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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

Column: Here’s how to fix the education system – and spend less money

We’re slipping in international tables even as the Government trumpets our ‘smart economy’ – so we need to take some lessons from Finland, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

Aaron McKenna wrote for TheJournal.ie about the ‘Lost Decade’ Ireland is facing into, and why we need a new vision for the nation to bring us through it. In this series McKenna will examine ways forward for Ireland – concrete proposals for the future shape of our country.

In this first part he looks at primary and secondary education, the foundation of our people’s future.

JUST AS IT is in the long term interest of an individual to get a good education it is in the long term economic interests of a country to have a well educated citizenry. So it might disturb one to know that Ireland has slipped from fifth to 17th in the OECD’s world rankings of education outcomes for reading, and 16th to 26th for maths, over a period when education spending increased in real terms by 61%.

In headline terms money hasn’t been Ireland’s problem – We spend around €8.6bn on education today and will reduce that to around €8bn come 2014, but per capita to date we match up to Finland who rank top of the OECD rankings.

Ireland has been stymied in education reform to improve – or even maintain – our educational results by deeply entrenched and narrow vested interests. At a time when we’ve improved teacher pay to be second and third highest in the OECD ranked countries at primary and second level we’ve gone way backwards in standard attained. Instead of real reforms we’ve had much talk, many shelved reports and the only substantive change has been an increase in grade inflation.

This, in turn, has eroded foreign confidence in our workforce, as was publicly and is privately expressed by the same multinationals we see as being the core of our future smart economy.

Finlandisation

Finland set out on a radical course of education reform in the 1990’s that saw them shake up their system within the confines of their existing spending.

Their reforms saw them shoot up the rankings and along the way the country has developed one of the largest knowledge (‘smart’) economies in the world.

Early education focuses on cooperation and communication skills, and children don’t begin a formal education in reading and math until age 7, when they also take up a second language.

Teachers follow a curriculum, but have a lot of latitude in how they do it. Homework is limited. There are few exams, as most progress is measured through continuous assessment.

Teachers get shorter holidays as the long breaks are typically used to send them on training courses. Only 15% of those who apply for Finnish teaching posts make the cut, and all have at least a masters degree.

All of this sounds great, even though some of it goes against knee jerk ideas of what a good education system might have. It also sounds rather expensive.

By spending per pupil we actually have an 8% premium on Finland in primary and secondary spending, though they spend 6.9% more at third level.

Reforms

Ireland’s problem isn’t one of too little money.

It’s how we spend that money and the way in which we utilise teachers that’s got us stuck in the second league of education systems.

How often do we hear bleating about the inadequacy of the Leaving Cert, or some other outmoded facet of our system? And how much has actually changed in how we operate it? The Irish education system is loathe to reform, and the special interests who resist change at every turn are the first major enemy of educational attainment. They talk a good game, but the results are very clear and stark in the PISA rankings.

Before we can do anything we need to steel ourselves to engage in a bit of hand to hand combat with the elements that will seek to obfuscate any reform process.

If we are to move towards a Finnish system then there is a major role for teachers, because the Finns place teacher-led curriculums at the heart of what they do. They empower teachers to use the methods they think will work best for the children in front of them.

Teachers will need to accept, however, that their worlds will be turned around in more ways than just that: 48% of Irish maths teachers have no qualification in the subject, while every Finnish teacher has an MA. Irish teachers enjoy one of the shortest working years in the OECD ranked countries, whereas Finnish teachers devote a lot of the children’s holiday time to up skilling.

Teachers in Finland are also paid less than those in Ireland, both compared directly and against the average salary in Finland. The average school system surveyed spent 63% of the budget on salaries versus 71% in Ireland. That premium hasn’t exactly bought us results.

The money question

If Ireland closed the gap to the OECD average proportion of budget it would over deliver the Department’s 2012-2014 consolidation without needing to lose a single teaching post from today. Indeed, we could add some.

We have a higher student-teacher ratio than Finland, but research has shown that the law of diminishing returns kicks in below 25:1. Our major problem with ratios is spread, with some schools stuck well above the national average.

We also have a problem in the provision of specialist teaching posts. Note how quiet unions have been on the topic of non permanent yet critical Special Needs Assistants being cut? Their deal is for the permanent posts not to be touched, and no pay cuts. Sorry kids.

Teachers can rightly say they’ve taken a hit already, and their gross salary isn’t the full story. But the premium they attract versus their peers is nowhere near accounted for by levies, and their salaries aren’t commensurate with peers or results.

Regardless of hitting teacher pay, the lack of zeal for true reform will cost us dearly. The results of our failed education policies to date are clear, not least to any company seeking to invest in this much touted ‘smart economy’.

We can start right away

Education reform doesn’t need to wait for another five years and a dozen reports. We have enough material to go on besides concrete examples of what works abroad. We could move tomorrow to bring costs in line and thus reduce class sizes. We can begin immediately to bring in a firm system of teacher assessment and weed out the minority of weak links who ruin our children’s chances of earning themselves a better future.

We could increase entry requirements for teachers, and enforce those that already exist with an up-or-out system in place for those who are not fully qualified to teach their subjects. Afford existing teachers time to qualify, and go for a hunt through currently unemployed teachers or other graduates for suitable individuals to plug the gaps.

More mid-term we should move to change our curriculums from rote learning to proper education, focusing on learning skills as well as facts and teacher led, with non-streamed classes made universal. Roll out a new trial curriculum by September and institute continuous assessment qualification for students, with the aim of ultimately replacing the Leaving Certificate for matriculation within a few years.

Finland provides a clear model for a system, and a pathway to reform that they themselves took through an economic situation that looked as dire as ours today. Fine Gael thought enough of their system to use it as a model for their manifesto. Have you heard much about it since February?

Our political leaders seem to be dithering and cutting round the edges so as not to wake the sleeping union giants, who talk up reform while stifling it. Where their special interests diverge from the interests of our children and the nation however, it is clear who must win.

Tinkering around the edges of our system that has taken us from fifth to 17th place in rankings is not enough.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company Komplett.ie. He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

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