[lg policy] Ireland: OVERTURNING 90 YEARS OF FAILED IRISH LANGUAGE POLICY
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Tue Mar 15 15:44:11 UTC 2011
How Quinn can make a difference
Testing time: Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn will have to come up
with some answers for Ireland's education problemsTesting time:
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn will have to come up with some
answers for Ireland's education problems
In this section »
SEÁN FLYNN, Education Editor
The new Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has the unenviable task of
boosting standards in Irish education with virtually no additional
investment. Here’s an 11-point action plan to help him turn things
1 PUT YOUR HANDS UP AND ADMIT THERE ARE DEEP-SEATED PROBLEMS IN OUR
For decades, successive ministers for education have congratulated
teachers on our world class education system – even as some of the
same teachers pointed to an alarming decline in standards. Batt
O’Keeffe broke the mould in 2009 by raising awkward questions about
the quality of Irish graduates – and by refusing to act as a
cheerleader for the Irish education system.
Late last year, the latest OECD world rankings confirmed the Irish
system was nothing like as good as we thought. Almost a quarter of our
15 year-olds are functionally illiterate. On reading levels, Ireland
has slipped from fifth place in 2000 to 17th place, the sharpest
decline among the 39 countries surveyed.
In maths, Ireland has fallen from 16th to 26th place, the second
steepest decline among participating countries. Ireland is now ranked
as below average in maths.
The new Minister’s first message should be to acknowledge these
deep-seated problems and end the culture of complacency.
The signs are good. On the day after his appointment as Minister for
Education and Skills last week, Ruairí Quinn described the OECD
rankings as a “wake- up call’’ for the Irish education system .
2 ABOLISH BOTH THE JUNIOR AND LEAVING CERT
Neither exam is fit for purpose. And don’t just take my word for it.
Talk to US multinationals about their difficulty in recruiting
top-class graduates in key areas. Or listen to Tom Boland, head of the
Higher Education Authority. He says many students weaned on the
rote-learning culture of the Leaving struggle to adjust at third
The Junior and Leaving Cert exams seem increasingly out of place in an
era of smart technology. We want an education system which promotes
independent learning and critical thinking and one which encourages
students to be multilingual and at the cutting edge of technology.
That’s why both exams should be scrapped.
One piece of advice: set a time limit for the review of both exams
which has been promised in the Programme for Government. And make sure
the review team is full of radical, bold thinkers. The traditional
education taskforce – made up of nominees from the teaching unions is
exactly what’s not required. Their main agenda is to protect members.
You need people who will take a wider view.
And while you’re at it, review the CAO points system which has not
been subject to serious scrutiny since the 1999 Points Commission.
3 MAKE SURE EVERY TEACHER AT SECOND LEVEL IS QUALIFIED TO TEACH THE
SUBJECT FOR WHICH THEY ARE TIMETABLED
It sounds straightforward. Every teacher should be qualified to teach
their subject. But it’s not always the case in Irish schools .
Astonishingly, 48 per cent of our maths teachers at second level are
not qualified in the subject. The practice of finding a teacher, any
teacher, to take the maths or biology class must be banned. Our
children deserve better.
The Minister might also end the system where key subjects are
unavailable in some schools or only available at ordinary level. Make
the system more flexible so that students can take different classes
in different schools; a practice increasingly common in the North.
4 REFORM TEACHER EDUCATION AT BOTH PRIMARY AND SECOND LEVELS – EXTEND
THE TIME AND CHANGE THE CONTENT OF THE COURSES
To update yourself, read a recent report from the Teaching Council
(the professional body for teachers) on Mary Immaculate College,
Limerick, one of the largest teacher training colleges in the State.
The report said trainee teachers spend too much time studying
religion; the time allocated for religion was four times that for
It also said that programme overload meant students do not have time
“to critically reflect on their professional development and
The new Minister should support the review of teacher training
initiated by his predecessor – and make it a priority. He might also
question why five State-funded teacher training colleges are
controlled by the Catholic church.
5 MAKE MORE INFORMATION ON SCHOOLS AVAILABLE TO PARENTS AND THE WIDER COMMUNITY
For years, there has been a culture of secrecy in Irish education with
virtually no information flow to parents. The Irish Times’ much copied
Feeder School Lists have opened up a shaft of light. But parents can
still struggle to get the information they need to make one of the
most important decisions of their lives, namely, which school is best
for my child?
One of the most common criticisms of school league tables is that they
stigmatise schools in disadvantaged areas. But what’s the alternative?
Ignoring the problem of some schools and pretending they don’t exist?
Prof Colm Harmon of UCD– one of the few students from Ballyfermot
Senior College to go on to university – recently backed an
Australian-style system where exam results of all schools are posted
on a website. “If there are great disparities in results and entrance
to third-level education between different schools they should be
highlighted. The information should be available to everybody,
including researchers, and then the problems can by addressed by
targeting more resources to those schools.’’
The bad news? The new Government already appears to have backed away
from a Fine Gael plan which would have required all schools to publish
exam results. The new Programme for Government says schools should
provide public information “across a wide range of criteria”.
6 TACKLE CAUSE OF LITERACY AND NUMERACY DIFFICULTIES, ESPECIALLY IN
There are some good ideas in the new Programme for Government on
literacy. Disadvantaged primary schools will be required to teach
literacy for 120 minutes a day. But more detail is required on how
this will work.
Early childhood care is key here so Minister Quinn must work with
Frances Fitzgerald, the new Minister for Children. Remember also that
many of the problems are outside the school gates. An integrated
approach across several departments may be required.
