August 27, 2008

It's time to get education right -- the rest will follow

Posted in Ireland · 37 comments ·

When the Georgian Olympic women’s beach volleyball pair came out for their showdown with Russia last week, there was more at stake than simply sport. While most coverage focused on the political side to the clash, one other interesting development was playing itself out. Both girls were Brazilian. They were not recruited because they are Georgian or members of the Georgian émigré community. However, they were good and available at the right price: they are mercenary athletes.

This year’s Olympics were marked by a rise of the mercenary athlete. By the time the London Olympics come around, the mercenary athlete is likely to be a well-entrenched, possibly not well-loved, feature.

In the past two weeks, American commentators have become extremely agitated by the sight of US athletes lining out for Russia and Germany. This is a bit rich as the US was the first country to practise the habit of ‘naturalising’ brilliant foreign sportsmen and women and making Americans out of them.

Our interest here is not the moral, ethical or indeed nationalistic credentials of the mercenary athlete, but the notion that what we are seeing in the Olympics is part of a wider pattern. As the world becomes more globalised, top talent will move to where it is in most demand.

And as a result, migration patterns are likely to change dramatically over the coming years. Only the very brilliant and the very destitute will migrate. The very brilliant will go so that they, like the mercenary athletes, can compete at the highest level. The very destitute will leave because they have been shut out of ever earning a living in their home towns. For the former, the gravitational force is more pull than push; for the latter it is more push than pull.

This pattern is repeated in many areas. For example, when I was doing the Leaving Cert, it was practically unheard of for an Irish school child to aspire to go to the likes of Cambridge. Our world view, if we were going to college, was limited to universities in Ireland. In contrast, these days it is commonplace for bright Irish children to go to Oxford or Cambridge, Stanford or Harvard as undergraduates.

The reasoning is simple: Harvard is, by repute, the best university in the world and why shouldn’t the best Irish children go there? The implication of this is that, far from the world being flat, as argued by many proponents of globalisation, there is a natural tendency for the opposite to be the case. There is now an inbuilt dynamic where the best universities, hospitals and companies will get even better talent and thus will have a huge comparative advantage over the others.

If this is so, the countries whose talents are seen to be the best, the most cutting edge and offering the best opportunities will also get the lion’s share of mobile talent. It is a cliché to talk about a global talent war, but it does seem to be true. To get the best people and to prevent your own best people from leaving, a country has to benchmark itself against other countries across a whole variety of indicators.

The most fundamental indicator, indeed the cornerstone of any country’s social policy, must be education. If you can educate the most people possible to the highest level possible, then everything else will follow. In the week before our political parties gather for their annual think-ins, it would be refreshing if this fundamental principle were embedded in every speech, every press release and every initiative.

At the moment we are slipping way back. Our universities talk about creating ‘world-class fourth-level institutions’, yet they hardly employ any foreign academics. How can you be the best in the world if you don’t fish in the talent pool of the best in the world? Our failures seem to be across the board. For example, according to the Irish Primary Principal Network — an organisation representing the principals of our primary schools — most state primary schools have to fund raise from parents every year just to keep the heating on in the winter. Anyone reading this who has a child with learning difficulties will also know that getting any extra help is extremely difficult and is usually something that you end up having to do on your own.

Furthermore, our curriculum needs to be constantly monitored, re-jigged and changed. A company would not offer the same training to its employees in 2008 as it did in 1988. Such a company would have collapsed years ago. We simply need to keep up with the times. How can we create a flexible, creative workforce if we have a rigid, unyielding education system? If the main obstacles to change are insiders, such as the teachers’ unions, these people must be persuaded to adapt. We need to drive home the fact that once a country gets education right, so much else falls into place.

Ireland has many natural advantages and the Irish have an ability to be creative and entrepreneurial. Our education system isn’t bad at all if you are one of the 70pc who do the Leaving Cert, but we are leaving far too many behind. The social cost alone of these underachievers is enormous, irrespective of where you stand on issues of equity and fairness.

If you doubt the connection between education and other indicators, look at the leaders in the OECD Pisa tests for education and then examine the countries and cities ranked highest on a broad range of quality-of -life indicators and we see an almost complete overlap.

In a world of mercenary athletes/students/computer programmers where talent moves to where it can find the best opportunity and the best blend of career and lifestyle, education is the most crucial foundation.

Let’s hope that the downturn serves to focus the minds of our political class on this big picture. Let’s hope that next week when they sit down for their think-in, that they try to consider Ireland’s place in the world. Do we want to be the best and compete or do we want to settle for less? Ireland must choose.

  1. Garry

    “Do we want to be the best and compete or do we want to settle for less? Ireland must choose.”

    Great question. we seem to be choosing a third way, settling for less whilst kidding ourselves it’s the best. We mock other countries tendency towards insularism, yet our behaviour is comparable and indeed has more serious consequences for us as we rely on international trade more than they do. Take sport as an example; witness the rise in marketing/corporate spend behind the All Irelands or even the club championships vs. the lack of sponsorship/support/recognition for our world class athletes.
    Or our education system, we are constantly reminded we have the best system in the world, yet we know that while it is good, there is serious room for improvement.

    We seem to either think were the best or the worst at stuff. We’re neither, we’ve got a lot going for us, but we need to keep looking for improvements.

  2. Philip

    Excellint article as usual. Diddo to John H’s link.

    It’s like the result of putting an emulsified liquid thro’ a centrifuge. We’ll have layers from most to least talented – a dystopian future (not unlike Huxley’s brave new world) of hi-tech and market driven feudalism/eliteism. And I think there’s grounds for thinking it’s getting worse – we could have a few countries or secure islands where there may be only 30-40% employment (just for the elites) and others where this will be far far worse. The next question will be …How do we keep the 50-70% continiously unemployed under control?

    Ireland cannot compete in this open/ global educational environment. It simply does not have the cash. Indeed the notion of education coupled with global competition for bright minds destroys the universality of bringing light to all and reinforces old elitist forms on thinking based on what is basically a fascist doctrine. The US has many of the best universities and yet, its public education system to the masses is a relative disaster. As they say over there…go figure.

