Education failures - Skill to solve problems is sadly lacking

Two official reports published yesterday point to disturbing failures of our education system.

The first by Forfás, the Government’s advisory body on trade, science, technology, and innovation. Its report said Ireland must improve the quality and quantity of third-level computing and engineering graduates if the country is to meet demand for skills in this area between now and 2018.

Forfás chief executive Martin Shanahan said it is important to focus on science, engineering, and maths in mainstream education, adding that more women need to be encouraged to consider careers in the information and communication technology sector.

The report predicts more than 44,000 job openings over the next six years in Ireland’s ICT industry.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we are ill prepared to take advantage of this because of the skills shortage.

Another report, from the Department of Education’s chief inspector, has found weaknesses in the teaching of mathematics and Irish. In the latter case, it blamed the standard of Irish of some teachers as part of the cause.

It is baffling how we in Ireland have failed to learn our native language while the Israelis, a linguistically and culturally diverse nation, took less than a generation to become fluent in modern Hebrew.

The cúpla focal that most Irish citizens know would hardly be enough to order a taxi or a meal.

More economically worrying, though, is the problem with mathematics, so it is to be hoped that the Project Maths syllabus will go somewhere to addressing this.

Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, called the report an honest one and said it shows a system that is “screaming for reform”. Isn’t he responsible for reforming it?

The main problem appears to lie at third level. At last month’s Global Irish Economic Forum, the chairman and chief executive of Glen Dimplex, Seán O’Driscoll, said: “One of the issues we have in this country is that we have a great mismatch of skills across the economy.”

He pointed to a recent Europe-wide skills index study which found Ireland was bottom of the league, along with Portugal and Spain.

Likewise, the 2013 National Skills Bulletin pointed to a persistence of skills shortages in the areas of ICT, hi-tech manufacturing, agri-food, sales, marketing, business, finance, and healthcare.

How many more reports does the Government need before it realises that urgent surgery is needed and not just sticking plaster efforts like the joint government and industry ICT action plan that is confined to graduates? This was launched last year by Mr Quinn and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, but it is not nearly enough. The ICT sector has the potential to outpace the pharmaceutical industry in the supply of skilled, well-paid jobs, but it won’t happen without supreme effort. The Forfás report was carried out as part of the Government’s action plan for jobs. If the only action the Government seems capable of taking on an issue that has been highlighted again and again is to throw another report at it, it is little wonder that we are unprepared to take full advantage of economic recovery.

Perhaps the real shortage of skills lies around the Cabinet table.

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