Education reform - It’s time for an honest discussion

THE recognition of the need to have a real, honestdebate about our education system, how it serves our students, our society and its integrity — and how it is funded — seems to be gathering momentum.

In these troubling times, this is a very welcome reality check and hopefully it will lead to the kind of changes that might make politicians’ grandstanding about a knowledge-based economy a tad more plausible.

It just may be that, at this low and disheartening moment, we can at last see that without world class standards right across our schools, colleges and institutes we have limited options and are squandering potential.

Earlier this week, University College Cork president Dr Michael Murphy warned that changes made to encourage disadvantaged students has meant that some of our brightest young people have left Ireland to study abroad where they believe they might get a better education. The number of students in third-level institutions has grown by 15% to 160,000 in three years but academic staff levels have been cut by 10% in the last two years. This progression has consequences, one which Dr Murphy has put on the national agenda.

Another unresolved issue is the practice of teachers teaching subjects beyond their primary qualification — or to put it in plainer English — subjects beyond their competence. This arrangement, especially in regard to maths, exists to facilitate teachers but is a liability for students and would not be acceptable in any other sphere of life. This may be why, according to an ESRI report published in September, nearly half of Leaving Cert students have had to pay for grinds outside school hours and why more students take grinds in maths than in any other subject.

The social inequity caused by this unacceptable swizz was shown by the ESRI when it reported that 70% of students in one middle-class school took extra tuition but just 10% in a working-class area did. Once again the consequences of the shortcomings of a privileged group are visited on the most vulnerable.

Education Minister Ruairí Quinn yesterday opened another front in the debate when he warned that the predictability of some of our exams does not serve students well and undermines the system’s integrity.

We are all familiar, too familiar, with how the system works. The accurate predictions of exam questions means that whole sections of courses can be ignored. It means that any student who can parrot prepared answers, even if they don’t understand their script, is assured of a good result. This is not, as we all know, education but as in so many other areas of Irish life we just turn a blind eye and pretend it is.

The Examination Commission, on foot of a study of the Leaving Cert and third-level courses by the Higher Education Authority and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is to review the situation and hopefully their report will make a valuable contribution to one of, if not the, most important debates in Ireland today.

This debate has been influenced by too many special interest groups for far too long and it is time to return to first principles — and that means the provision of a world class education to anyone with the potential to avail of it no matter what their circumstances.

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