    The media (probably the best generator of designer truth there is) needs controlling – and we need to stop worring about porno etc. I have no idea how to approach it, but I feel we need ensure people are not always pulled out of “real-time” context with their local community. McLuhan, Postman and others have described the effects all too well. What David is describing is a talent/ fame rat-race driven by the media rather than by the local need and by what those people in themselves feel they want.

    Those who are subject to the highest level of media distraction/disruption will be english language speakers. Those who have their own languages will be harder to access with a consistant message and will be the more rebust in the long term. In a sense we are over communicating and disrupting critical thinking and possibly damaging culture. Look at the international exam scores – english speakers are rubbish.

    Ever notice how teenager performance at their studies suffer in the proximity of TV and the Internet?

    I may sound like a close minded indoctrinated nationalist – who know’s maybe I am…but unless we start to understand the new world we have of communication, media, culture and language – we are completely wasting our time. And I wholly support getting Irish into the head of every person living on this Island – pity that the Irish elite here do not see it the same way and want the opposite judging by their education methods for that great language.

  3. Fergal

    Oh wouldn’t it be fine. The problem is that the Irish elect politicians without an eye for generational change. The delivery timeframe is always the next election.

    I fully agree with DMcW, get education right and everything will follow – but it might take 30 years. Oh for a politician with the foresight, the party behind them and an electorate that voted with their brains and not their hearts.

    Philip, you’re right, what David describes is a talent-driven rat race. His point is that that is becoming the new world reality. That is the race in which we must compete – like it or not. We can be at or near the front of the race, or we can be at the back. I’d like to be at the front. The back will consist of countries with failing infrastructure, little inward investment and will suffer from a feedback loop, where the best will leave because they can.

    If you want Irish in the head of every person, you’re doomed to fail in that goal. It should not be a compulsory requirement for the the main universities. At 15 I’d figured out I was learning the language for nationalistic reasons with which I disagreed. I still got a ‘B’ at higher level, but I hated every moment of learning the language with its mind-numbing curriculum of Peig and Toraiocht Diarmada Agus Grainne. Maths – yes, mandatory, you need some basic level of maths. English – ditto. Irish? If you love it learn it, if not, and you’d rather do Applied Mathematics, French, Spanish, Art, then do them. I’m not advocating pure utilitarianism, only that our ideals should not not be sullied by pointless romanticism of days gone by when the Irish spoke Irish. One of the reasons Ireland is wealthy BECAUSE the English invaded us and we learned the language (or it was forced on us). American investment in Ireland is partly based on the fact that we speak English!

    We’ve ridden the EU wave and the English-language wave, we need a stronger focus on education to deliver the next wave.

  4. Malcolm McClure

    David: It’s very timely to write about education at the start of the new school year. Parents are staggering home carrying expensive parcels containing new school uniforms, books and other educational paraphernalia. You have their attention as they wince at the cost of pushing wee Seamus yet another step towards his golden goals.
    Yet, though you headline It’s time to get education right , you offer scant guidance about how this should be done. – that if Seamus wants a really good education, his ambition should be Harvard, Oxford or the Cambridge tripos. And if he’s slated to attend a small rural school he’ll need to bring a few turf in his schoolbag to keep the place warm? You emphasize required improvement of facilities in universities but lament that 30% of school leavers don’t reach leaving standard level.
    You omit to mention solutions like smaller classes, modern buildings, more specialist teachers at every level. And more technical institutes teaching plumbing, electrical, building trades, mechanics, architectural draftsman, dressmaking and beautician trades, the sorts of skills that are always welcome everywhere?
    Maybe Oxbridge is the right place for a few people with quick minds, but many of those who emerge from there often lack common sense, and are fitted best for a similar academic hothouse environment. They are the orchids, as opposed to the spuds of the vegetable world; saprophytes best suited to be admired and perpetuate their own kind rather than contribute much that is useful to the man in O’Connell Street.

  5. Johnny Dunne

    The budget for the Department of Education (and Science) is €9.3 billion for 2008 – that’s up ‘300%’ since Bertie’s government was elected for a 2nd time in 2002. With less than 1 million pupils across all 3 levels of publicly funded education, equivalent to nearly €10k per student or € ¼ million per class. There must not be another country in the world which spends as much per student/pupil – I’d say we are ‘gold medal’ winners when it comes to spend. The key challenge for Batt O’Keefe is to allocate this ‘scarce’ tax payers money efficiently so we give everyone an opportunity get the right education.

    There is a lot of ‘media’ talk about investment in the ‘knowledge economy’ in the Education sector but not enough focus on developing a ‘world class’ cluster of companies so these students can realise their potential in sustainable careers. We need more companies in Ireland to harness this talent.

    “A company would not offer the same training to its employees in 2008 as it did in 1988”. We are spending more so we should not be offering companies the same ‘package’ as we did back in ‘80s when the likes of Microsoft, Dell and Intel came to Ireland. We need commercial skills as much as Masters.

    Why can’t these “think-ins” come up with a ‘plan’ to ensure Ireland can sustain the next generation of companies, develop new businesses and attract more MNCs competing and winning in a global market ?

  6. Wessel

    Excellent article!

    There appears to be two strategies to “play” the talent game. To nurture talent at base and to attract talent. Both could be pursued.

    Most comments relate to nuturing talent. My 2 cents: Going high up in the chain (thus creating a significant 4th level base) requires more own resources, more creativity/flexibility and critically, a sustained political will to invest with low initial returns (e.g. setting up research and development “supply”). This may be unattainable. A way-off alternative (not claiming it to be my idea!) could be to promote Ireland to US private educational institutions as a base for their European satellite campuses.

    We could however re-assess our policies re technological education, i.e. the development of our Institutes of Technology. In stead of benchmarking against Oxbridge, it is the MITs, Caltech, Georgia Tech, Swiss Federal and the Indian Institutes of Technology that should matter. The latter is a major factor in the prominence that Indian technologists gained world-wide and it is no co-incidence that the Indian government is targeting a rapid expansion of the number of IITs. The bottom line? Significantly up the funding for our ITs and reduce funding for liberal arts… (tough choices).

    The strategy which we could push here and now is to make Ireland more attractive for “mercenary” talent. The Irish state agencies played a blinder in the late 90′s early 2000′s with road shows world-wide seeking talent before local fears on immigration took hold. Thoughts on how we could regain the initiative?

