Forget the Budget, here comes trouble


test documents for the Programme for Internati...
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Take a deep breath. No doubt you too have been by turns furious, upset and depressed by the numbers hitting you in the face from Tuesday’s Budget.
With all that’s happened, there have been a few reassurances we’ve been able to fall back on. Even in the darkest days we were comfortable in the knowledge our reputation as the land of Saints and Scholars is known far and wide.
Except, it’s not.
For a couple of years now, warning noises have been coming from the IT and science sectors about the ‘poor quality’ of our graduates. Ministers have largely poo poo’ed these insults to our collective intelligence, but it’s been apparent to many, many education professionals that standards are dropping.
This week, an influential study (the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment) has proven something that even the most basic empirical evidence has been showing for a while now:
We don’t have a world-class education system.
In reading levels, Ireland has dropped from fifth in 2000 to 17th, out of 39 countries. In maths, we’ve fallen from 16th to 26th.
It’s not going to be much of a knowledge economy with that as a start.
The focus in Ireland has been on money, the banks and the economy for over two years now.
Whatever the ins and outs of the economy and the banks and tax rates and bondholders, it’s absolutely crucial that our politicians stop waffling and blaming each other, and get their eyes back on the ball.
The only thing that can fix this country is its young people, and if they are not nurtured now, they will compound the failures of their parents. It’s clear that the Government can’t do its sums, but must we condemn our children to the same innumeracy?
The focus has been on money, but money is not the root of this problem, and simply throwing money at a problem very rarely fixes it.
The system is clearly at fault here.
There has been a lot of talk in Government, for years now, about reforming State Exams. Where is the emphasis on self-directed learning, on collaboration with colleagues, on initiative? Any third-level teacher who teaches first year students will tell you that most of first year is spent ‘unlearning’ the learning techniques from the Leaving Certificate.
As a first year law student, I simply could not understand why we were asked to read cases, rather than the summaries of them in our textbook. The examinable bits were all there, nicely packaged and summarised.
I was completely missing the point that sometimes you need context. You need to know what frames a discussion, the subtleties and nuances that learning off a list of dates or reciting verbs or regurgitating a learned-off essay on ‘Scúirse na nDrugaí’ no matter what the question is, will not teach you.
Of course, the second-level exams are not the only issue in Irish education. A study carried out in the US in the 1960s (the HighScope Educational Research Foundation’s Perry Preschool Program) showed that better educated people are less likely to be on welfare, less likely to commit crime, and less likely to have certain health problems. The cost? Investing just $1 reaped $16 in savings to health and justice services. That’s a saving, not a cost.
It’s time for all of us to stop looking backwards and start thinking about how we can map out our country’s future. We’ll get our revenge on the Government at election time. In the meantime, this is what running the country should be about. So let’s get on with it.

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