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Damien Kiberd: Jihad against Junior Cert is bizarre

Rather than tackle these rather basic issues of numeracy and literacy, we are meddling with exam systems which may not be a problem at all.

Damien Kiberd

RUAIRI QUINN WAS arguably Ireland’s best ever finance minister. When he stepped down in 1997 the economy was growing by a spectacular 10 per cent and the growth was real, not artificial.

There was no credit bubble, no asset price explosion, just real jobs and real profits. Even those who had feared the arrival of a socialist in Merrion Street acknowledged that he understood the needs of business precisely.

So why has he embarked on a one-man half-baked cultural revolution at the Department of Education since he returned to cabinet in 2011? Why is he trying to re-invent modish theories that have been tried and failed since the student riots at the Sorbonne in 1968?

The jihad against the Junior Certificate examination is just the latest example of how tried and trusted methods are being dumped in favour of the experimental, even of the bizarre.

It appears that the students of the future will know little or nothing about almost everything.

A merit-based, scrupulously fair and generally unthreatening public examination is to be replaced by a modular curriculum which will be subject to localised “assessment”.

Quinn must see clearly the dangers of such a system in a country that has been plagued for decades by clientelism and by the activities of local political “fixers”. But even if we leave this very important issue to one side, there are other problems which should cause us concern.

Students may now be taken on a cook’s tour that involves beginners’ Chinese and writing computer codes, taught by teachers who scarcely know how to switch on a PC and who think that a Mandarin is a type of citrus fruit.

These teachers will assess and certify the strengths and weaknesses of their neighbours’ children in areas such as football skills, dancing, launching media campaigns, dealing with mental health issues, digital literacy, the care of animals and – God help us – “global citizenship”. Quinn’s spin machine refers to this as a “suite of options”.

Babel of pseudo-scholarship

Will the country’s schoolteachers be properly trained for this Babel of pseudo-scholarship? The record of the Department of Education suggests otherwise.

The new “discipline” of Project Maths was ushered in despite a study conducted by the Drumcondra Educational Research Centre which showed that 36 per cent of teachers were unhappy with their own mathematical skills.

The arrival of a dumbed-down form of mathematics was perhaps inevitable given the whinging over many years that Higher Level Leaving Certificate mathematics was “too hard”. As the writer James Joyce liked to remark: if you can’t change the country, then change the subject.

Project Maths

Project Maths allegedly tests deductive reasoning as opposed to an exam candidate’s capacity to solve mathematical problems in the same way students have solved those problems for centuries. The new method of measuring skills apparently allows, on occasion, for the setting of questions to which there may be no definite solution. It also presumably provides the points that will secure third-level places for those who couldn’t cope with the old system. QED.

The parallel re-emergence of a bonus points system which offers a near automatic uplift of 25 points to those sitting an “honours” maths paper must raise further suspicions that the dumbing down of public education is now to become pervasive. This points giveaway has helped lift that numbers opting for higher level papers by 6%. But at what cost? Will the competence of future graduates in technical subjects be compromised? Will the reputation of our centres of learning be diminished?

Just how anxious are we to put a generation of potentially incompetent scientists, engineers and technicians through our universities and institutes of technology?

The need to fill places in these disciplines at third level is now so great that parts of the National University of Ireland are offering “second chance” mathematics exams to school leavers who couldn’t get a “C” grade in higher level mathematics. Should you really be allowed to become an engineer if you cannot secure such a basic level of competence?

We are less gifted, not better, than competitors

This is a serious business. Despite all the waffle at political party conferences about the brilliance of our gilded youth, PISA league tables which compare levels of performance in different countries suggest we are less gifted, not better, than our competitors.

We constantly achieve “below average” levels of literacy and numeracy when compared to our EU partners.

Rather than tackle these rather basic issues we are meddling with exam systems which may not be a problem at all.

Perhaps Quinn might consider Mao Tse Tung’s number one rule of engagement: namely that you should tackle the main contradiction first.

The cost of education

For example, many students and their families cannot afford third level education. Meanwhile, the cost of providing that education is becoming more and more expensive. This is a real problem.

A logical minister might respond by securing the cash for a proper grants scheme. Alternatively he/she might set up a functioning student loan company.

Quinn has done neither. Instead he has replaced the old system of grant allocation with a new, centralised bureaucracy called SUSI that became in its first year a byword for chronic delay. In the process he has reneged on public commitments regarding college registration fees. We now have constantly increasing “fees by the back door”, undermining a central achievement of the Labour Party in government in the 1990s.

Similarly most parents, teachers and pupils are largely unconcerned about the system of “school  patronage” that exists in their locality. Rather they are worried about average class sizes, the availability of personal computers and laptops, the price of books and the physical condition of school buildings.

Ideological cul-de-sac

Why therefore does Quinn spend so much time mapping out future systems for macro-management of schools when the average age of the clerics who previously held sway on boards of management is heading for three digits? Are we heading up an ideological cul-de-sac?

Quinn will be aware that in Ireland no good turn ever goes unpunished. In 1997, when he had the economy humming along at double digit growth, the electorate cut the number of Labour Party seats in Dail Eireann from 33 to 17, a drop of over 50 per cent.

Currently there are four government deputies in his constituency of Dublin South-East and no opposition TDs whatsoever. Yet the constituency voted by 62% to 38% against the government in the recent referendum on future of Seanad Eireann. Is Labour heading for another meltdown?

Read Damien Kiberd’s columns for TheJournal.ie here>

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Damien Kiberd

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