  7. mishko

    Great article, David.

    @Fergal, l agree with you on learning Irish. I found all the time spent doing this should have been better spent on more useful subjects.
    I wonder today how much better many of us would be at maths or science or French if all that time had not been spent on Irish.
    Parents can find other ways of instilling a love for the original mother tongue if they choose. Start a rethink by making it an optional subject at school.

    @Wessel: nurturing talent at base and attracting talent can apply to school-teacher supply too. Why not attract more teachers from other countries? Chinese folk to teach Manadarin is one example, once a major revision of the curriculum has been carried out as David suggests (though I don’t agree it should be constantly changed, except for small details). Get the curriculum right now for the next 18 or so years, i.e the next generation.

    I’ve been away from Ireland a long time, but I am a teacher and have been since 1970, so I like to offer my 2 cents:

    a) Go to Finland to find out why they always are at the top of the PISA test results; come back with details of their teacher-training and teaching methods, especially in Maths and Science. Implement them.
    b) Increase the number of secular single-sex schools; they can mix educationally at college level.
    c) Have more high-schools (last 3 years of secondary), specialising in science and technology, and also more vocational schools for the 30% who don’t do the Leaving.
    d) Involve the media in the curriculum rewrite. This may require a major upheaval at RTE (God forbid), but TV and the internet can encourage a lot of creativity if done in the right way. Include distance learning for the people far from the major towns.
    e) Include creative thinking in the new programme. Edward de Bono is a possible start, but probably someone in Ireland could do better.
    f) If nothing much is being done as the economy falters more, get a new Minister of Education!

    David , you wrote in a previous article:
    “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.” For sure this is true, and it doesn’t mean parents should throw lots more cash at education and grind their kids into a stupor, as they do here in Korea. They should sit down with their kids regularly and talk with them about interesting parts of their lessons. At least at primary level we still know as much as them in some fields, and after that they might get a kick out of informing us. OK, teens will always be teens, but at least most young parents are internet-savvy these days and could become involved in learning from the new multi-media curriculum.

    Apologies if some of these things have been done already! In the last analysis I don’t think we can copy other cultures like the Chinese
    or even the Finns too much, as our mentality is different; but at least their experiences can improve the details in some ways for us.

  8. MK

    Hi David,

    Yes, education is an important part of our talent creation, our creation of capability and our competitiveness. As has been pointed out, improving our education systems is a long-term project (30+ years) and needs constant attention (every 5 years!). By many benchmarks, we may not be doing that bad in global terms with our current education system. But of course it has faults. Big ones. Our report would be “must try harder”.

    In terms of strategy though, we have options. We can aim to create an improvement in our base levels or else improve the median/average levels, or we can also pursue elitism ala Harvard. We can aim to do all 3. We can “export” the talent that we create, which is of little benefit, or we can set-up our place to be attractive to talent from abroad and from home.

    I do agree that like some atheletes there can be talent attraction and mercenery-ism going on. However, by and large the vast cogs of the economy are not based on importing/buying talent to get jobs done. In fact, for most its a race to the bottom. That why minimum wages are needed. Companies move their operations where there is capability. Cheap capability. Cheap capability to companies is a talent. Ask any Wal-Mart buyer who has been getting goods in from China. They do not move the people.

    Nor is lots of talent needed for most parts of the economy. It is 99% percent drudgery out there. Believe me. Okay, 95% then! ;-) Think of all the things you need in your daily life, the CSO basket of goods is a good example for all of us. Think of how that is supplied. Think how much talent is needed. You will find not much.

    Yes, we need a better education system. Yes, the Teachers and Lecturers and the dept are holding us back. They’re not too worried though. They just want to get home and get paid. They are not measured on educational performance. There is no ‘pay per play’, no mercenaries or talent attracted when it comes to teachers. There is some internationalisation when it comes to 3rd level, but some of that is for the sake of it, not necessarily better talent.

    I also dont think that talent needs to come from abroad. We do have smart enough people in this country. I just think that many of them are blinded by their own laziness or that of their peers and are just looking after themselves. There are few willing to make sacrifices in time and energy and even money to be change agents. Most are going with the flow. Its the culture, its systemic. Changing that is a big project and will take decades.


  9. Philip

    Folks, the reason for my Pro Irish stance is that I firmly believe we as a nation will always find it difficult to think for ourselves independent of other cultural influences. Call it a cultural “quite space”. I think the current training & upskilling in Irish competency is a disaster and I utterly empathise with the mindnumbing effects of having to suffer Peig. If any of you saw the series on comedian Des Bishop learning his Irish, I think you’ll see what I mean.

    Like many on this board I have spent many years living around Europe and I know how the english language is locked out and how locatised yet equally if not more sophisticated the cultures are. The Germans, French, Japanese etc have arguably THE BEST infrastructure in the world – did they need to speak mardarin or english or urdu? Do they still need to? Answer: Maybe a few sales guys…no more. Language is not merely a means of communicating data. It is a conveyor of ideas and when you start thinking in that language, you find many day to day concepts simply do not translate to other tongues. So when you dump a language, you are actually dumping concepts and ways of thinking and therefore the basis for the original culture to exist. For that reason, I believe Irish (which is actually one of the most compact languages in terms of words per idea) should not be dismissed. I have yet to meet a fluent Irish speaker who was not utterly fluent in English – Irish does not hamper education…that is not to say that the way it’s taught is not causing educational problems (which I believe it is). As Anglophones we are doomed to mimic US and UK mindsets and standards – which as cultures have the poorest averages in educational attainment and infrestructure development.

    In my opinion. one only has to listen to our mostly inarticulate political leaders to know they are hampered in some manner. I think they are using a language that is misaligned to their way of thinking. I am being charitable perhaps – but I think there something in this. Is there a Naom Chomsky among ye that could comment/demolish?

    Getting back to David’s Article on educational attainment etc. He points to the talent rat race and the fact that this race means we could get left behind. Totally agree. However, implicit in the article is the argument that we may need Oxbridge, MIT types drolling and crosslinking with our campuses in ireland is to have global street cred – I utterly disagree. Pop star academia is a distraction and does little to understand why kids here are having crap average results in maths science etc. and will add nothing to getting this problem sorted.

