Posted tagged ‘secondary education’

Reforming the Irish Leaving Certificate

August 6, 2011

One of the recurring themes of this blog since it began in 2008 has been the urgent need to reform Irish secondary education, and in particular the Leaving Certificate. It has been my contention that the Leaving Certificate uses outdated pedagogy, promotes intellectual conformity, discourages critical inquiry, undermines excellence in science awareness and numeracy, encourages inappropriate career choices and disrupts the earlier (or indeed all) stages of higher education.

One of the more heartening aspects of the education debate is that the inadequacy of the Leaving Certificate has become much more of a matter of consensus, now including also the views of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD. In the meantime the President of Dublin City University, Professor Brian MacCraith, has highlighted some of the issues in a most interesting paper delivered at the MacGill Summer School on July 27. In this he argued that success in the Leaving Certificate owed more to ‘stamina’ than ‘intellect’, and did not deliver a ’rounded education’.

It is time to move from a debate on reform to quick and decisive action. Ireland’s ability to recover from the recession depends on this.


Vocational education in schools: good or bad?

June 8, 2011

When I was a business school lecturer, my heart always sank when I came across a first year student who had done business studies at school. Almost invariably their courses would have been of very questionable quality, delivered by teachers with little or no experience of what they were teaching, and often with very old-fashioned and not very useful views of the business world. In fact, academics often took the view that the more vocational (and maybe less academic) secondary school courses were, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a serious problem for students when they entered higher education, where they would often have to ‘unlearn’ what they had just acquired.

Concerns about business studies and related school courses are underlined also by a recent Ofsted report in England, which has questioned the quality and teaching methods of some provision in economics, business and enterprise education in schools.

On the other hand, for those secondary school students who are not intending to move into higher education, vocational courses can be very useful indeed, and can be vital for economic development (it forms part of the Scottish government’s Skills for Scotland policy, for example). I have had an opportunity to look in more detail at Ireland’s Leaving Certificate Applied, and I take the view that this offers something really valuable to both students and their future employers; indeed I am just a little tempted to say that it is better than Ireland’s standard Leaving Certificate, which on the whole I regard as outdated and as having very doubtful pedagogical qualities.

What all this tells us, perhaps, is that while there is widespread recognition of the contribution made by vocational education, there is not yet a proper understanding of how this should be devised and structured, how exactly it is best equipped to support wider social and economic objectives, how vocational courses either do or do not support students as they progress to further or higher education, and what kind of courses really add value. At this time of further labour market changes and economic uncertainties, getting all this right is really important.

Secondary education: time to leave ‘soft subjects’ behind?

February 5, 2011

The Russell Group, which represents 20 universities that consider themselves to be the leading higher education institutions in the UK, has published a guide (Informed Choices) for secondary students advising them what subjects to select for A-levels so as to maximise their chances to secure the degree programme of their choice when they go on to higher education.

The key advice given to students is simple enough: go for so-called ‘facilitating’ subjects, these being Mathematics, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages. These are the subjects, the guide says, that give students the best options later and provide them with the necessary grounding for degree programmes. The guide also advises students to avoid ‘soft’ subjects – those with a ‘vocational or practical bias’ such as Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies.

Of course this guide is not just a set of suggestions for secondary students, it is also part of an ongoing discussion – maybe even a battle – about the nature and purpose of education at different levels. The ‘facilitating’ subjects are those that will ground students in the traditional disciplines’, while the ‘soft’ subjects are examples of pre-tertiary interdisciplinarity.

I am not sure whether the Russell Group guide is right or wrong. It is probably right if you read it as a manual for preparation for entry to a traditional university. It is probably also right in the sense that secondary education needs to lay the groundwork for advanced work in degree programmes, bearing in mind that far too often students enter higher education lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. It is also probably right in that it would move us away from excessive specialisation at too early an age. But in other ways it seems to represent a view that Victorian pedagogy found the perfect pitch. I think we must be more imaginative in how we devise education, and need to find ways of combining intellectual rigour with a slightly less rigid view of traditional disciplines, bearing in mind that some of the disciplinary boundaries were products of the state of knowledge of their day.

Like universities, schools cannot just stop the further development of pedagogical insights. We must keep moving.

Missing the point(s)

December 4, 2010

On October 21 the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Skills had a discussion on ‘Second Level Curriculum Reform’. The Committee heard evidence from a number of key individuals in secondary education, including representatives of the teaching trade unions, the Teaching Council, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The discussion was wide-ranging and covered the curriculum generally, new or revised second level courses, the reform of mathematics teaching, the teaching of Irish, investment in education, and so forth.

