IVAN YATES: Quinn must get tough on the reform of our education system

A NEW academic year begins.

Back to school means extra bills for parents. Regular routines are re-established. The personal development of our children is the most important issue that affects the long-term performance of Ireland Inc. Relative measurements of education output reflect a decline in standards in the context of international comparisons.

Despite record increases in investment between 2000 and 2006, out of 30 OECD states we dropped from 5th to 17th in literacy/reading skills and 16th to 26th in numeracy/mathematics. 23% of 15-year-old boys are said to be illiterate. If this trend continues we face prospects of a generation of poor performers.

Past ministers for education, teachers themselves, have been content to keep teachers’ unions happy. This means meekly avoiding outright conflict with vested interests that benefit from education expenditure of €8.7 billion. There is hope that Ruairi Quinn will be different. He’s probably on his last ministerial gig. He’s in with a decent shout to be our next EU Commissioner. As a former party leader and member of different cabinets in three decades, he knows Yes Minister routines and systemic inertia inside out. As an opposition education spokesperson, he’s had time to learn the brief. The context has never been more opportune for radical reform in the classroom.

Ruairi wants to produce kids that learn to think, rather than be adept at rote memory tests. Given that he will preside over significant resource reductions to the sector, due to bailout requirements, it’s essential that he gets to grips with the basics. The school population is set to increase by 10% by 2020. Education is a people business — 85% of the budget is spent on payroll. The vast majority of teachers are vocationally committed, dedicated and caring professionals. A minority of bad teachers are not dealt with. Teachers can be sacked if they are drunk in class or fail to carry out the daily Roll Call. Extended absenteeism, lack of graduate qualifications, poor performance and ineffective communication skills are tolerated. Unannounced inspections in secondary schools are still resolutely resisted by unions.

Teacher contracts should be scrutinised and stress tested every bit as much as those of hospital consultants or general practitioners. Terms of employment should require transparent assessment of exam results from pupils. A cursory perusal of generic contracts reveals varying levels of tutor productivity. Primary school teachers have a standard 1,037 hours per annum (@36 per week); secondary school colleagues must fulfil 735 hours per annum (@22 per week); while a third-level lecturers’ basic commitment is 560 hours pa (as little as six hours per week in universities). In the Netherlands and Britain, the comparative primary figures are 1,659 and 1,265 hours per week. Our pay levels exceed theirs.

The Croke Park agenda? The department is only seeking an additional one hour per week, so as to allow work (e.g. parent- teacher, school planning and staff meetings) to be conducted outside of class contact/tuition time. Revised sick leave arrangements, which allow for 21 days absence without certification, are not subject to renegotiation. There seems little official appetite to adopt many recommendations from the Bord Snip Nua report. Poor asset utilisation and inefficient deployment of teachers remain flaws in an education infrastructure that values tradition above modernisation. Neither parents nor politicians seem interested in rocking the boat. It’s easier to blame overall investment levels. Average class sizes are an easy target in any quality of education debate.

Other most significant controlling interest? Religious institutions. Of 3,200 primary schools, 92% are controlled by the Catholic Church. A huge debt is owed to past generations of religious orders’ personnel who dedicated their lives to education. Times have changed. Brothers and Sisters are no longer there. The new Ireland is a more cosmopolitan, multicultural and secular society. The old order of chairmanship of board of management by the parish priest will wane. Quinn established the National Forum for Patronage and Pluralism to establish a template for new governance. Initial rhetoric from Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, requesting the church be divested of responsibility, has been replaced by resistance from the Catholic Schools Partnership.

At a level of policy or principle there are issues of establishing parental rights to opt out of a denominational education ethos. Human rights charters from the UN or European Court of Justice can be esoteric in a small rural parish, where there’s only one local national school to send your child. Retaining traditional Christian values, up to adolescence, is a perfectly reasonable aspiration — probably supported by a majority of parents. However, two-and-a-half hours of weekly religious studies is hardly justifiable when there is only an hour per week for vital subjects such as science. First and sixth classes conduct preparation for First Communion and Confirmation within the weekly teaching roster. Surely these should be conducted outside of tuition hours, while in the school facilities, allowing those who wish to opt out, so to do.

What age is optimal for students to arrive at third level? 16, 17, or 18+ years. Anecdotes abound of ill-prepared and immature undergraduates becoming binge drinkers, unable to cope with living independently, resulting in a first-year dropout rate of 15%. Students spend eight years at primary and six years at secondary levels. Normal school entry age is four years, with transitional year between secondary cycles. Raising the school entry age to five would reduce school enrolments from 60,000 to 20,000 in a given year.

As this works up through the system, reduced enrolments would yield savings of €85 million over four years.

ABOLITION of transition year would remove 1,500 teachers and save a similar amount. Other countries have instead developed a formal gap-year prior to third level.

In response to Finance’s appetite for spending cuts, Education has prepared a menu of a dozen options. These include an increased annual registration charge up to €3,000 for college attendance. The Hunt Report maintains that third-level costs are set to rise from €1.3 billion to €1.8bn by 2020. Ruairi has ruled out a student loan/repayment scheme, as exists in Britain, US and Australia. Excessive deference to academia has resulted in a lack of accountability from our most august statutorily independent universities. This has resulted in excessive remuneration and lavish residential accommodation for top dons. Attracting more foreign students paying full fees and sharper focus on commercial research finance are initiatives that colleges can pursue, without having more handouts from the taxpayer.

Hoary old chestnuts — subsidies to private fee-paying schools of €100m, development of apprenticeships, wasted expenditure on prefabs @ €27m a year, Leaving and Junior Cert examination reform, decline in maths and science, rip-offs from schoolbook changes and uniform supply cartels, effectiveness of special needs assistants and excessive subject choice in the secondary syllabus — all compete for attention in the minister’s in tray. The time for debate must subside. Producing more with less means Marlborough Street must no longer be the downtown office of unions and churches.



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