement system would be easily gamed by the well-connected. At least with the points system the effect of privilege or political connection is indirect – much easier to get good points with lots of resources – than direct – getting into college because of who daddy is or whatever.

  3. colummccaffery Says:

    I was attracted particularly to this sentence,”The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.”

    re Points efficiency. A student, trying to maximise points above all else, realises that the Leaving Cert is essentially a memory trick and will pick the subjects easiest to memorise. Maths would involve memorising strange symbols/characters and tends to be avoided.

    re Talent. There are certainly particular people with particular talents but in the field of mass education anyone with average intelligence can achieve in any subject.

    re National need. Apart altogether from the danger of undermining the right to a decent education, there is a grave lack of understanding about what “the information age” has done to “national need”.

    re Learning methods and preparation for life/college/work. This is where the problem crystalises. College, citizenship and now, crucially, work demand thought, creativity and communication.

  4. Niall Says:

    I’m with the educationalists who ‘agree that the points system is not ideal but what should replace it? I would be interested to read your (FvP) own views.

    There seem to be several issues:

    1) Advantages of going to the ‘right’ school
    2) Unsuitability of the LC curriculum
    3) Choice of third level courses based on perceived points rather than aptitude or interest (is there any data to support this point?)
    4) Student stress

    Offering places based on leaving cert results seems fairer than interviews where interviewers’likes and dislikes, lobbying, letters from TDs etc would influence (or be preceived to influence) the outcome.

    A lottery within minimum requirements (varying with the subject)is one approach though the minimum requirements would have to be set so as not to replicate the disadvantages of the points system

    Some kind of aptitude test might be fairest if it were impossible to prepare for it.

    Back in the old days the universities (or some of them anyway) ran ‘matriculation’ exams which were considered elitist as most schools did not prepare students for it but at least had the merit of separating the Leaving Certificate from university entrance

    The degree of memorisation possible varies widely between subjects – there is very little you can commit to memory in maths. Project based approaches in subjects such as history have certainly reduced the amount of memorisation required. Biology should examine more lab and field work. Some curriculum reform could improve matters.

  5. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    The existing points system might not need to replaced, but rather improved.
    Various heads of departments should be given the power to insist on certain subjects being counted in calculating the points.

    For example, Engineering schools may require that three engineering relevant subjects (maths, physics, chemistry applied maths tech-drawing etc) be required.

    A study on engineering students dropping out found that a key risk factor was students enrolling with little or none relevant background, other than maths.

    Likewise three science subjects, including maths, must be counted for “school leaver” entry to medicine.

    Subject weightings have been suggested too. Splendid idea.

    I reckon that there is no disincentive for a LC student to make very strategic choices (to optimize a points tally) at the expense of doing subjects suitable for an intended career. This is the first thing I suggest looking at.

    • wendymr Says:

      I’m frankly astounded that there aren’t subject-specific requirements already. That would be a relatively minor adjustment and would make at least some difference, even if it’s not the radical reform that some argue for.

  6. ItsAllChemistry Says:

    How about secularization of schools? I know its not the only problem, but it would give the wind to reform of educational system to make it more modern and to catch up with other EU countries.

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