However, what is striking is that no participant in the discussions mentioned the ‘points system’ administered by the Central Applications Office (CAO). As I have mentioned before, the points system has for some years now undermined the Leaving Certificate curriculum, secondary school teaching and learning methods, and degree programme choices in the final year at school. It has in my view become the chief obstacle to secondary education reform. The universities, which control the points system, have not acted to correct its failings, and increasingly it appears to be regarded as some sort of force of nature that cannot be adjusted.

In a country that aims to encourage a majority of young people to take a higher education degree programme, the entry qualification for universities and colleges and its requirements will automatically be the driving force in secondary education. It is therefore vital that this does not have a negative influence on curriculum development, learning methods and career choice. In the Irish case, the CAO points system manages to exert that negative influence decisively under all headings. Its reform must be a priority, and this must be recognised both by those involved in running secondary education and by the universities. It is wholly alarming that this does not appear to be the case.

Paying the fees, willingly

October 22, 2010

According to a report in yesterday’s Irish Independent, a third of all new students this year in University College Dublin finished their secondary education in fee-paying schools, almost all of which charge fees that are significantly higher than the worst case scenario for university tuition fees. I suspect that the proportion will be lower in other universities, but not by a large margin; my guess is that it would be lowest in DCU.

The UCD data demonstrate a number of things. First, a decade and a half of  ‘free fees’ has not created a properly inclusive and socially equal student body in Ireland. Secondly, even if families who choose private secondary education are the only ones who could more easily afford higher education fees, the income they would generate for the universities would be significant.

As public funding for higher education continues to be eroded, there is an urgent need to re-visit the issue of student contributions, in part so as to ensure that proper support is given to the disadvantaged.

Preparing students for higher education

October 6, 2010

Over the past four weeks or so the various universities and colleges in this part of the world have been welcoming their new students and introducing them to the campus and their programmes of study. Induction or orientation now forms an important part of what most universities do at this point. Doing this, and doing it well, is more than just an act of politeness or kindness to students as they enter higher education; it is a vital part of student support, and it plays a major role in the drive to prevent students from dropping out.

For those of us whose student days are now something of a distant memory it is important to note how alien higher education is for students whose recent educational experience has been in secondary schools. Gone is the regimented organisation of the day, gone is the encouragement of rote learning. They are now replaced – or so it is intended – by independent learning and autonomous decision-making, and by analysis and critique. This is not just something new, these are wholly different worlds. Many students make the transition easily enough and find the new environment liberating, but some don’t and find it intimidating or lonely.

For universities it can sometimes be irritating that they must devote the initial period of a first year programme to remedial education in which students are encouraged to unlearn much of what was drummed into them only months earlier. It is increasingly obvious that secondary education as currently practised is a particularly bad form of preparation for tertiary education, which reinforces the need for a radical reform of the final school years. But for the moment we are where we are, and so it is vital to have an induction or orientation programme that allows students to feel their way into higher education, to understand its purpose and methods, and to do so as part of a mutually supportive community of students and lecturers.

Some universities also place relevant information online for students. Here are some examples: NUI Galway, DCU, Robert Gordon University, University College Cork. In the case of some other universities I found it quite hard to get this information from their websites.

It is also very important to keep a close eye on students during the initial period of study to see how they are coping with the new environment, and to offer them support if they are finding it difficult.

The main issue is however that the transition from secondary schools to higher education should not be so difficult. It is time for us to address this properly, and to ensure that the curriculum for final school examinations and the learning methods employed at that level are more closely aligned with the aims and methods of universities and colleges. Right now it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the final stages of secondary education are not fit for purpose.

Liberating secondary education

August 17, 2010

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.

Secondary concerns

April 23, 2010

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join a group of second level students from around Ireland who were at an event in TCD’s Science Gallery to discuss the future of secondary education. What struck me in talking to them was that they were articulate, enthusiastic, intelligent, perceptive. and actually also extraordinarily courteous. But what they were saying was that their educational experience was too often undermined by a system that did not encourage initiative, participation, analysis and evaluation; and that teachers too often were worn down by this system and had become slaves to predictable routine and cynicism. It was, in short, a description of an education system that was in no position to deliver the recruits for a knowledge economy.

We have of course heard a number of recent warnings about the quality of our education, some from industry and some from educationalists. But so far these warnings have not produced a real debate about how we could do it better. We need to accept that we are going the wrong way, and that if Ireland is to be the success story of the new decade as we were in the 1990s, this will need to be fixed. Fixing it is not a matter of tweaking the Leaving Certificate, it is about understanding that right now we have system that was designed for a long gone era and for a different society, and that it has not adapted. We don’t have much time for this, and yet there isn’t a real sense of urgency in the national debate. It’s time to take this problem seriously.