January 25, 2007

Wanted: A new vision for education

Posted in Ireland · 9 comments ·

The below is an edited extract from an address to be delivered at the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) later this week

What’s the single biggest factor affecting a child’s educational performance? International evidence suggests it is is parental participation. Children perform best when their parents are involved in their education.

So much for the fuss about school league tables. In fact, the research shows that the quality of a school has very little to do with one student doing well and another falling behind. Of course poverty, inequality, class sizes or lack of facilities are problems and can be contributing factors to a child’s lack of success but they are not at the very core of the issue. The home environment is crucial.

But parents, the architects of this home environment, are working more than ever. The CSO recently revealed that close to 60 per cent of women are working, as opposed to 43 per cent 10 years ago. Many of these women are
mothers, and fathers are not staying at home in great numbers. Many parents no longer have the time to juggle homework with commuting and a busy job.

Parental investment in children is waning across society. Richer parents can minimise the impact by buying their way out of trouble with grinds and expensive schools. But for those who can’t, we need to think of ways to minimise the impact on children’s education. This is important for a number of reasons.

First, the success of the State will be dependent on the brains of these children. If we can minimise the educational impact of a negative home environment, society will benefit in terms of welfare, prison and health costs later.

Second, this is not an issue that is going to contain itself. The CSO trends would indicate that the difficulties faced by parents and children are only going to get worse and in these situations, failure breeds failure.
Third, if we can ever afford to do something about this, we can afford to do it now.

Pouring money into reducing class sizes, providing resource teachers and equipment is not as effective as you might think. The problem is that by the time these measures kick in it’s far too late. Disparity in educational achievement between one child and another does not develop over a school career. It only widens.

If one child arrives in school able to read and another child of the same age doesn’t know how to open a book, the gap is already there. Early intervention in education is the key to minimising problems caused by a negative home environment. It is also a good way to involve parents who might not otherwise have become involved in their child’s education.

American research shows that investment in education pays for itself when it is done early. Believe it or not, the benefit-cost ratio of early intervention is measured at eight to one. Later measures such as resource teaching and reduction in class size are in no way as effective. The benefit decreases as the child gets older. The Jesuits – who advised getting them young – had the right idea.

So while the need for and benefits of early intervention are clear, let’s take a look at where we are at the moment.

In Ireland, we have made huge strides but there is still the problem of persistent underachievement in certain areas. Our investment in pre-primary education is negligible and our spending on primary and secondary education is well below the OECD average.

In the past number of years, we have been concentrating on the brains at the very high end of education. The Knowledge Economy is the favourite phrase of anybody, politician or otherwise, who is talking about investment in
education. The idea is that Ireland needs to cultivate a research and design industry in areas such as engineering, technology and science before the Chinese and others like them take all our manufacturing jobs. Thus we are currently focusing enormous amounts of money on fourth-level education in an effort to build an industry that will keep things going when all the multinationals leave.

It may make sense to those in charge. According to them, we’ll have a big head start on China and India and by the time those countries get their acts together, Ireland will have its high-end R&D industry up and running.

But what is the point in spending vast amounts of money on fourth level if we have whole sections of society that have no hope of getting there? What use are free third-level fees when the only people availing of them can afford to pay?

Simply, the State should invest more in the education of very young children to replace the lack of parental investment.

Existing Early Start programmes have been evaluated but have not been running for long enough for us to see the effect on the children’s progression to further education . A form of this intervention took place in Ireland in the 1970s. The Rutland Project was a pre-school programme that sought to introduce children to a school setting and it also involved parents in their children’s education. The findings of the programme were interesting, in that any immediate advantage that the children in the programme had on entering school dissipated within three years.

However, the benefits of the programme came to the fore later on when it was found that the participants were far more likely to go on and achieve formal educational qualifications. Again, evidence from the US shows that early
intervention in pre-schools for poor children and more active teaching of the very young yields enormous benefits. Invest money in PhD students as we are doing and the rate of return falls completely.

So where’s the problem? Why are we so reluctant to have a real vision in education? There are two main problems as I see it. First, the political problem. Long-term gains don’t interest political parties that are up for re-election next year. There are few votes in a strong vision for the longer term.

Second, the teacher unions. If teachers are pushing for radical change in educational investment or policy, their case would be stronger if they were serious about delivering the best possible education to Irish students. But they are still much too defensive about under-performing teachers. And that undermines their wider credibility as agents for change with the general public.

  1. >

    … then it’s surprising that the Labour Party has, in fact, made early education a centrepiece of its political platform – and particularly surprising that you weren’t aware of this, given the extensive media coverage of the Labour Party’s stance detailed in Michael Taft’s lengthy response to your article: http://notesonthefront.typepad.com

  2. Cathal Dunne

    Two things which I suggest as being effective ways of raising the bar with regards to educational achievement on a nation-wide basis would be the introduction of more TY-type learning approaches to second level and the investment in privately run but publicly funded creches/montessoris.

