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Opinion: If the way we live and work after Covid can be reformed, why not education too?

It’s an ideal time to reform the Irish educational system, writes Emma DeSouza.

Image: PA

Updated Sep 10th 2021, 10:15 AM

AT THE LAUNCH of the Government’s Adult Literacy for Life programme this week, Further and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris cast doubt over the future of the leaving cert system, calling for “radical” reform.

Ireland was promptly plunged into the Leaving Cert frenzy once again this year, as the annual points race saw young people across the country desperately competing against one another for the sole aim of this flawed model: a university place.

Sharp increases in academic achievement compounded by grade inflation have resulted in record numbers of students achieving top marks, while the allotment of university places has come down to something akin to random selection rather than a system designed to take into account the individual strengths, skills, and achievements of all students.

A system where even those who receive the highest grades can be excluded from attendance is not a viable model; it is but one more defective component in an education system already buckling beneath the mounting burden of increasingly rigid, outdated, and exclusionary methodologies.

The Minister clearly has his eyes set on reforming the route from second to third-level education, stating that Ireland’s model is not the “international norm”, but Ireland’s status as an outlier in education does not stop with the Leaving Cert. Sweeping reforms that modernise the curriculum, embed diversity, and remove religious doctrine are all desperately needed and wanted.

The furore this week around the Leaving Cert and CAO places should be seen as a red flag and a warning that dithering over education reform is no longer tolerable. It’s clear now that comprehensive reform of our education system is needed to bring it into this century, and from the ground up.

Primary school

The primary education model in place is steeped in religious formation, segregation, and the proliferation of religious ethos and beliefs, particularly at a primary school level, with 90 per cent of Irish primary schools state-funded, but Catholic-run. The proliferation of church-run schools, and lack of secular alternatives, provides a space in which more conservative views around abortion and LGBTQ+ rights can impact impressionable young minds.

While every family has the technical right to opt their child out of religious studies, the act is rendered virtually useless as those children are often still expected to remain in the classroom during religious studies, where they continue to be subjected to the religious curriculum.

The issue becomes more troubling when even beyond these explicitly religious courses, religious language and teachings also permeate into numerous important subjects such as Science, meant to be entirely separate from faith-based teachings, a practice that continues to be facilitated by the government who have failed to produce an effective opt-out system.

Catholic-based education systems make little room for other denominations despite minority faith and atheist views increasing year on year. The right to religious freedom and freedom of belief is a protected human right, the exclusionary system is undeniably discriminatory towards those of minority faiths, and none.

Integrated education provides the best means for social cohesion and should be the primary education model for state-funded schools. Much like the US model, public education should be secular, with religious education remaining a personal choice through attendance of a non-state school, or as an extracurricular activity.

Critical thinking

Further to moving to an integrated model and reforming the Leaving Cert, the curriculum should be updated to embrace inclusivity, creativity, and most importantly, critical thinking.

Being able to evaluate information and arguments, identify patterns, and form educated viewpoints are crucial skills in media and information literacy. A desire to ensure children are not only able to navigate technology but know how to do so safely has led to calls for digital literacy to become the fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and maths.

Several countries are successfully tackling the rise in misinformation through the education system. Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to “fake news” – teaches digital literacy in primary schools to equip young people with the tools to identify dangerous misinformation.

Critical thinking is an essential skill in navigating the complexities of life. Examining philosophical ideas through incorporating philosophical studies into the curriculum would enable young people to engage in wider societal questions – from immigration to climate change to terrorism.

In a post-conflict society recovering from decades of trauma, examining concepts around religion, morality, and identity could provide young people with the tools required for meaningful consideration of the past, present, and future of this island.

The benefits of critical thinking at a young age are such that they encourage young people to analyse, consider, and question the world around them, as well as providing young people with the necessary skills to further develop and refine their own identity.

Embedding philosophical studies into the curriculum would be hugely beneficial; many other European countries such as Austria, Croatia, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Poland all include philosophy as part of their basic education at secondary school level. Additionally, in Spain, students must also participate in ethics and citizenship courses alongside their philosophy classes.

Sex education

A further area for reform is teachings around sexual education, a recent study from NUI Galway’s Active Consent programme found that one in five secondary school boys are “neutral” on the issue of consent being required for sexual activity. At a primary level, there has been considerable concern around the “Flourish” programme which includes innumerable faith-based teachings to sexual health that may place children at risk.

There is an enormous amount of pressure placed on the shoulders of young people to achieve academic excellence, with little-to-no space for creative or critical thinking. The focus on university placements as the only means to third-level education excludes those whose interests may fall outside the remit of a university classroom and can result in shortfalls in the labour and trade market.

A new policy slated to be implemented in November will see students use the CAO system to apply not only for university places but for further education, training courses and apprenticeships – a welcome first step in a more expansive view of third-level education. But change has come too slow and so much more needs to be done.

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Yesterday, Education Minister Norma Foley assured us that next year, the “traditional exam” of the Leaving Cert would return, CAO points would calm down and all would be well. But, are we to believe that the relentless points race is worth returning to? The pandemic has forced a full-scale rethink across all aspects of society. As we begin emerging into a ‘new normal’, the focus has been on reimagining our workplaces with a new hybrid model of in-office and virtual attendance, but why stop there? Now is a better time than any to reimagine the education system into an inclusive, modern, and rewarding model.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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