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Column State of our education system is a national emergency

Irish education standards are going backwards, says independent TD Stephen Donnelly – here he suggests some radical changes needed to reverse that decline and secure a prosperous future for the country.

IF YOU’RE TRYING to understand what has Ireland into the state it’s in today, the recent revelations about maths standards in our schools are a good place to start.

It’s not simply that we’re bad at maths, or that many of our maths teachers are underqualified, as has been revealed. It’s that our students are struggling in maths despite the fact that one of the only sectors in Ireland which has a plethora of high skilled job opportunities is the tech sector. Many of these jobs require a solid foundation in maths.

Ireland’s tech companies – whether big multinationals or smaller indigenous ones – are struggling to recruit. We’re not producing graduates with the skills the market wants.

Just how bad is the current situation? The OECD’s report on educational outcomes, published late last year, found that a quarter of our 15-year-olds are not sufficiently literate to participate effectively in society. Ireland has had the steepest decline in literacy standards amongst the 39 countries in the OECD. In maths, we had the second steepest decline, and are now ranked below average in the OECD. Incredibly, the problem is not that we are not improving fast enough, it’s that we’re actually going backwards.

At the same time, our universities have experienced sharp falls in world rankings: over the last two years, Trinity has fallen out of the top 50 universities and UCD has fallen out of the top 100. NUI Galway has just fallen 66 places to 298.

Teachers’ pay, if it delivers some of the best educated students on earth, is money well spent

If our economy and national finances weren’t in such turmoil, the collapse of our educational rankings would be a national emergency. With everything else we’re coping with, it is just another serious problem to address. But let us be very clear – the medium-to-long-term survival of Ireland as a prosperous nation depends on our having one of the best education systems on earth.

In this context, the current debate on education, focused largely on teacher’s pay, is grievously misdirected. It is true that our teachers are paid well relative to many other countries. But theirs is probably the most important of professions. We entrust them, literally and metaphorically, with the future of our country. If they can deliver some of the best educated and prepared students on earth, then it is money well spent.

The question we must start asking is this: ‘How do we create one of the top-ten education systems internationally in the next five years? How do we get into the top three within ten years?’

The problem is that the mechanism for reform, the Croke Park Agreement, anchors any reform to the current system. Let’s take teaching hours as an example. The question which needs to be asked is ‘How many teaching hours per week do the best education systems in the world have?’ The question which was asked instead was ‘Can we increase current teaching hours by one hour per week?’

We are benchmarking ourselves against the wrong country.

We need to benchmark ourselves against the best. South Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand – these have the best education systems in the world.

In 1989, New Zealand had an underperforming education system, and one of the most centralised in the world. A new government shut down the Department of Education overnight, set up a new Ministry for Education, and devolved power to individual schools and their boards, made up of parents and community leaders. Today, they have the fourth best education system in the world.

In the early 1990s, Finland emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its principal trading partner, into recession, with unemployment exploding from three per cent to 18 per cent. The Government responded by increasing education spending, investing in teachers and principals, and promoting creativity and innovation in schools. Today, they are ranked as the second best system in the world.

New Zealand and Finland took radical approaches – but produced radical improvements

New Zealand and Finland took radically different approaches to reforming their education systems – New Zealand’s is market-based, with funding following students to the schools; Finland’s is more cooperative. Both made mistakes along the way, but both approaches were radical and both produced radical improvements.

The people who know what radical changes need to be made are our teachers and principals. And yet the changes are being decided in and around Kildare Street by a mixture of union officials, quango appointees, politicians and civil servants.

I’ve been talking to teachers and principals, and this is what I am hearing. Teachers want more sophisticated training at college, and more effective in-service training. They want more freedom in the classroom – to innovate, to experiment, to inspire their students. They want a curriculum that is designed for today’s children and tomorrow’s adults, not one bound by tradition and a points race.

Principals want better resources and support. They want to be allowed to run their schools as they deem best. They want control over their own budgets. One principal explained to me that they couldn’t paint the walls, as purchasing paint with the annual budget was not allowed. They also want management control. This includes the power to hire the best teachers they can find and, ultimately, to fire teachers (constrained by employment rights and with strict oversight). With this authority must, of course, come real accountability – to the school boards, to the parents and to the Department.

We do not know, other than by anecdote, who is doing well and who is struggling

Accountability requires, amongst other things, measurement of performance. Astonishingly, there is no standardised collection of performance data for our schools. We do not know, other than by anecdote, who is doing well and who is struggling. This makes is very difficult to identify and learn from the best and to direct financial support and expertise to where it is needed most. It makes it impossible to hold people to account.

There is magnificent work being done in our schools. But it is being done in spite of, not because of, the system. We need to reverse that, so that the system encourages excellence, and so that all schools can rise to that standard.

This is a time of enormous challenge. But there is also great opportunity. We can, and must, emerge from these crises – social, financial and educational – with an education system which is the envy of the world.

We may struggle to beat New Zealand on the rugby pitch (though after Saturday’s magnificent victory against Australia in the Rugby World Cup, anything is possible). But when it comes to education, at least, we should be able to play them off the field.

Stephen Donnelly is independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow.

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