POLL: Is our education system broken?

Áilín Quinlan talks to two experts and asks their views on the Leaving Certificate. Betty McLaughlin believes that the level of training of teachers and broad range of subjects make it a great system but Dr Raymond Lynch argues that all the good work done by these teachers doesn’t show when the exam season starts. Let us know your opinion by taking our poll below.

POLL: Is our education system broken?

Highly trained teachers and the chance to study several subjects are strengths of our second-level system, contends Betty McLaughlin.

We provide a very good education at second-level in Ireland. Our teachers are among the best-trained in the world, and, because they avail of a system of continuous professional development supported by the Department of Education, they’re continually upskilling in terms of teaching methodologies and current education trends.

Secondly, the Irish second-level education system offers a very broad education on a huge range of subjects. Students get the opportunity to taste subjects, test their strengths and choose those for which they have the best aptitude.

They have the opportunity to study everything from the compulsory subjects like English and Maths right up to Design and Communication Graphics as well as all the STEM subjects, languages and humanities.

A big strength of our system is students’ traditionally high level of numeracy and literacy, while the curriculum also emphasises life skills — the social and personal education programme goes right through second-level and issues are explored while the dangers of drugs and alcohol are openly debated.

The Transition Year programme is specifically geared to workplace skills. Students can become involved in team-work through projects and learn leadership and how to get on with people. These ‘soft skills’ are necessary in the workplace and they are very strongly emphasised in Transition Year.

One challenge is that the Leaving Certificate is a test of memory. There should be more ongoing assessment and project work rather than this emphasis on a system of rote learning which is tested at the end of two years. More work is needed where students take on assignments as a team, becoming self-directed learners, rather than simply handing back pre-prepared answers.

I’m also concerned that the mind-set of parents and educators is automatically pushing students into third-level instead of encouraging them to also consider apprenticeships — that needs to change.

It has become very difficult for students to find apprenticeships over the last few years — because of the recession, employers have been less able to sponsor them and provide the necessary work practice.

We need to have a formal channel into apprenticeship where students and employers are supported in finding and providing meaningful work experience.

In Germany, apprenticeship is the route to work for nearly two-thirds of young people. The Irish apprenticeship model is limited in scale compared to most modern economies and in particular when compared to countries like Germany, Holland, Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland.

Many of these countries direct the majority of young people onto vocational training, with a lower proportion entering higher education directly from school.

Ireland has the highest proportion of young people with third-level qualifications across the 27 EU members – 69% of school-leavers transfer to higher education institutes.

Ireland encourages direct entry from school to higher education without any industrial experience intervening. There is a serious preoccupation with getting students into third level education, irrespective of their capacity to benefit from it, in their late teens.

Because we over-focus on third-level qualifications and high-tech jobs, we exclude many young people who aren’t suited to the Higher Education Institutions’ (HEI) educational system and we’re setting them up for unemployment. This policy is neither desirable nor sustainable.

Our second-level system is not broken – although parts of it could be tweaked!

Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, was a teacher of French and Irish at second level for 18 years. She has been a guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS, Mullingar for the past 12 years.

Dr Raymond Lynch

A lot of good work done by teacher is thrown out the window by the time the Leaving Certificate arrives, argues Dr Raymond Lynch.

The backwash effect of the points’ race erodes the innovation and creative teaching which takes place outside of the second-level exam years.

According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), teachers in Ireland are over-reliant on direct transmission of material.

This can lead to rote learning, because student’s entire performance at second-level is defined by the points he or she receives.This forces teachers to adopt direct transmission approaches— such as focusing on exam paper questions.

Parents and students want to get the maximum points, and the quickest, most expedient way of achieving this is by focusing only on the exam. All that counts is what is ‘markable’ and there is a lack of innovative, creative, discovery-learning— instead, students are told how to solve problems.

At second level, and particularly in the Leaving Certificate, pupils get the text books and the exam papers and work off those.

Therefore, when students are asked to work in groups, or research a topic as individuals or part of a group; or asked to engage in inquiry-based learning and find the sources of information themselves, they’re not used to it.

This is also problematic, because in the new Junior Certificate framework, there is a move away from this towards the introduction of a broader, more holistic approach in terms of more emphasis on continuous assessment and portfolio-based work using different media.

However, at this level teachers have not fully embraced the new framework and the issue of teacher assessment — and if they don’t accept it at Junior Certificate level, there will be even less acceptance of such a programme at Leaving Certificate level.

There is a need for an ideological shift away from the narrow set of exam skills based on State examinations and towards a broader understanding of learning encompassing a range of skill-sets that cannot be measured by either a written or oral exam.

This requires greater focus on online portfolios and a buy-in by teachers into the issue of teacher-led assessment.

As part of my job I regularly visit second level schools and I can see how they can be really innovative and creative centres of learning, but when it comes to the Leaving Certificate cycle, all of that is relegated in favour of measurable exam outcomes.

Students need to be taught the skills of collaboration, problem-solving, communication, innovation and research and encouraged to be pro-active, which are very important in terms of employability and in society generally.

You will not read a syllabus which promotes a narrow, rote-learning approach, but it is happening because the points race is the tail that is wagging the dog here.

We have some of the highest second-level completion rates in the OECD and very high attendance rates at third level, while our 15-year-olds are above the OECD average in maths, reading, and science skills.

I don’t believe the second level education system is “broken” but I do believe there is much work to be done on the structure of the Leaving Certificate examination and the downward pressure it exerts on teachers and students.

Dr Raymond Lynch is a lecturer in Education at the Department of Education and Professional Studies in the University of Limerick and a former second-level teacher in metalwork and design communication graphics.

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