    Transition Year(TY) was an amazing year in my life as a student. It advanced my people, organisational and group-work skills in ways no year in secondary had done before. These skills are essential to working well in science labs where you will be working in groups on strains of bacteria and groups of molecules. Organisational skills are also essential if you want a management-type position. People skills are very important in services, PR and marketing jobs.

    Because I acquired that basic skill-set, these positions are less of a challenge for me to enter into. This is why I believe the TY idea of doing group projects, engaging in group activities and doing things like the Gaisce President’s Award during TY have an incredible impact of making you much more capable in of operating in the 21st Century.

    On the other end, I believe a suitable way of laying the ground-work for all that independent learning in TY is through the provision of funding to private individuals to set up a web of montessori-type ‘play schools’ around the country. Basics in English, Irish, Maths and a foreign language can be taught in order to make sure that all are well grounded in education as they go into primary level. Equally it can address problems to do with people having an unequal start in life and containing drop-out rates.

  3. Dan Hayes

    David & Co.:

    The single biggest factor affecting a child’s educational performance is (dare not speak its name) IQ. Everything else is seconardy – and I mean way, way secondary.

    When you mention American studies, are you referring to the Head Start Program? There, whatever progress was made, quickly dissipated within a few years.

    It’s all Mendel’s Peas (a.k.a., genetics).

    All in all I think that you have given a sober and realistic assessment of education – with one notable and glaring exception!


  4. SpinstaSista

    If we don’t catch ourselves on in Ireland the future generation will be left behind in the jobs market. As everyone knows, the competition is getting tougher.

    Our children need to be taught foreign languages (not just Irish), maths and science. If these core subjects are taught properly at a young age Irish people will be more likely to opt for science and technology based degrees in the future. It is a shame that so many of us can only speak English when most of immigrants can speak at least two languages. We will have to catch up in this area.

    However, no matter how much money is invested in education, and no matter how good teachers are, children will learn very little if they don’t go to school with a proper breakfast. .

    Commuting means that parents find it harder to get their children into a good school and have longer to travel to work themselves. It is difficult for parents under this kind of pressure to persuade their children to eat a proper breakfast before school.

    If teachers are dealing with the fallout of children who are rushed to school without breakfast, how are they supposed to perform at an optimum level and get good results from their charges?

    I know people who used to say that Ireland was a good place to raise children, but they have changed their minds in the last few years.

  5. Margaret

    Gosh. That’s a pretty long limb to go out on Dan (letter above): IQ? And where now, is your source for that kind of info?

    Nice article Daivid. Watch out for those labour lads though!

  6. John O'Connell

    >Simply, the State should invest more in the education of very young children to replace
    >the lack of parental investment.

    The State should *first* stop funding feminist policies that:
    a) prevent men from staying in their own home with their own
    children (thus preventing any posibility of teaching them);
    b) prevent men from becoming primary school teachers
    (thus re-inforcing feminist policies) and

    c) using the criminal justice system to extort money from men
    making it impossible for them to make any substantial
    contribution to their childrens education.

    (and keep up the good analysis work)


  7. Philip Murtagh

    I only managed to catch up on your wonderful site after a few months and this education article caught my eye.
    I think the thesis on focusing on primary education is a very solid one. The current belated scramble for a foot hold on R&D shows a remarkable ignorance of the dynamics industrial development and the history of R&D in other countries. Such ignorance risks damaging the very foundation of what makes a country at the end of the day…i.e. the kids!!

    Let me demolish the R&D Scramble nonsense going on at present. There is an underlying assumption that R&D is something which if “bought” can be kept here to the detriment of our honoured asian and eastern european friends and can somehow reverse the damaging impact of manufacturing outsourcing. i.e. R&D is just a high end commercial exercise, for making hi end widgets/ services. Er…I hate to tell you this…our asian, polish, etc friends are just as clever in this game and are way ahead of us already…by centuries. Go to any of these countries and you’ll find a rich applied hands-on culture and history in heavy engineering, power utilities (nukes included). If you want to buy a good fundamentals book in maths, materials science etc. you’ll find it’ll be written by a xxski or a xxxov or some Chinese/ Indian sounding name. When a lad comes out with a first degree in science or engineering, there’s solid related intellectual work for them to do. Not so in Ireland.

