Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 05 July 2009
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Towards quality and equality in education

A few days ago I was shocked to learn from a professor at Charles University in Prague, a university that enjoys a high reputation, that one of the reforms undertaken by the Czech government to implement the Lisbon strategy and increase the number of young people who go on to university has been the removal of entry requirements. All those who want to study at university have a right to do so.
I am all for having as many young people as possible going on to post-secondary and tertiary education. We must do all we can to make it possible for thousands of young people to continue in education after they complete their secondary education. We have too many young people leaving school at the age of 16.
But we must resist the temptation to simply imagine ways of increasing the number of young people in our sixth forms, Junior College, MCAST and university so that we can declare that we are well on our way of reaching the Lisbon targets without keeping the quality of our education in mind. Concocting stratagems to obtain the numbers to do well in EU education statistics is a travesty of an education policy. I believe in equality and quality, and I think we can work towards achieving our aims in education by being driven by these two principles.
But to do that we need to improve the quality of formal and informal education from childcare centres to university and beyond. We are still too obsessed with exams without really evaluating what our students are learning and how effectively they are being equipped for the real world.
Teachers tell me that in the last three years of our primary schools most of what takes place in classes amounts to drilling students for their exams. The books that pupils are urged to buy also consist mostly of how to master the techniques to pass exams, even when it comes to writing a composition. In our primary schools we have a dearth of initiatives in sports, culture and the arts. Our pupils are not encouraged to think, to create, to question and to explore.
The same applies to what goes on in most of our secondary schools. Even SEC examiners point out in their annual reports that our best students do well when they are asked to answer questions related directly to their books, but then are at a loss if they are asked to apply critically and creatively what they have learned.
Three weeks ago Tom Boland of the Irish Higher Education Authority criticized his country’s education system for producing students who “learn to the test”. He said “Too many students are being spoon-fed and are not learning to think for themselves.” Boland said that Irish secondary schools are focused mainly on preparing students to pass exams rather than giving them an all-round education. He said that Irish students then go on to university and also expect the same spoon feeding. He said that many academic departments of Irish universities are responding “not by challenging these students’ expectations, but by giving in and spoon feeding their students.”
Mr Boland is concerned that Ireland is behind in the quality of its higher education: “Our graduates are not always the first choice of employers, and our famed flexibility and intellectual nimbleness is disappearing.” In fact in recent years some multinationals based in Ireland as well as Irish firms have been often hiring non-nationals in preference to Irish graduates because they are seen to be of better quality.
The Irish Business Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) agrees with Mr Tony Boland that there is too much rote learning and standardised testing going on in Irish schools. The IBEC Education spokesman Tony Donohoe says: “This represents a missed opportunity to develop the broader skills and attitudes – such as good communication, creativity, flexibility and, most of all, an appetite for learning – which both the economy and society require. This approach could also be contributing to the high levels of early school leaving. While there have been some improvements in recent years, the second-level curriculum is still predominantly exam-based. We should be looking at multiple methods of assessment, which link the classroom to the outside world.”
Mr Boland has asked for a radical shake up of secondary and tertiary education in Ireland. “It is not acceptable that we devise a strategy for higher education which has the effect of promoting only a minority of elite students, believing that this will compensate for mediocrity in the system as a whole.” Mr Boland stresses the need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research, where quality outcomes are the paramount pre-occupation and shrewd use of resources a key factor in success in contributing to national goals.

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