I don’t know why I am surprised at Renua. I guess its that when a new political party emerges there is an opportunity for it to really take a radical, evidence based look at areas and suggest alternatives to how we do things. Renua, in its election manifesto education proposals, has merely produced an ideological grabbag of tropes and clichés. It is barely worth a passing grade. It would result in a gradgrindian system and should be rejected forthwith.
Lets go through it. Buckle up..
The manifesto starts with an assertion that there is no coherent philosophy underpinning the whole education system and that this is a gap which leads to the divil and all. Into this purported gap stride the educational colossi of Renua. They of course have a philosophy. That it is one which is shared by about 1% of the population is irrelevant.
This is nice, in principle. However, when we read more of the manifesto, we see
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with community childcare, or using childcare training as part of labour market activation strategies. Put together however this reads : we believe in highly trained and motivated childcare workers but dont believe these people should be paid concomitant with these standards. There is little here on increasing spend. Ireland ranks 16th, midtable, in OECD public spend on preprimary education (here, B3.3) . But spending public money is not what Renua is about now, is it?
What evidence do we have that we lag? That we ever indeed led? What evidence we do have, from the OECD suggests that the balance of what we teach is out of kilter
There is literally nothing in the section on primary education on the subject mix. What is Renua’s policy on less god and gaeilge (the 25% lump above…) and more games and geology? The policy document has a lot of strange (you dont say…) comments. Here for instance they seem to ake a pop at Hibernia, which has for a decade or more converted mature students with life experience into primary teachers.
We’re going to get primary school league tables.
The whole league table issue is moot when parents are running round trying to get their children into ANY School (large urban areas) or there is only one (rural areas and most towns). The most recent study, a survey of more than 1900 parents, shows Irish parents dont want league tables. In any case, do we really want baby infants tested twice a year? 16 tests through the period of primary school? Is that the ghost of the 11+ I see hiding ? What evidence do Renua have that this will do anything other than stress the system, and the kids? What evidence we have suggests we should be very careful about national standardised tests at a young age.
Where will the kids be taught?
Absolutely nothing radical here. Nothing like : Renua will require that within 2 years all religious run schools transit to lay patronage, and that religious patronage schools should be funded privately. That would be radical. And what, exactly, is a religious ethos in primary school? Is there a particular jewish math? a protestant geometry? a uniquely catholic way of arranging the periodic table? a muslim Irish grammar? For a group that decry the lack of a coherent philosophy there is a remarkable acceptance of fuzz here.
We also see a lack of coherence in the costings. We are told that Renua wants to improve the pupil teacher ratio
These are noted as cost neutral. At present in the OECD the ratio is on average 15-1 while in ireland it is 16-1 (yes, thats the average…). So to get to the OECD average we would need to recruit 1/16 more teachers. Thats about 2800 extra primary school teachers. That can only be cost neutral if theres a plan to reduce the staff costs.
On secondary education we move to the big idea. Renua seem to think that the role of the second level school is to educate for the market.
First, self directed learning is not about CA. CA is an assessment philosophy. Self directed learning is a holistic educational approach. One wonders if there is any evidence underpinning the idea that SDL is appropriate for young teenagers? Sometimes people must just ‘know’ stuff. Self directed learning has a role but I suspect more so at upper levels and less than Renua think. Second, while CA is a good idea, there is again here the conflation of the LC with entry into college. I have written fairly extensively on how we can retain the LC and the points system while incorporating a whole pile of things we might want. Im not sure either that spreading the stress out over years is ipso facto better than concentrating it. Secondary school is not about getting into college. The LC is one mechanism for collegiate selection. Confusing the two doesnt help. Even Renua themselves admit that in their next section.
The LCA is not an apprenticeship system. A proper, structured, apprentice system requires a root and branch approach. It <GASP> requires employers and their representatives to commit to taking on students into the system, linked to but not dependent on one company, and to work with higher education (not second level) to ensure that students are both academically and professionally trained. Germany doesnt turn out highly skilled machinists from the Hochschule system. It does from the streaming via mid second level through a structured system to a ECTS based qualification. There is more than a whiff here from these paragraphs of an early stratification into academic and non academic. I would rather have the basic life and social skills required by all, and then when and if industry wants to train people, let them take the lead.
Oh, and league tables for Second level also. Hidden in the appendix we find 58 metrics which Renua will use and publish to determine how things are going
So, yeah, more league tables. Which will be of huge benefit to the parents in Cahersiveen, say, when they decide which school, Colaiste na Sceilge or Colaiste na Sceilge they will send their chile.
