Education reform is urgent and inevitable

2 Oct 2011

Imelda Reynolds, president, Dublin Chamber of Commerce; Gina Quin, CEO, Dublin Chamber of Commerce; and Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills

The furore surrounding declining maths teaching standards means reform is inevitable. The teachers want it; and the Minister for Education wants it. So what’s holding us back?

Education reform. It sounds dramatic and hard because it will have to be. Ireland’s by-rote learning structures, as well as poor maths and science performance belie the country’s reputation as a 21st-century economy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, great reformers including Donogh O’Malley, Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker took the brave steps, such as making education available to all, that made Ireland the economic miracle it was in the 1990s and 2000s.

That same spirit of reform is sorely needed right now if the country is to reduce the dole queues and ensure today’s school goers are tomorrow’s workers who can look forward to productive and satisfying careers here.

The recent PISA results in May made for sad reading. The performance of Irish 15-year-olds in maths and reading showed a significant deterioration since the last survey in 2006. Ireland ranked 26th in maths and 17th in reading literacy.

At a recent Intel Education Forum at Dublin’s Science Gallery, ASTI assistant secretary general Moira Leyden said teachers are sick of being made the scapegoats.

“Teachers are in favour of transforming education and are willing to engage with the decision-making world to transform the education system. We are part of the solution; we’re not in the business of resisting change. “The PISA report shook everyone to the core. All teachers agree – being just about average is not good enough,” said Leyden.

At the same event Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised that a radical reform is in the offing. “The next decade will be shaped by advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology. If we can’t change the education system we have, it will be a problem. We need to give young people the ability to compete and challenge their peers around the world,” he said.

Peter Hamilton, general manager of Intel’s Performance Learning Solutions Group, said that any investment in technology in education must be accompanied by far-reaching changes to the syllabus.

“There’s no point teaching kids to create iPad apps when two years from now something newer will come along. Don’t start designing courses for the skills of the next five years, design them for the next 30 or 40 years.”

Education Minister Ruairí Quinn has backed the call for radical reform of the education system with a new structure that moves away from the outmoded by-rote system to one that recognises 21st century critical and creative thinking. Recently congratulating the 57,000 Junior Cert students who received their results Quinn said: “The educational journey starts in pre-school but as a result of the points system, creative thinking is replaced by memory recall.

“I hope that radical reform of the Junior Certificate will start in 2012, with a reformed exam in place by 2015.”

Quinn’s comments came in the wake of another OECD report that reveals problems in the teaching of maths in Ireland. The teaching of maths in Ireland. The year-olds spend only 12pc of their time on maths compared with the OECD average of 16pc.

Not only that, but the report reveals that Irish students spend more time studying religion than science. Irish nine to 11-year-olds spend 4pc of their tuition time on science – less than half the OECD average of 9pc – but spend 10pc of their time on religion, double the OECD average of 4pc.


■ 86pc of students surveyed said that in order to pull
Ireland through the economic downturn, continued
investment in research and development was
paramount, according to research from the BT
Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition
■ Last December’s budget reduced capital allocation
for schools’ ICT equipment from €63m to €1.5m

In his presidential address, the new president of Engineers Ireland PJ Rudden hit out at the total systemic failure of maths education in Ireland. “It will take perhaps a decade or more to embed the new learning processes associated with the department’s reform agenda so industry must do as much as it can to support students in their attempts to grasp maths.”

With or without the teachers’ support, clued-in teenagers like James Whelton, a Cork entrepreneur who recently completed his Leaving Cert and is now running his own business, are crying out to be taught computer programming as part of the curriculum.

To meet this need Whelton joined forces with internet entrepreneur Bill Liao to teach coding capabilities in weekend clubs around the country in a network of Coder Dojos.

Successful Hollywood and Oscar-winning producer and educationalist Lord David Puttnam, who sits on the board of education technology firm Promethean, has also called for change and to bear in mind the reforms instigated by Donogh O’Malley in the late 1960s.

“I think there are three crucial issues. The first thing is the competitive landscape of the 21st century is a skills and talent landscape. The nations that prove they have the most talented and innovative people will be the success stories and the ones that don’t are going to have a lot of problems.

“The second thing is the educational world is going to have to come to terms with the fact that they must meet the expectations of the new generation of young people. Kids expect to be taught.

“The third issue – and for me this is the most concrete and ought to be an easy nut to crack for a country like Ireland – unless you have a world-class education system you can say goodbye to the possibility of sustainable pensions, a sustainable health service or public service.

“Only an education system can drive a nation to a place where it can afford those other things – things we think of as essentials today that could very quickly look like luxuries tomorrow,” Puttnam warned.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years