Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is the Irish Education System Failing?

I have been asked to talk to the Galway student debating society on the issue of whether the Irish education system is failing. I am interpreting this as the whole system rather than just third level. I am coming down on the side that it is far below its potential. I don't really believe the whole system has failed or that it is structurally unsound. By and large, we have a modern system of education comparable to other modern developed countries, with a rigorous and standardised second-level system that is externally recognised and several higher level institutions that are well-ranked internationally. So when we assess failure, we must put it in the perspective of starting with the type of expectations a modern developed country like Ireland should have. This means being grateful for what we have and the opportunity we have relative to most of the world and most of history, while not being afraid to point out where things are clearly performing below-par.

In terms of evidence of failure, below are some broad-brushes that I am happy to argue with people during the week.

- The crazy, unethical and badly judged banking policies we adopted throughout the last ten years are evidence of system weaknesses throughout finance and government that at least partly have their roots in poor capacity within these systems.

- Our education system often reinforces rather than challenges other economic structural weaknesses in the system (something pointed out by Charles Larkin and others on their website).  For example, restrictive practices in professions are reflected in rationing of university places. Overheating of the property market was reinforced by massive state subsidisation of training for construction workers.

- As discussed by Kevin, there is widespread evidence that SES gradients in attendance of university have persisted, showing that second-level education is unable to equalise access to these institutions.

- Another one that Kevin deals with a lot, there is a basic failure to provide reasonable information that could be used both for researchers to analyse the effect of spending and parents to make informed choices.  

- The level of graduate unemployment is making a mockery of the positioning of universities as a major source of economic performance.

- The fact that the response of individuals to unemployment is much the same as it always was must really make us question how we have been educating people consciously or subsconsciously to think of employment as the main source of positive worth. An education system fit for the 21st century will need to educate people in how to look after themselves financially and emotionally in what will continue to be a volatile world. We are definitely failing to do that at present.

- Related to this is the Heckman argument. Despite the enormous evidence on the importance of building a wide range of capabilities among young people, this has not filtered into the making of modern education policy in a meaningful sense. Pre-primary and primary education in Ireland are still arguably viewed as far lower priorities than the glossier third level and university issues. When did we last have a real debate about primary education in Ireland? Yet, one cannot open a newspaper without a debate about whether people should get extra points for honours maths.

- The continued socioeconomic disparity in the prison population continues to demonstrate the inability of the Irish education system to lift the most vulnerable children out of persistent disadvantage.

- While the government has doubled the number of PhD's with a view to them being the human engine room of high tech innovation, there is not evidence yet that this has started to work. PhD matching may become an increasing issue when science funding in the university sector begins to contract.


Kevin Denny said...

Let me ask one question & give what I think should be the answer.
Question:By what criteria do we judge an educational system?
Answer: By the outcomes that are produced.
This might sound obvious but there is remarkably little emphasis on outcomes and far too much on processes. For example, how do we know that teaching (at any level) is satisfactory? Saying "we train people properly" does not guarantee good outcomes nor does pointing to the existence of some review or oversight process.
That we have no data, of course, does not help. And for 3rd level education, we don't even train people to teach.
A focus on outcomes means not being beholden to vested interests - or "stakeholders" as they are now legitimized. It is hard to believe that the interests of primary and secondary students come first in how education in Ireland is provided: a large chunk of the population is underperforming educationally, has for many decades and will continue to do so for many, many years.
Higher education is more complicated because of its dual roles of education and research but there is certainly room for improvement in both respects.

Liam Delaney said...

The PISA results in general would give Ireland a B grade in how it produces basic education Kevin right?

I agree with you that the sharp determination of life outcomes as a function of birth postcodes is a stark feature of the Irish system, and one that really has never been taken in hand properly.

Kevin Denny said...

Our PISA results are about average. Well we can't all be above (or below) average. If you measure input by a share of GDP (or maybe GNP, I forget) we are pretty low. By that criterion we are doing well: average outcomes for below average inputs.
But thats very broad brush & I am not sure these cross-country comparisons tell you that much.

Martin Ryan said...

"The level of graduate unemployment is making a mockery of the positioning of universities as a major source of economic performance."

An interesting exercise would be to compare the relative ratio of graduate unemployment to non-graduate unemployment in Ireland, the UK, the United States and a selection of other countries. Time to re-employment (or first job) might be harder to observe but would also be an interesting comparison to make (re graduate to non-graduate).

The point is that sometimes demand factors can be a considerable impediment, no matter how much (in years and sheepskins) and how well (in quality) educated one is.