Don’t rule out incentives to attract the best teachers to the most
7 SPEAK UP FOR OUR UNIVERSITIES – THEY DESERVE MORE CREDIT
The universities often get a bad press because of the inflated
salaries for senior figures and those bloated administrative
structures. But they actually do a good job and give very good value
to the taxpayer. TCD and UCD, for example, make do with about 60 per
cent of the funding available to Edinburgh University yet both are
ranked inside the world top 100.
What the universities don’t need is micro-management from the Higher
Education Authority or the Department of Education. That said, you
need to lay down some clear markers.
Make sure the taxpayer is getting a bang for
his buck when it comes to research funding.
Over €1 billion has been invested over the past decade and another
€500 million is promised.
But the jobs return on this investment has been poor.
Tell the universities to stop competing against each other and look to
the common good. End the practice where colleges will “clone’’ a
successful courses offered elsewhere.
8 GRASP THE FUNDING NETTLE, DON’T LET IRISH HIGHER EDUCATION DECLINE
Tackling the funding crisis is the biggest issue facing higher
education. The sector is struggling to cope with record numbers at a
time when its funding is being cut back. The projected 30 per cent
increase in student numbers over the next decade will bring the system
close to breaking point.
We don’t need a review of the Hunt Report and OECD reviews as promised
(threatened?) in the Programme for Government. This will only
underline the scale of the funding crisis.
Here’s the reality. The 26,000 who pay at least €5,000 a year for
private education at second level can afford to pay fees/loans at
Embrace the student loan/graduate tax plan outlined by Fianna Fáil and
Fine Gael. A higher education which is free at the point of entry and
links fees to income after graduation is fair and just. Why should the
ordinary taxpayer underwrite the €35,000 a year needed to train
undergraduates in medicine when many proceed to lucrative careers?
A parallel system which protects poor and disadvantaged students is
also essential. But the basic principle is this – those who can afford
to pay for higher education should be asked to make a contribution.
9 BREATHE NEW LIFE INTO THE IRISH LANGUAGE. THE CHALLENGE HERE IS
IMMENSE – OVERTURNING 90 YEARS OF FAILED IRISH LANGUAGE POLICY
The key issue is how Irish is taught in schools and how society values
the language. Is reading, spelling, writing and grammar introduced too
early in primary schools? Would the Minister be brave enough to
propose spoken Irish only in primary school?
On compulsion, the new Minister might reference an Irish Times poll
from 2005. Given a choice, a majority of parents said they would
prefer their children to learn a foreign language rather than Irish.
Does our society value our language as much as the pro-Irish lobby
would have us believe?
10 TAKE A HARD LOOK AT THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
The failure of the Department of Education to pick up on the decline
in educational standards highlighted in last year’s OECD report must
raise questions about its overall capacity.
The Department also failed to notice – or to inform anyone – about the
persistent grade inflation in Irish third level colleges until two
academics in Tralee, Co Kerry, identified the problem.
A decade ago, an expert report compiled by Seán Cromien, a former
senior civil servant, was scathing about the department. It was, it
said, a place where the urgent drives out the important.
The Department has raised its game by devolving powers to new agencies
like the State Exams Commission but questions linger about its
capacity to manage and drive Irish education. Should the so-called
Department for Children and Schools be in control of higher education?
A key task facing the Minister is to take a hard, critical look at the
Department of Education. He will find a good ally in Brigid McManus,
the secretary general who is progressive and outward-looking.
11ADOPT A ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TOWARDS UNDERPERFORMANCE IN SCHOOLS
The vast majority of teachers in Ireland are high-calibre
professionals with a huge commitment to their pupils but there is a
minority who underperform.
This group can do great damage to pupils and undermine their academic
potential. But in the past decade, not one teacher has been sacked for
The Minister should listen to the concerns of parents and send the
message that underperformance in the classroom will not be tolerated.
QUICK FIX: SOME OTHER MOVES THAT COULD HELP
* FIGHT TO KEEP EVERY CENT OF CURRENT FUNDING
There might not be much money swirling around but an education system
that runs on two-thirds of the EU average cannot survive with anything
* INCREASE CLASS CONTACT TIME FOR SECOND-LEVEL STUDENTS
End the interminable summer holidays, introduced to facilitate farmers
in the 1930s but out of kilter in the modern age.
* ALLOW EDUCATE TOGETHER TO EXPAND
Give Educate Together, the multi-denominational school group, the
right to open second-level schools.
* ADDRESS THE CHRONIC UNDERPERFORMANCE BY BOYS AT SECOND LEVEL
Encourage co-ed schools at second level; boys do much better in this
* SET UP A NATIONAL FORUM ON SCHOOL PATRONAGE
Follow on quickly on the commitment in the Programme for Government to
establish a national forum on school patronage. Proceed with the plan
before Diarmuid Martin, the most open advocate of change, seeks a
transfer back to Rome. And remember the Irish Times poll finding last
year which found that 61 per cent favour transferring control of
primary schools from the Catholic Church to the State.
* REVIEW THE PROMINENCE OF IRISH AND RELIGION ON THE CURRICULUM
By some estimates, over 30 per cent of all teaching time in primary
schools is taken up by religion and Irish. Is this appropriate in an
increasingly secular Ireland – and one where knowledge of a foreign
language is so critical for employment. At present, primary
schoolchildren receive no foreign language instruction.
* GET TOUGH ON ADMISSION POLICIES
Especially in those fee-paying schools who receive €100 million in
State support. Penalise any private school where admission policies
work to exclude minorities and children with learning needs. Ask the
religious orders how they justify their continued support for elite
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