Welcome to the blackboard jungle

As Jan O’Sullivan takes over at education, she will do well to bookmark her predecessor’s travails, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

Two years ago, the education minister, Ruairi Quinn, outlined his vision for the future of education in a special edition of the magazine Studies.

At the outset, he made it clear that he considered the education system of Finland to be a key role model. Some 20 years previously, the Finnish economy had fallen off a wall following the collapse of its neighbour, the Soviet Union. Finland’s banking sector was also highly vulnerable as a result of a property bubble.

Finland underwent a remarkable economic transformation in the 1990s, one attributable in part to major investments being committed to the education sector.

In the minister’s view, Finnish schools were able to “cultivate greater creativity, flexibility, personal initiative and risk-taking, team working and the ability to apply knowledge in different situations.”

Clearly, like social democrats before him, he yearned for a Scandinavian model.

Quinn regained his place in the Cabinet by the skin of his teeth, it is said, but once installed down in Marlborough Street, the wily former finance minister managed to protect the education sector against the worst excesses of the austerity policies the Government was forced to implement.

The teachers have ended up in arms over his proposed reforms of the Junior Cert cycle in particular while the minister also fought a battle with the Catholic Church for control of school boards.

Away from the heat of controversy, Ruairi Quinn correctly prioritised the school-building programme — as a result, there should be adequate accommodation for the wave of entrants due as a result of the baby boom of the past decade or so.

But it is in the area of reform, or attempted reform, of the secondary school curriculum that he will be remembered — for better or worse.

Quinn correctly recognised the “transformative potential of information technology” and sought to try and utilise leading IT companies based in Ireland in this regard.

However, capital shortages mean that Irish secondary schools lag behind many competitor countries in their use of technology, though some schools are pressing ahead.

The spread of the laptop and the iPad into the classroom has been accompanied by protests from parents about the cost and short life of the accompanying software.

The minister, however, subscribed to the utilitarian view that pupils must, above all, be equipped with the tools required for life in the 21st century. There is concern that the study of history, and the humanities, in general, may be a casualty of this approach.

Quinn’s utopian vision of a transformed education service has come up against a brick wall in the form of a deep-seated suspicion of change that appears to be shared by teacher and parent alike.

The teachers unions appear to adopt a similarly wary approach to reforms unveiled for the Junior Cycle. The idea that they should be involved in assessing their own pupils following abolition of the Junior Cert examination, is simply anathema to them.

Their concern is that it could impact, if not pollute, relationships with their students.

The outgoing minister has drawn on extensive research highlighting failings in the current system: in particular, boys from deprived background who rapidly become alienated from the secondary school system.

The second year of secondary school seems to be when alienation, or ‘disengagement’ commonly kicks in, leading to many losing touch not just with fellow pupils, but with the much of the jobs market.

The case for the status quo is put as follows:

The Leaving Cert is described as being ‘brutally fair’, and for many, it is a system beyond reproach. The concern is that it has had a backward effect on the secondary school system.

In 2002, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment commissioned the ESRI’s Education Policy Research Centre to study pupils’ experience of the curriculum in the first three years of post-primary schooling. Researcher, Emer Smyth in her report, highlighted the negative effects of curriculum discontinuity between primary and secondary on student learning. Some 40% of teachers told the ESRI that they considered the first- year curriculum to be unsuited to so called ‘lower- ability’ students.

Smyth stressed the importance of early-targeted support for ‘at-risk’ students.

She called for the greater use of student mentors and formal guidance counselling. Smyth was highly critical of class streaming, seen as leaving lower- streamed students with the sense of being identified as failures.

In his 2012 article for Studies, Mr Quinn signalled that he saw the overhaul of the Junior Cycle as a critical centre-piece of his educational restructuring.

He endorsed the reforms of the primary schools, beginning in 1971 and built upon in 2009 with the ‘curriculum framework for early years’.

He did suggest that the curriculum needed to provide much greater clarity about the skills primary school children were expected to acquire.

Some question the lack of provision of language skills at this key stage in pupil development.

However, the general sense is of a primary school system that is working.

The minister, however, has identified the early years of secondary school and the Junior Cert exam, in particular, as a key cause of high levels of pupil disengagement among the more disadvantaged and more unsettled. He also considered that while the Leaving Cert curriculum was satisfactory, it had been ‘captured’ by the CAO points system.

‘Teaching to the test’ has, in his view, resulted in the neglect of key areas, including critical thinking.

In October 2012, the minister unveiled his radical overhaul of the Junior Cycle, removing the state Junior Cert exam at the end of the third year.

The move was welcomed by Dr Smyth. However, recent polling suggest that Quinn has failed to win over the public to his reforms.

Quinn backers suggest that their concerns about the removal of the state exam are unfounded. Plenty of good courses such as those for post-Leaving Cert courses, are already run internally before receiving external accreditation.

The minister has initiated an important debate. The first changes will appear in the autumn. However, the reformers will face a real battle in the absence of their champion, Mr Quinn.

Much will be expected of his successor, Jan O Sullivan, the former housing minister, something of a dark horse in the field.

Meanwhile, her departed colleague has done her a political favour by setting up a working group under former ICTU head, Peter Cassells, and in the process, kicking the football of third level funding well down the-road. The concern is that our universities are now beginning to slip between those cracks in the funding.

Irish education will remain a battleground where various interests fight it out for scarce resources, and ministers from Marlborough Street will continue to discover that the welcome extended at teacher conferences tend to be short, sharp and to the point.


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