MATT COOPER: For Ireland to make the grade, we need radical education reform

OUR schools are producing students whose maths and science capabilities are less than the international average. That’s what Craig Barrett believes and if his views are shared widely in American business circles then we are in trouble.

Barrett’s views deserve to be respected. The 70-year-old has an extraordinary track record of achievement. He is the former chief executive and chairman of Intel, the American-owned semi-conductor manufacturer which is one of the most sizeable and important employers in the country. Although he no longer has a role with the company it is likely that his views are shared by others within that organisation. And what holds for Intel is likely to be the case at many other international companies that have interests in Ireland or which are being invited to invest.

Barrett is extremely well disposed towards Ireland. He paid his own way to attend the Government-sponsored Global Economic Forum at Farmleigh in September. While there he delivered what was described as a wake-up call at one of the private sessions of delegates. Word leaked out that Barrett had castigated the failures of the country, saying that of the 14 reasons why the American giant invested in the country (back in 1989) only one still applied: our low level of corporation tax. In particular, he is said to have bemoaned the shortcomings of the education system — which is no longer producing sufficiently qualified people for the skilled jobs that are being offered — and the failure to encourage research and development so that new ideas and processes would be forthcoming from Ireland rather than being imported.

In this column in late September I suggested that Craig Barrett might be the man to give us a state of the nation address. Last Monday I got the chance to meet him and my interview with him, in which he elaborated on the points he made at Farmleigh, was broadcast on The Last Word on Tuesday evening (It can be heard in full at the webpage). But what Barrett said is worth summarising here, if only in the hope that it will start a long-needed debate and bring about some action. Barrett confirmed that the low corporate tax rate remains the main reason for US multi-national investment in Ireland (which is something that trade unions should note, because they have advocated its increase and have expressed the belief that it is not the main reason why foreign employers locate here). And he elaborated on his belief that we don’t have the educational advantages over other countries that we had 21 years ago when Intel was persuaded to come to Ireland. “Your primary and secondary schools are only average,” he said. “It is no longer good enough to be average. You have to be excellent at what you do ... at the end of secondary school your young people are average. Your education system is being challenged by improvements in the rest of the world. Things have changed, the educational attainment of other countries have been increasing, and that increases competition for attracting investment.”

As Barrett pointed out, when Intel first came to Ireland we had a reputation for producing engineers who, if they could not get a job in Ireland, were so highly skilled as to be snapped up abroad. Now hundreds of thousands of new engineers are qualifying annually in India and China. They are undercutting the wage rates of Irish engineers. We were also a low-wage economy. After 20 years in growth our wages have grown dramatically (as have living costs for workers). But, the same jobs that once we could do cheaply can now be done elsewhere by equivalent workers at a much lower wage. What should encourage trade unions is that Barrett is not advocating the so-called “race to the bottom” whereby wage rates that Irish workers have become used to enjoying are attacked and driven down to the levels of other developing countries. “It is possible for Ireland to continue to be successful, but you have to worry about the capability of your workforce and what it does,” he said. “Why not a race to the top? Why not have more capability and jobs where you can add value? Increased capability and education is where you increase value.”

Which is all fine and dandy, but how do you do it? If the trade unions might like his solution to protecting wages in the private sector they might find it hard to agree with his ideas for reforming education delivery. Barrett believes in improving the quality of teachers and suggests that his information about the teaching standards of maths and science in Irish secondary schools is that the quality is not what it should be. “Teachers should not be just competent but masters,” he argued.

“How do you excite children about a subject? By having high-quality teachers. You must treat education like any quality service you aim to provide. Your employees have to be good and get paid on the basis of performance.”

This, immediately, provides a problem. Our system does not allow that. Teachers are paid on the basis of length of service and/or extra duties they perform. There are few financial incentives to outperform. Teachers argue that those of them in disadvantaged areas would be discriminated against by a performance pay system. “I don’t believe in a protection of the salary of all teachers but of good ones. If a teacher is not performing I would not reduce their salary but instead replace them with a better one,” he said.

CLEARLY, change would be a problem, but is the education system run for the benefit of teachers or of its pupils? Every parent knows that there are good teachers and poor ones, but is it fair that the inferior ones often, because of age or length of service, often do better financially and that they may be the most active in obstructing change, because their self-interest is paramount?

Unfortunately, while reform of the system may be very necessary, it is most improbable. Again, like so many other things in public life, we may have left it too late. Radical change should have been introduced during the boom years. Instead, benchmarking and other pay increases were not accompanied by changes in work practices or in rewards for better performing teachers. Most of the money went on pay, with some going to reduce pupil-teacher ratios, as if that would automatically improve the quality of teaching.

Teachers may argue that there has been a significant improvement in grades achieved by Leaving Cert students over the last decade but there is a widespread perception that higher results are thrown around like confetti. Third-level institutions have complained about the poor level of literacy and numeracy among many of those moving up. We have become obsessed with providing places and easing entry to third level without caring enough about the standards of education attained. Barrett pointed out that only a couple of our universities are in world’s top 100. Our standards are not high enough. The Government’s recent Finance Bill was tailored towards attracting inward investment. But given the high costs here we won’t get it if our workforce is not educated to a high enough standard. I met Richard Bruton coming out of a meeting with Barrett on Monday before I interviewed the American. He probably heard much of what I did. Would Fine Gael be radical enough to seek power offering a programme of genuine education reform?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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