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Column: Our school system is broken – we need to look beyond exams

Irish students are falling behind, forcing companies to look abroad for staff. But a new approach could change that, writes University of Limerick founder Ed Walsh.

Ed Walsh

THE STARTLING RATE at which the Irish school system is falling behind was highlighted in last December’s OECD’s PISA report:

  • In a decade reading levels in Ireland have dropped from 5th to 17th.
  • 23 per cent of male teenagers are functionally illiterate.
  • In only three years Ireland’s math ranking has dropped from 16th to 26th place.

Also multinational heavyweights, such as Craig Barrett of Intel, John Herlihy of Google and Ray Stata of Analog Devices are no longer lauding the Irish educational system. They are speaking frankly of its serious deficiencies. They highlight their frustration in having to look abroad for the talents they require in Ireland, such as communication skills, understanding of interpersonal relationships, mastery of modern European languages, entrepreneurial skills, and common sense.

Studies, by Calvin Taylor of the University of Utah and others, have long established that the typical formal examination is capable of assessing only some one-quarter of those attributes that contribute to a person’s success in later life. Formal examinations are good for measuring mathematical and linguistic competence, but are less likely to detect those human characteristics associated with success as a citizen, an employee or a parent.

Because of Ireland’s narrow assessment system there is little scope for recognising or fostering such valuable characteristics as reliability, determination, entrepreneurship, intuition, common sense, sensitivity and consideration for others; characteristics vital for personal success and the well being of the community.

In 1972, when we were admitting the first 100 students to NIHE, Limerick from the group of over 1,000 who applied, we decided that, in addition to requiring achievement in the Leaving Certificate, applicants would be expected to submit an assessment by their teachers. The following is an extract from my diary3 for the year in which Limerick’s NIHE began admitting its first students:

Friday 7 January 1972
LIMERICK: A day designing student application forms. The Leaving Certificate alone does not identify communication ability, involvement in classroom activities, pursuit of independent study, critical and questioning attitude, personal responsibility, and consideration for others. Our form required teachers to give ratings under these headings.

The response told us that teachers had little difficulty in providing the assessments we required. Their judgement played a key role in the admission of what turned out to be an exceptional group of pioneering students.

In this we were reverting to an earlier era when educators were expected to focus on nurturing those personal skills and values that contribute to healthy and stable society, success at work and a caring family life. The narrowness of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and the tyranny of the CAO points-based system have produced a situation that neither fosters nor rewards those human characteristics that society most needs and employers cherish.

Many of the countries with the world’s best school systems rely, not on a centralised Leaving Certificate type examination, but on the continuous assessment of pupils by their teachers.

High achievement

Finland and Sweden both have long-established school-based assessment systems utilising a wide range of open-ended tasks and challenging classroom-based assignments. Such school-based assessments, embedded in the curriculum, are often cited as an important reason for the high levels of educational achievement in those countries.

School-based assessment has been the standard mode of assessment in Canadian schools for many years with teachers taking responsibility for all assessment processes and judgments at the school-level.

New Zealand also has a long history of school-based assessment and has developed a wide variety of teacher support materials.

It is fortunate that Ireland now has a capable, experienced and determined Minister for Education in Ruairí Quinn, who can be expected to see the merit in decreasing the dominance of the narrow, centralised Leaving Certificate exam and phasing in school-based teacher assessment, based on practice in those countries that have the world’s best school systems.

Ed Walsh returned to Ireland in 1970, a young man in a hurry, to set up an institute of education. He found a decaying mansion on a riverside site, gathered talented young people and secured funding from the World Bank and European Investment Bank to build what became the University of Limerick.

He is the author of the memoir recently published by The Collins Press, Upstart: friends, foes and founding a university. For more information, see

Studies mentioned in this article:
Taylor, C. W. (1968). Cultivating new talents: A way to reach the educationally deprived. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 2, 83-90.
Taylor, C. W. (1986). Cultivating simultaneous student growth in both multiple creative talents and knowledge. In J. S. Renzulli (Ed.), Systems and Models for Developing Programs for the Gifted and Talented (pp. 307-350). Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

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Ed Walsh

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