There’s never a better time to be inventive than when there’s no money for anything – and boy is that the case now! Things happen in Irish education because life has always been thus, but looking at the economic landscape in Ireland and throughout the world, we should ask ourselves if the education system is meeting our needs as a society.
Just as the national economy came to a shuddering halt as a result of the downturn in the construction sector, so too did our education system give cause for scrutiny when the last Pisa study was published and – as was hammered home forcefully in the media at the time – Ireland plummeted in the rankings.
Make no mistake, the PISA study is an enormously powerful international barometer of where a country stands (or so we’re told) but I’ve always had a healthy scepticism about the headline figures in international surveys on the basis that sometimes a very simplistic analysis in the media sets the tone for national debate.
Suffice it to say, we probably weren’t as good as we thought we were in the first study (2000) and we’re certainly not as bad as we’re told we are by some commentators following the publication of the latest one (2009).
Dr Jude Cosgrove from the Education Research Centre Drumcondra gave an interesting and informative analysis of the 2009 PISA Study to the recent annual conference of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. She interrogated the detail of the study and I recall a sharp intake of breath from the school leaders present when she highlighted the large number of skipped questions in the Irish respondents.
The PISA study tests the student’s ability to apply knowledge, and maybe, if we’re honest, our education system is partly to blame for the way our students perform. I was really disappointed to hear in a recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) that students regarded teachers as being good if they could condense the course as much as possible, give plenty of notes for exam-relevant questions and ensure that answers to possible questions were learned de ghlan mheabhair.
Our students have cracked the code – they know what they have to do to succeed in the Leaving Certificate, and now teaching to the test is the hallmark of a good teacher. How sad is that? Is it no wonder that our students find it so difficult to score highly on the PISA tests because a completely different set of skills is being tested in the PISA assessments.
That’s why I’m really enthusiastic about the proposed Junior Cycle reforms. If the changes envisaged come about, not only will the students learn in a different way but it is also a great opportunity to enthuse our teachers who are at the heart of everything that is good in the system but who, at the same time, are perhaps perpetuating the reality of the Leaving Certificate as a filter for Third Level.
Confidence built as a result of the Junior Cycle reform will show parents that the world won’t come to an end if the Leaving Certificate is reformed, because the backwash effect of the Leaving Certificate on our second level system makes that exam no longer fit for purpose for up to a quarter of our pupils.