    And with all due respect to parents (vis a vis support) , I doubt few will be able to help their darling thro’ their 5th year physics homework doing a simple little ballistics calculation applying newtons laws of motion. And paying for private cramming sessions is not open to many parents either. And yet, we are spending a massive amount per head on education – most of which is paying for studies and box ticking bureaucratic nonsense than ensuring teachers are competent and can interact and lead kids. Look at the average teacher…more and more of their work is admin focused. Restrictive practices etc all take their toll. Education system is a complete mess heading to a HSE like nightmare.

    I am also struck by the emphasis of relevance over excellence in education. The market says we need more computer science qualified folks…kids pile in and 4-5 years later you have loads of them and a year or two later they get outsourced and most of them are on part time work. This is American/ UK anglophone thinking at its worst. We should focus on a small number of disciplines that provide the broadest range of success. Good Science grads (for example) can be employed anywhere – accountancy, law, sales, building etc. They are equipped with critical thinking skills for fast adaption to the company need. That was what made ireland so attractive initially, the guys you got were well rounded. And we need to maintain this high quality generality because the world is changing too fast to make predictions of more than 2-3 years away.

    I am not surpised that the Finns, Koreans etc are the best are the 3 Rs. They suffer less anglophone distraction. Face it, maths, science etc. (in spite of the pop star glamour afforded by the Hawkings etc of this world) is hard and turgid stuff that needs a lot of concentration and zero distraction. Nerds are not called nerds for nothing! A lot of kids are left to the whims of the Internet and TV at a vulnerable time in their lives driven by equally distracted parents who believe their kids should be pop stars – is it any wonder we have issues!

  10. Joe H.

    Its not about the Gaeilge lads .. I “use” Irish a lot more day by day than say I calculate the Doppler effect, yet no one would suggest dropping Physics.

    The same arguments were made about dropping Greek and Latin, yet did people go on to learn French, Italian, German. Spanish as a result …

    Learning the Irish language is worthwhile as education though not a training (unless you become a teacher).

    And who understands this? Step forward once again those PISA garlanded Finns. Even though only 5per cent of the Finns are ethnic Swedes, the whole country has to learn Swedish. Yet though they all manage to learn English as well.

    The issue as correctly identified is that is money is allocated to education but the service not delivered. To know the reasons for that would be interesting.

  11. mishko

    @Philip: “one only has to listen to our mostly inarticulate political leaders to know they are hampered in some manner. I think they are using a language that is misaligned to their way of thinking.”

    Ah come on now, Philip, surely no one would claim that Behan or Synge or Yeats or Keane or O’Casey used language in a way misaligned to their way of thinking. More likely their way of thinking reconstructed English to suit their purposes. You are being too charitable to our politicians, I fear, for such a freedom is surely open to them too. If your observations of them are correct, then I believe they must be lacking in some other department. Chomsky believes in a universal grammar which we all have at birth and which we then build on largely according to our environment. So, if we agree with him, – and not everyone does – then at birth our future rulers like everyone else were blessed with a level playing field linguistically. What happened after that may have been regrettable, due to some excesses or deprivations maybe, but not those of the English language.

    I would also take issue with you on the idea that Finns, Koreans etc. perform better as they suffer less anglophone distraction. Koreans certainly get too much media distraction, but most of it is in Korean – don’t know about the Finns. As something like 90% of all scientific papers are published in English, let’s agree that English is seriously useful as a lingua franca, regardless of the cultural froth which might have originated in the USA but has now invaded nearly all other cultures in their own languages. Most Korean students would love to speak English like we do, just to become more active and employable in international science or business. We English-speakers are so lucky to have this head start, although I do agree we were unfortunate in some ways to lose Irish as a mother-tongue.

  12. Philip

    @Mishko – Fully agree with all you say. Educated / Intelligent Irishmen have best mastery possibly of english there is. Youve hit Chomsky’s point on the head. It is a level playing pitch and english dominiates it and as a result dominates global thinking. But english is far from being a universal grammar. It just dominates. I think this is dangerous for developing minds where some level of message management is needed at the early stages. But I probably am way out of line here. I an just chancing my arm here.

  13. Philip

    Interesting heavy read (for me) link reviewing Chomsky’s book on mis-education..

    It’s not just a matter of throwing money at it…media, power of information etc are all wrapped up in it and one could easily make things a lot worse just following the rat race. Basically, I do not trust the Dept of Education or any other associated sector trying to rip off hard pressed parents of their hard earned euros for false promises.

  14. Excellent Article here David ,
    No argument with you on this one !. A solid education system is fundamental to our economy, whether or not the T.U.I or I.N.T.O. would agree to change is though another thing. They would probably have to be financially compensated and would no doubt request more ‘teacher in house training days’ and for sure more time off to assess their work load. We can only hope some one within the educational department will take note before their up coming think in .

  15. mishko

    Philip, that’s a very interesting link. Like the writer, I think Chomsky can be a bit too paranoid and biassed to the Left, but at the same time he acts as a good counter to the neo-cons. As I understand it, Chomsky has always been at pains to underline how the powers-that-be influence the thinking of those they govern, including through the education system. It will therefore be interesting to see how he reacts to Obama’s education policies. And of course it would also be interesting to see what he thinks of Fianna Fail’s education policies.

    But to be honest, as a teacher a lot of this leaves me cold. For four years I saw what curriculum and materials design by Communists in Czechoslovakia and Romania tried to do. I didn’t like it any more than the students I was teaching did. But there was plenty of scope for guerrilla-tactics at the chalkface and informally outside the classroom. You can’t fool young people for very much of the time.

    So if there is a hidden agenda being passed on to our youth by the “FF/RTE/INDO machine”, then the time to “deconstruct” it might be when a new curriculum is introduced, one based on a new coherent philosophy worked out by experts in each subject rather than a dominant mindset borrowed from politics.

    I think Sir Keith Joseph, for all his quirks, did a pretty good job of this when they designed the National Curriculum in the UK. But Ireland can do better. Do we need a Thatcher to get it going? Chomsky would not approve. But without a new curriculum, supported by the unions (yes maybe a Thatcher is necessary!), one designed with the aid of teachers and business leaders too, I can’t see anything much changing apart from the economy, in the wrong direction.