No, the cuts alone were not responsible for rankings falls. What Renua, and many, fail to understand is that the rankings are ordinal, not cardinal. If everybody else stays static bar one then the one will rise in the rankings. A careful examination of the underlying components of the rankings will reveal that in many areas irish universities have made massive improvements. The issue is that others, notably in Asia, have made more massive improvements. The big issues are staff-student ratios and the ability to retain key staff with high citation counts- these cost money.
Second, the dreary commercialisation of higher education drags iself into view again. The role of universities, say it, is NOT to educate for the marketplace. It is to educate. This is the Lavin theory of education in full rank bloom. People leave colleges at 21 or 22. They have about 45-50 years of working life ahead of them. Someone leaving college in 1964, when I was born, would have been outrageously illprepared for the workplace of 2016, in pure skill terms. What higher education does is not to teach skills, but to teach people how to learn skills and approaches to interrogating life and society. In many cases that is done very well by teaching skills, as an example of how to learn skills is useful when next one comes to do so. I took a course in programming in PL/1 in college. I have almost zero recall of what it was about. What it did do was give me the basic rudiments of good coding practice, which comes in handy when I do econometrics (although 95% of that now is done via drop down menu). Accountants learn double entry bookkeeping and records ; they don’t in professional work do that, its done via computerised systems, but the underlying skills of knowing how things go together is key. The problem with educational assessment is that the treatment (go to college, do a course taught in a particular way etc) is short but the effects very long. Theres a body of research on this if Renua are interested.
At least Renua admit the system is underfunded. So, how to sort that?
So, student loans, ok so far so soon to be standard practice. But reading on one gets the impression that Renua think that fees alone run the system. They dont. Far from it. In 2014 fees accounted for about 1/3 of all TCD income. Total income was €326m, of which €121m was fees, of which €41m was the ‘free fees’ which are inevitably to be replaced by loans. So about 12.5% of the total income of TCD was from free fees. Renua will however freeze this in real terms, so the inevitable result will be that over time all colleges will move to a much greater reliance on non-state funds.
Renua dont however believe in a balanced workforce in colleges. Far from it, they see the need to introduce separate streams of teaching intensive and research intensive (Morlocks and Eloi lets call them) across the board.
So.. Professor Pointyhead gets €1m from SFI or the ESF. Bye bye classroom. Meanwhile, Professor Furrowbrow doesn’t, and picks up Pointyhead’s teaching. Is that how it will work? Given that the overwhelming preponderance of available grant monies are in the STEM areas, this is a recipe for AHSS to become teaching intensive overnight. This is despite the fact that the AHSS areas are the ones in which Irish higher education excels! In TCD, and other colleges I know, up to 50% of the weight for the more junior appointments and promotions rests on teaching. The idea of teaching not being seen as important is as outdated as the ark. In any case, it makes little educational or pedagogic sense to keep the best professors out of the classroom. By all means, lets move to a teaching-intensive career path in higher education as a parallel to research. But intensive is not exclusive. Every teacher should be a researcher, every researcher a teacher. Let people specialise, when they have the basics of both demonstrated.
Renua also seem to have no knowledge of the research bases of much of the modern IoT sector.
So far as I am aware there is zero bar, at an institutional level, in IoT’s bidding alone or in consortia for research funds. The difficulty many IoT faculty face is that as they are in teaching-intensive roles they find it difficult first to find time to reach a level research playing field with others not so and second to find time to manage and run teams when and if they get same. What Renua may not be aware of is that it is quite common in large scale grants to build in funding to buy out a chunk of teaching time. This allows the IoT or other researcher the ability to devote a continuous block of time to a project. I have no idea what “aligned with start up incentives…” means here. Are IoT staff to be encouraged to do something? What? How is this different to the systems in place already? Why just IoT staff? Or is it?
On courses Renua have this to say.
This is gibberish. Literally. Are they saying in the first that they want to have less or more specialisation? do they want specialisation in general courses? Is this just an issue for IoT’s? As for duplication – why is competition a bad thing? In every other area its seen by Renua as good. Why is it uniquely bad here? Given that they see the role of the state in Higher Ed dwindling, what business is it of theirs anyhow? Are Renua aware of what is actually going on in colleges (dont all rush to answer)? Give that they want earlier to have people specialising in junior cert year to go academic or otherwise and if otherwise into a particular industry, if it can work for a 15y old cant it work for 18y old? It also again confuses the points system (a pricing mechanisim) with the higher education system (a set of interlocking products). Do Renua think that massification of generalist education delivery at higher education is the best, or just the cheapest way? Again, what evidence do they have on this?
Overall this is a massive MISS. One cannot but suspect that no education specialist was involved in this. If they were, they would be wise to keep their head down.