Changing course

5 Dec 2007

Globally the software business is booming, from computer games to social networks to search to commerce, software is the key driver and engine of a knowledge economy. It is the mission-critical enabler of many other industries, like, for example, financial services.

Yet at a time when opportunity is increasing, we are failing an entire generation by failing to provide the education they need.

This does not bode well for Ireland’s knowledge economy or indeed Irish students. A recent report by IDC, a world-renowned consultancy, highlighted the increasing importance of ICT in the global economy. For instance, IT employment will grow by 4.7pc by 2011.

So at a time when the ICT sector is increasing in importance and offering more employment opportunities, students are voting with their feet and staying away from those subjects that might qualify them for a career in ICT. Pupils are increasingly moving away from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects throughout their primary and secondary education. The net result is fewer and fewer highly skilled ICT, science and engineering graduates from third-level institutions. The lack of skilled graduates capable of filling the estimated 7,000 ICT positions available in the Irish economy points to a system failure.

Successive ministers have said that Ireland needs to move up the value chain. Yet Ireland ranks a deeply worrying 20th position in PISA studies (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment) of Mathematical Literacy. Further along the education continuum, the number of students selecting science and technology subjects at 3rd level has dropped by around 40pc in the last four years.

Ireland’s future economic growth will be dependent on innovation in services and products. We will need to be able to find or create the ‘next big thing’ before other countries commoditise our innovations. The software industry is eminently poised to drive this type of economic activity and thus provide workers with lucrative careers. However it, like other high R&D-intensive sectors, requires workers who are well-educated, numerate, independent-minded, problem-solvers.

The Irish education system requires a radical overhaul so today’s students and the Irish economy can enjoy the benefits of these high-value jobs.

As ever, it falls on the shoulders of the teacher in the frontline to address the gap. I believe the problem is so central to the Irish economy that teachers should be given significant support and incentives to adopt necessary changes in the coming years.

Our examinations reward students for their ability to regurgitate information rather than think independently and problem-solve in teams. This system means thousands of teacher hours are spent making students learn off the rivers of Ireland when they can find this information in .03 of a second on the internet. This is not preparing them for the knowledge economy.

Significant change is necessary. We need to address the dumbing down of the Leaving Certificate caused by the logical search for ‘easy’ points in the ‘easier’ subjects. The key to successful change — as always — involves rewards and incentives.

Unfortunately, the education system is like a large ocean liner; changing direction takes a long time and we are already facing a crisis. However, I believe we need to immediately fix two obvious problems. Firstly, the imbalance between effort and reward in relation to achieving good grades in maths and science must be redressed. Students will often devote close on 50pc of their time to achieving a grade in honours maths.

Many students make the obvious choice: other subjects are easier pickings. The result is a dearth of maths students capable of excelling in a science, engineering or technology subject at third level. We need bonus points as a reward to students who undertake maths and science subjects and once students have crossed the rubicon of honours maths at second level they’re less likely to drop out of technology/science/engineering subjects at third level.

Second, attracting more highly-qualified maths and science teachers is essential in ensuring students stick with and succeed in theses subjects despite the greater effort required. We can no longer afford to rely the top stream of graduates will have the vocational calling to become teachers in the face of the higher salaries in other sectors.

More should be done to attract these graduates and support them throughout their careers. For example more classroom resources and technology-driven learning tools should be provided to benefit both teacher and pupil. Certain states in the US are bringing in a grants system that will bolster maths and science teacher salaries through a range of incentives to attract and retain quality teachers. Irish policy-makers should immediately move to establish a similar incentive system here to ensure that we attract graduates capable of teaching these vital subjects.

The pay-off at the end of the education continuum is more graduates enabled to select engineering, technology and science subjects at third level and ultimately fill the knowledge intensive roles Ireland’s knowledge economy will create.
In the past the well-educated Irish emigrated for employment overseas. Where will our undereducated go when they can’t do the jobs available here?

By Pat Brazel, chairman of Irish Software Association