  16. VincentH

    You are asking the Uni’s to do way too many things, most of which they do very well indeed. And if you will find that most have MA or and PhDs from the very places you refer.
    Most of the time the Uni is dreaming up Hdips and MA’s for a employer who does not need the employee to hold and are little more than a weeding indicator for CV’s.
    It is time for exact goals, for each and every aspect. And defined budgets for those aspects.
    It may then become clear where and why along with the what of things. Lovely as it is to follow a Mace -and such a pity we have not made a few of our own after 90 years. We have an excellent example, found at Newgrange, and no harm at in there being two.- a tradition which is fairly harmless. But some traditions act as a brake. And some of the new accounting methods are patently insane, notional room rent, FGS.

  17. VincentH

    ‘And if you will find that most have MA or and PhDs from the very places you refer.’
    Should read, ‘And you will find that most have MA or and PhDs from the very places you refer’.

  18. Philip

    @mishko. I too think there is no real hidden agenda or conspiracy other than perhaps the odd harebrained marketing scam coming from some MNC to customise footers with logos on student not paper. Young people are too smart – as you say. Neither do I think there is any spooky FF/RTE/Indo agenda other than the usual marketing hookery – which is fair.

    My main concern centres around the 13-17 yr olds who have the max brain power but the poorest judgement. They need very careful management or we run out of good stock for the 3rd and 4th levels. Maybe it is not a curriculum issue – rather it is a case of getting them to focus and this will not happen where there is so much distraction by our now pervasive media (unintentionally it must be said). The reason I believe it is damaging the english speaking groups more readily than anyone else is simply becasue the media is now english dominated and the ratio of good to rubbish content is near zero. Maybe you are right…”a new coherent philosophy worked out by experts in each subject rather than a dominant mindset borrowed from politics.” AND media alike.

  19. MK

    Philip> I have yet to meet a fluent Irish speaker who was not utterly fluent in English – Irish does not hamper education…

    I have met several people from the gaeltacht that didnt have any english, never mind fluent english, so there goes your theory. Granted they were old and that was a few years ago, but they did exist. And not that very long ago gaeltacht people emigrated to the UK and were severly hampered by not having enough english. Only in recent decades as the young people have learned english as their mother tongue in the gaeltachts has that hampering dissappeared to be miniscule if not immeasurable.

    In terms of Irish education hampering english capability, yes it does according to a recent study I read about. Young kids capability in english is being kept back the more gaelige they do. Most educationalists seem to forget that kids are sponges to use a euphemism, but those sponges do have a limited capacity. I have yet to read about someone (never mind meet someone) that can speak 400 languages fluently. Likewise, when a child is at a gaeiloscoil, they are learning more Irish, but they also must be learning less english or learning less of something. And certaibly they have less capacity for learning another language. Kids brains have a limited capacity and studies are showing that english is being hampered. Of course not to an extent that they are not functional nor communicative in english as they progress. The effect dissappears over the years, perhaps as their Irish wanes as well! There are studies that show early exposure to another language helps the brain develop to understand more than one language. That is at the 0-2 or 0-4 age group though. By the time the kids go to a gaelscoil that benefit has largely been missed.

    The thing about languages is that we could adopt educational policies for them that promote economic success. Its obvious even to a gaelgoir that gaelige is not going to be a language that could be used on the world stage. Spanish, yes. French too, especially for Africa. German, less so.

    In terms of the Finn’s, the reason why they have done okay on the global stage is that they are good at english. All of the scando countries are. One factor in this is that their TV and media etc is immersed with english, not dubbed, but subtitled. This has lead to english capability by osmosis. One reason they learn swedish is to communicate more effectively with their Swedish, Norwegian, Danish neighbours (the labguages are close). Finnish is a different branch of languages altogether and has more in common with the urals.

    English is the lingua franca of international business, whether we like it or not, and we should be promoting that as much as possible. Thereafter, languages that we will use for trading with other nations. Irish can of course be taught but more to keep up our culture rather than a language taught to the same academic standards as english. All of that effort is a complete waste of time and energy for everyone involved, teachers and pupils alike.

    Hence the rise of the popularity of Gaelscoilleanna in Ireland …. go figure! (clue: its for cultural and social dividing wall issues rather than language – the same with the GAA clubs popularity perhaps David McW!)


  20. Malcolm McClure

    There are maybe 50,000 people in the whole country who use Irish on a regular daily basis. I was privileged to be in a meeting with a several dozen of them last night, where I was the only attendee with zero understanding of the language. Fortunately the main speaker delivered in English.
    If you want to see the future of the Gaeltachs then read ‘The Last of the Celts’ by Marcus Tanner published by Yale University Press. He discusses the Celtic languages demise in ireland, Scotland, IOM, Wales Brittany, Nova Scotia and Argentina. He paints a bleak picture.

  21. Garry

    Thanks for the info on the increased spend Johnny, we’re putting out money where our mouth is on this anyways…

    Agree with you 100% on Irish MK. By all means we should be proud of our culture; our language, games and music show we have something unique and special here. But, and this is looking at it critically, our music alone has what it takes to ‘compete’ internationally — it has influenced music all over the world. Neither the language nor the games have taken root anywhere despite having been seeded on all continents. There is a fine line between being proud of your culture and hiding behind it; I feel we overstep that line on occasion. I know David believes the GAA and Irish schools are popular with the aspirational classes to differentiate themselves from the working classes. However, I think there’s a little more to it than that; most aspirational people are deeply insecure and prefer competition to be restricted to within their own group. I’ve no problem with that at all; they are good organizations doing good work. I do have an issue when this local competition is seriously sold to us as something else.
    There is a very old cliche that whenever the English were beaten at a sport, they invented new sports to be the best at again. At least they invented sports that others wanted to play! Whether its sports or science, theres a lesson there.

  22. Philip

    @MK I think the reason the Finns/Scandos are good on the global stage has less to do with english and more to do with their strong heritage in engineering, trade and shipping. Their design, creativity and method of managing themselves has more to do with their tough climatic environment (freeezin) and Calvinistic work ethic. Nokia, Ericsson, Volvo, Bang & Oulfsen are not products of the english language.