    There’s a tendency here to confuse affluent bling with baseline industrial capability. I claim the latter is the fundamental lack in Ireland because we lack the history, vision etc which our competitor countries have within their borders. China, Russia, Poland and even India are the “HiComs” to borrow your concept and globalise if I may. They have the stuff we simply cannot buy. They can leverage R&D by virtue of their history in HARD science and technology possibly as a result of their history as military powers/ large populations which financed the original vision making their nations great. Bear with me here, because I am not saying that all worked out well for them, or that the result was necessarily and fundamentally good. But I do claim it has put them way way ahead in R&D. I claim R&D is a cultural/ national attribute more than anything else. Think of it, Russian Optics, Germany Engineering, US Electronics, Swiss Watches. What I do observe is that their capability was put in place generations ago and it has not gone away. In Ireland we educated people to work for MNCs as really skilled operatives and factory managers/ administrators. The aflfuence resulting from such FDI and from the low interest rates powered up the building sector and accompanying support services. As you’ve implied, our education system with the assist of working parents of the 60s was to provide the necessary fuel to make this possible. The problem now is that we run the danger of both running out of fuel and wasting too much time getting a better bang out of the fuel we have left. The Pope’s children want their kids to be more like those benefiting from the boom (as in Builders, Solicitors, Accountants and other non-outsourcable activities) and less like the techies/ nerds etc. who actually fired up the whole thing in the first place. Science and Tech (S&T) was seen by the working folks of the 60s as the means to getting this place in order. Bright sparks who were interested in S&T left the country or simply became managers/ administrators or overskilled operatives. Government (whose cross section must be the worst in the developed world in terms of S&T representation) only saw the money, but did not understand the capability. They saw and still see S&T as operative in nature. I actually witnessed one of our esteemed leaders addressing an SFI conference some years ago admitting (innocently) his ignorance of how we do this magic and make money out of it and he told us, just keep at it – not realising that he was sending a message of patronising disinterest in this techy area. They harvested it without understanding what put it there (i.e. a higher than average intellectual class of teachers who really could not put their mind to anything else at the time during the 50s, 60s and 70s).

    I believe we are in a lot of trouble now. The demand for S&T 3rd level is at a record low because kids are not stupid. They know (from their pre-Pope Children Parents) that the jobs just get outsourced and that the career path is limited. Recent trends in centralisation in MNCs reinforce this. Even if they do come in, it’ll just be for the tax benefit and cheaper smart workers. The guys doing the lead work as a research scientist , IT specialist will be at the HQ in another country – it’ll be they enhancing their careers, not the lacky in Ireland. One could say we should get entrepreneurial skills going…but let’s be honest, I think our IQ is no better than anywhere else in that regard. We need S&T fuel and we have through our idiotic policies of the last decade let it dwindle dangerously. We have substituted vision for reactionary market forces and our Polish, Chinese, Indian friends will just use this place as an oversized golf links in years to come if we are not careful.

    The best policy now in my humble/radical?! opinion is to get old engineers and scientists to start teaching at primary and secondary level. Get those few educated S&T HiComs back into the classrooms and engender in kids an enthusiasm from a person with the credibility and real applied knowledge. The teacher we now have for maths and science are not great and have no cred (My experience – the bright guys emigrated or became doctors etc I do not know). We are in an interesting time where the limits of consumerism may be encountered due to climate change and where Ireland could become an even more attractive place to live in (let’s be positive but not exclusionist about that). R&D investment should focus not on commercial immediacies, but on national look ahead on real “out of the box” planning which we stick to like glue – and in the meantime let’s level the tax incentive playing pitch so Irish SMEs can get the same bite of the cherry as MNCs (with some carefully designed strings attached) to tide us over the bumps which will be shortly arriving (in my opinion) to a time when we can leverage our new capability in 10 to 15 years time – an Island of Saints and Scientists for all to listen to.

    Rgds Philip

  8. Philip Murtagh

    Just a little addendum on above. I realise the point of my post may look off to the side somewhat.

    I think we cannot and should not blame parents for poor educational performance. I believe the vast majority of them work very hard for their kids.

    I have a jaundiced view of parents being more involved in educating kids. A nice idea which parks the blame away from governmental policy and an my observation/ feeling that teaching has actually got worse. Parents have to work hard and commute long hours etc.

    There is also the undeniable fact that not all are capable of going to 3rd level. However, I worry that 3rd level institutions are trying to popularise their courses in an attempt to grab revenue and quality of intake filtering and resulting graduate output may suffer.

    And this goes back to my previous note on R&D, Culture etc.
    Rgds Philip

  9. Phelim

    I was impressed with your article even though it is stating what is blindingly obvious to anyone outside of Ireland. But you did miss a number of important points. Your conclusions are pretty lightweight. Firstly, you refer to that old cliche, the under performing teacher, but teachers are a school resource just rooms, equipment and support systems. Yet the central thesis of your article is that resources pumped into schools don’t have much effect. Which is it David? To paraphrase yourself, populist union-bashing undermines your case as an agent for social change

    Secondly, blaming people’s aversion to long term thinking is so vague as to be meaningless. You actually got to the answer in your article but like all free-market economists you couldn’t say the dirty word: class. It may be that as you say the entire society would gain from early learning interventions by the State but it would not benefit everybody equally (something you hint at). The rich would gain comparatively less from your ideas and more from heavy investment at fourth level. This is a well known international phenomenon. For example, Brazil which has one of the most skewed income distributions in the world, spends far too much at 3rd level and very little at early education. Ireland, like Brazil, is run by and for rich people. Genuinely social democratic nations do the opposite … because they aren’t. Amartya Sen got the Nobel gong for pointing that the primary cause of famine was political failure. My guess is that thesis could be generalised to a lot of so-called ‘economic’ failures.

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