  23. Philip

    @MK The studies you refer to show correlation. I doubt if cause and effect has been proven. I’d say kids ability to express themselves and spell and write effectively has more to do with the “educational method” and the environment these kids find themselves in rather than Irish or any other language for that matter. Anyway, I was just kicking a ball in the air about the legitimacy of the english language to infiltrate every aspect of our lives without question – and bringing in Irish to mitigate this was probably a stupid idea – sorry!.

    Anyway, PISA 2006 results are in this Wiki –
    Funny how the Irish are very good at reading…in spite of all the irish they learn. More interestingly, english speaking countries are middling in Science and Maths (Germans being at the lower end and Ireland not even getting a mention). US not getting a mention at all! I have heard of the very tough Finnish teacher selection system – probably says it all.

  24. Henry Barth


    I agree, generally, with what you wrote here.

    However, I wonder where you got the idea that “…it is commonplace for bright Irish children to go to Oxford or Cambridge, Stanford or Harvard as undergraduates.”

    I cannot speak about the first three institutions, and do not know how many Irish students are presently at Harvard College.

    But the complete list of Harvard College graduates from Ireland, or now living in Ireland, is below, with the year they graduated.

    Perhaps when the Irish educational system again has a single course in Ancient History or Latin, there will be more students from Ireland applying as undergraduates to Harvard and the others.

    All the best,

    Henry Barth, Sligo


    Name (Name As Student) School/Year
    Ball, Mr. Colin
    COL 1981

    Carpenter, Mr. Lorcan
    COL 1999

    Cooke, Barrie
    COL 1953

    Cuddihy, Ms. Aine
    COL 2002

    Donoghue, Arthur
    COL 1946

    Doran, Mr. John
    COL 2000

    Doyle, Ms. Johanna
    COL 2004

    Glavin, Mr. Anthony
    COL 1968

    Levine, Barry
    COL 1981

    Levine, Mr. James
    COL 1981

    Lonergan, Mr. Killian
    COL 1997

    Mahoney, Mr. Liam
    COL 2003

    May, Mr. Laurence
    COL 1972

    Monroe, Mr. Robert
    COL 1985

    Timoney, Ms. Jennie
    COL 2002

    Walsh, Ms. Sinead
    COL 2000

    Wink, Ms. Kathryn
    COL 2000

  25. Aidan

    With regard to Gaelscoil, they have become very trendy, however i think it is unfair on children to put them through gaelscoil, science, engineering, computers have developed over the last 150 yrs whilst irish as a spoken language has declined therefore concepts in these subjects cannot be explained adequatly using irish, however the main point is that parents are deciding that their children must learn through irish , without regard to the fact that the children might not have any aptitude for languages, it should be left to the children to gravitate towards irish if they like it, also an inordinate amount of money and resources has been thrown at irish in comparison to other subjects

  26. B

    @Aidan. If kids might not have any aptitude for language wouldn’t they be mute? By the simple virtue of them being able to speak and write English they have an aptitude for language. They are not being taught the way they learned English in the first place. The system is blind to the human brain. A dog catching a ball can do geometry and physics and has an aptitude for them. The difference between the dog and the kid is the dog can’t write but the innate ability is there.

    I would not say that Finns or Koreans are smarter but the way they learn is. The way we teach children is totally backward. Not just Ireland but in the English speaking world. Its not as if the research and examples are not out there but the attitude is so entrenched the opposite way I would hold out more hope in a united Ireland than the educatipn system doing justice to the natural brainpower of our young people.

    We spend more time blunting them then sharpening their minds. We have the people but we don’t have anyone with guts and imagination in government to do anything about it.

    In 1972 my da wrote to the minister for labour looking for places to study accountancy in Ireland. We recently found the reply. He was told there was no demand for accountants in Ireland. No vision, no drive.

    Where I am from had no secondary school until about 10 years ago. Kids like myself were forced to commute 3 hours a day for years.

    What we also leave out of the education debate is the lack of physical activity in schools. We have a nation of lard asses who are learning nothing because they eat rubbish don’t exercise and are knackered by this stupidity and whrn they get home all they want to do is veg out.

    Of course changing the diet would ruffle too many business feathers and “insurance reasons” will put the kaibosh on PE so that in 50 years time we will be burying this generation and wondering why. Education is more than just book learnin’. We would want to wise up to that.

    My own pet theory about house prices is connected to education. Not being able to work out or discounting APR, interest rates and compound interest has meant that people have made decisions based on emotion rather than their own brains and logic. This being because they were not taught properly in schools. If the schools were so great why do we have such a high rate of functional illiteracy. This being like a functional alcoholic. Able to muddle through the day but carrying a handicap like not being good at numbers. This handicap being exploited by those who want their money.

    The best book I can recommend on this topic is Why Children Can’t Read by Diane McGuinness. Even if you have no children it is a fascinating insight.

  27. mishko

    Quoting B: “My own pet theory about house prices is connected to education. Not being able to work out discounting APR, interest rates and compound interest has meant that people have made decisions based on emotion rather than their own brains and logic.”

    Couldn’t agree more. It took me years later in life to learn about simple mathematical rules such as compound interest doubling your money after 10 odd years at 7%, and I was good at Maths at school. But not good at the important things, I found out later, because the maths I got was very poorly related to real life.

    Is it not possible for some clever financial guys to sit down for a while and work out a syllabus in Maths for kids which will help them avoid all the mess so many of us get our finances in? To help them see through all the spin and deception of those selling pensions, mortgages, insurance, etc. Not to tell kids they don’t need these things; just to show them how to make decisions on them using, as you say, their own brains and logic? There must be some people who have made a few bob over the last few years and who, if offered the chance, could pay it back to the kids in this way.

    But first the Department of Education has to get its finger out and invite them to do so.

  28. b

    What I found that kept me grounded during the boom was the simple calculation of multiplying the price of the house by 3 to include the full cost of servicing the loan all the way to the end and then the 300k house was in reality a 900k house etc etc and I asked myself the simple question. Would I pay 900 grand for this? No way.

    We need to teach kids how to feed themselves, how to exercise, how to manage money and how to learn. Learning “subjects” is fundamentally backwards. Do we want to control kids or teach them? If we want to control them we use top down and subjective measures. If we want to educate them we go from the child out.

    Waiting for the Department of Education is a folly. We will be waiting until the end of time for them.

  29. Malcolm McClure

    To supplement an education policy we need a re-education policy. Many of those who drifted or were pushed into subjects like the Law, Media Studies or Geography, and end up with 2:2s or 3rds, have scant prospects of professional employment these days. Previously they had the fall-back option of becoming Estate Agents. Now that even that option is no longer available/attractive, they might like to consider fundamental re-training in IT. Talking to one of the biggest employers in that field last night, he said that his expansion is limited only by the availability of suitably qualified graduates. Irish youngsters don’t see IT as a ‘cool’ profession to aspire to, but that is where good jobs are today, with reasonably stable career prospects.

  30. Philip

    Malcolm, Agree with all except the bit about IT. Was chatting to lead CIO chief info officer the other day where he was at a conf with a lot of other CIOs of sizable operations. Not one of them would have their darlings pursuing a career in IT. It’s a dead end profession as it is currently defined. Lots of buisnesses want it, but are not willing to pay for it and the belief is it can be trivially outsourced. I could find you tomorrow a shedload of IT professionals who have been laid off over the last 5-6 years and finding the going tough. The scam is to get the colleges producing technicians to keep the costs down. It’s a fodder business – not career one. Something is fundamentally wrong. Stupid poorly educated businesses perhaps?

  31. Malcolm McClure

    Philip: Put simply, there are four kinds of ‘IT’ employees in Ireland that might tend to be lumped together, even by CIOs whose career was based merely on a knowledge of Windows/Ethernet. They are:
    Call Centre staff; Cablers, Pluggers and Assemblers; single program technicians and the whizzes who can make Unix do useful things or design chips.
    Some Call Centres can be moved to other English speaking countries; wireless LANs on cheap Mac servers can replace many of the CPA people. Single program specialists are too narrowly focussed, but good Basic, Unix and 3D-dynamic programers and chip designers will always be in demand. From what you say, it would seem that the professional body for the latter categories, presumably the IEEE, is pretty ineffective in Ireland.

  32. MK

    @Philip: Yes, I agree with you that its how things are taught that make the biggest difference. Yes, most kids do have the capacity to learn several languages, but there is a limit. For those that are being taught in a school system with limitations, “forcing” many kids to learn a language such as Irish which has no use beyond our own culturalism is shocking really. Esperanto and Klingon have more global use – Klingskol?

    > If kids might not have any aptitude for language wouldn’t they be mute? By the simple virtue of them being able to speak and write English they have an aptitude for language

    There is a difference between an aptitude for a mother-tongue language and an aptitude for multiple languages. They are different skills. There are many cases of people who are better in their mother-tongue than people who have multiple languages. Having one skill (mother-tongue) does not determine that you will have the other (multiple).

    I do agree with some of the other things you say though!

    @Maclolm: In terms of IT, it is hard to supply to a utility/commodity, even a complex one, and IT is its own worst enemy as IT is used to import/distribute IT on a global basis. Being completely non-unionised and remotely deliverable on a global basis at zero-cost has meant that IT is one of the most if not the most competitive sectors. Even off-shore manufacturing has a cost in terms of product distribution but not IT. Thus local delivery aspects and language aspects are what can differentiate. Of course, many business shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to IT because they are either ill-advised or do not listen to the good advice given. Its the same with people and their health. Having medecine and doctors does not prevent unnecessary illness or death. Likewise with IT. Having IT does not prevent idiotic decisions and ineffecient businesses and processes. You can lead them to water but you cant make them drink ….


  33. Al

    given the sound byte “knowledge based economy” that is being bandied about at the minute:

    what has been made of the many many millions pumped into research over the last 10 years? i.e. how many businesses/commercial enterprises have emanated? Not many
    How many businesses with a reasonable global presence have evolved from the Smurfit School of business? Not many
    Who is looking at the RETURN ON INVESTMENT of all the research activities?

    It seems to me that (in the relatively recent past at least) other than the 2 Collison brothers from Limerick (a 16 and an 18yr old) who successfully developed a software idea and then sold it abroad for a few million…….Ireland inc. (and our third level institutions in particular) have performed less than adequately.

    With regard to fees, the basic issue here (in my opinion) is that many of the Universities are in financial difficuly due to mismanagement of funds/resources over the last 10 years and now that it’s obvious the coffers are running dry they need an injection of cash.

    Why not do the obvious thing and see if the existing resources/funds can be better used (and ensure that the current systems are streamlined to ensure that this is the case) BEFORE pursuing the lazy option?

  34. coldblow

    Mishko, you mention the pressurized school environment in Korea. My guess is that they have very high rates of myopia as a direct result of this. Is this the case? My son is 7 and attending a Gaelscoil and gets tons of homeworkt. I do my best (without ‘Er Indoors hearing me of course) to get him to skimp as much as possible but it’s an uphill battle.

    You’re seldom far off the mark, MK, but I think you’ve taken a wrong turning over children learning languages, In Luxemburg kids do their first few years of schooling in Letzerbuergesch (which is like a dialect of Gernam) and then standard German is gradually introduced. At secondary level most work is done through French so they end up at least trilingual. Students then go to a choice of French or German universities if not further afield. The idea of sacrificing their native tongue because it is too limited wouldn’t be countenanced even for a second. Because it has so many migrant workers you would also hear many other languages, in particular Portuguese (it’s not for nothing that Lux. voted for Portugal in the recent Eurovision) and English. By the way, in many parts of Africa the people speak several languages as a matter of course.

    On a trip to Luxembourg about ten years ago I was told by a language expert there that he was showing a distinguished foreign professor around as the country is of great interest because of its linguistic situation and educational policies. The visitor was very proud of his own achievements in learning foreign languages (for an adult this requires much time and effort) and they were were looking at a school or whatever. During this visit it turned out that one of the local children was fluent in Chinese – it turned out that his best friend was Chinese and he had just picked up the language from him when playing. The prof was dismayed but it drove home the point that in a suitable enviroment children are like sponges who can just soak up languages.

    On a visit to Sweden in 1982 I was surprised that the Malmo-Lund train had so many young Americans on it. When I asked a group where Ulrikedal was they just laughed. It was later explained to me that they were all Swedes and that it was a common practical joke to pretend to be English or American. Swedes seem to carry the sponge effect into adult life and really imitate other languages to perfection – maybe it’s the lack of things to do when the telly stops at 9.30 and there’s another 15 hours of darkness! There’s a good anecdote in Pinker’s The Language Instinct where Henry Kissinger’s broken-sounding English was compared with his brother’s all-American twang – I think the younger brother was about 14 on arrival in the US while Henry was just over the invisible line at about 17.

    Actually I think many Europeans look down on native English speakers, as they can speak our lingo but not vice-versa, and they are not always thrilled when it turns out that we can. And to rub it in they also like to stress how difficult their own languages are to learn, which isn’t actually the case when you take a language like Swedish – perfectly adequate in its own pleasant way but basic all the same. And they also overestimate their own ability in English – only in the last 2 days I came across translations of English language books (it’s a kind of a hobby) where the translators were completely at a loss when confronted by common idiomatic expressions like “you can’t take it with you” (ie money when you’re dead) or “a dead giveaway” Repeat that every few pages throughout a novel and the foreign reader will be forgiven for thinking that English language writers can’t sustain logic.

    Of course, the issue of Irish being on the curriculum is irrelevant for many kids. I know this from peronal experience from subbing in the south inner city of Dublin and where I developed an unsuspected talent for storytelling as a means of survival. If you replaced Irish, English and Maths with Hungarian, Chaos Theory and Astronomy they’d have barely noticed. At least they had a sense of humour unlike their counterparts across the water. They would leave school having learned next to nothing academically and with many of them illiterate (aka known as dyslexia among the aspiring classes) but at the same time fairly well adjusted and with 20-20 vision.

    I met up with a fellow substitute teacher years later and we agreed that we should be forced to go back to the classroom for one day a year just so as to be thankful for our present jobs. Unlike me he was a natural but didn’t have the paper qualification and he ended up exploited as a temporary teacher looking after two or three classes simulatneously for a full afternoon. I came across a teacher back in England who could do this no problem and without the slightest loss of control – the problem was that the only thing he could talk to them about was his other job, driving coaches!

    In summary, then, and without in any way denigrating the teachers, who do a great job, our school system is just a minding service for many kids, a crammer for many more who are not academically minded and probably a bit dull for the brightest minds. But then again it could be a lot worse.

    Finally, while I’m at it, the old chestnut about our standards being the best in the world. While I’m sure they are respectable enought I’ve never been struck by evidence of intellectual brilliance around me. Certainly when you compare the BBC’s University Challenge with the local variant it was men against boys, with lots of pop questions for the Irish kids so they could at least get something right. As for the universities, Joe Lee in his history of Modern Ireland is very hard on their uselessness in the years following Indepence, right up to the time of writing in fact.

  35. mishko

    Coldblow, I don’t know if Koreans’ and other Asians’ myopia, while common, is a result of excessive study, or caused by genetic factors. The research seems to be inconclusive. But early action to treat it is certainly beneficial. And I wouldn’t tell your child, as it’s too good an excuse to skip lessons!

    You haven’t really proved MK to be wrong about the hampering efffects of the whole population learning Irish. In Luxembourg, the language you compare to Irish is a dialect of German, one of the two major languages of the country and of course an international language. Also, it is the language used by many of the kids with their parents, i.e. the mother-tongue. And, to show that all is not well in Luxembourg, proficiency in Luxembourgish, German and French is required for graduation from secondary school. The result: half the students leave school without a certified qualification. I can see that some parents may think their kids will “feel more Irish” if they attend a Gaelscoil, and they should be given the choice. But forcing the rest of us to have our kids learn Irish throughout our schooling is a political and not a sensible educational policy.

    I have spent my working life teaching English round the world and few of our students ever gave the impression they felt they were wasting their time. They were gaining a very useful tool for their later life, one which often made the difference at job interviews.
    I still think our young kids should have plenty of art, music and other subjects without an obvious payoff in the workplace. We’re not raising robots. I just feel the Irish I had to learn, and the Latin (“it broadens the mind, my lad”) wasted my time, though I went on to learn four more languages.

    I agree with you that lack of learning in poor areas of the city is a great problem, as it usually is all over the world. That’s more of a social than an educational problem though. I just wish some teachers would speak up and say, well, here’s a solution. Guess I’m on the wrong forum. My choice is for a rewrite of the curriculum (primary and secondary), done in consultation with people across the community, especially those who are going to be job providers. It’s been done well in England and Finland. It needs the co-operation of many groups, including the Irish language specialists. Above all it needs to become an electoral issue, where enough parents/voters demand it. Maybe then we’d do better at University Challenge (after 20 years).

  36. coldblow

    Mishko, you’re right to say that the Lux. case is not directly comparable as they speak it as their mother tongue. I can’t think of another example where a country teaches a language spoken by just a handful of native speakers (except Israel some years back when there had been no native speakers since the exile to Babylon). It is increasing uncommon to hear native Irish speakers under my age (50) with a command of the language, or even an accent, that is noticeably better than those who have learned it well at school and I I fear it is now practically extinct as a living community language (as opposed to old people or the odd individual family).

    MK is also right that social factors play a part, although not the whole story, in the Gaelscoil boom. I think a similar thing is happening in Wales where the language is increasingly a badge of middle-class-ness while it dwindles in its working-class strongholds. Probably the same with Breton too.

    I knew the Lux. school system was particularly demanding but I was unaware that the drop-out rate was so high. I should have expected that.

    My real reason for posting was to point out that DMcW in the Generation Game said something along the lines of the future belonging to the messers at the back of the class so why the interest now in education, but I got carried away and forgot.

    Re the myopia, while that’s not relevant here it’s something I’m very interested in besides being a serious health issue which I believe is still on the increase. I believe the introverted 50% of young people are more at risk to conform and internalize school demands and pressures (despite what the studies say). The stress affects the eyesight – good eyesight being only possible when relaxed. I can confirm this from my own experience as I blew the competition out of the water academically as a youngster and also achieved a spectacular (pun not intended!) level of blindness. I am putting this right now but prevention is far easier.

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