Oct 12 2010

Reforming Second Level Education in Ireland

Category: Second LevelTeknovis @ 12:43

I was interested to hear that the seven Universities in Ireland will start to award bonus marks to students for taking the highest level of Maths in the Leaving Certificate. Under this new plan students would get an additional 25 points, which is out of a maximum 600. For more information see Bonus points for higher level Maths.

My first impression is that this is a great idea, because it should encourage the uptake of Maths. I think that this country really needs to refocus on Science and Technology in order to remain in the global market. However, it does seem unfortunate that most of the University courses that require high points do not require an ability in Maths (I am thinking of Law, Dentistry, …).

There are also a few additional changes that should be made to second level education:

  • Make all Leaving Certificate subjects optional from the school or State’s point of view. Students have the life skills by the time they do the Junior Certificate, so let the Leaving Certificate be about specialisation and choice.
  • Make Irish optional in secondary school. In the global economy, and especially in difficult economic times, students should be allowed to choose the subjects that will give both them, and the country, the best chance of success. Yes, it is great to enforce “dead culture”, but I think that most people prefer jobs and income!
  • Let the Universities introduce more specific course requirements. For example, Physics could become mandatory for entering an engineering degree. This would enable the Universities to build upon the Leaving Certificate education, rather than having to repeat it for those who choose other subjects.

Unfortunately, I doubt that any of these ideas will ever come into practice due to the slow speed that our education system. Additionally, it seems to me that teachers are against all change unless they are financially compensated.


5 Responses to “Reforming Second Level Education in Ireland”

  1. Eimhin says:

    I agree that bonus points to encourage take-up of higher level maths makes sense.

    However, mandating a core Leaving Certificate curriculum gives students a common base, rather than leaving the choice largely to their parents. Would you prefer a fractured society where religious conservatives reject science subjects for their children and far left parents make religion, history and cultural studies lower priority?

    In the same vein, making Irish language studies optional would probably eliminate the subject – so your viewpoint is really one opposed to preserving the language. Irish culture is far from dead and the Irish language is very much a part of that cultural identity. Jobs and income are not the defining characteristics of a successful society.

    Allowing universities autonomy to chart their own course, including setting requirements, facilitates the specialised education they provide. Third level Engineering physics is necessarily different from the Leaving Certificate course and excluding students who didn’t pick the desired optional subjects in their early teens doesn’t help universities.

    People in general are resistant to change – not just teachers – and wanting compelling reasons for a disruptive change isn’t unreasonable. Doubting that any of your desired changes will be made real because of the system doesn’t help either. To quote Gandhi, you must be the change you wish to see in the world.

  2. Teknovis » The Simpsons Do Maths says:

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  3. Teknovis says:

    @Eimhin – Interesting points!

    The only core subjects currently in the Leaving Certificate are English, Irish, and Maths. So the “common base” is already very small. Therefore, I do not think that the argument about rejecting science subjects is applicable. I think that the Junior Certificate is about creating the “rounded individual” with the necessary common and broad base. However, the Leaving Certificate should be about specialisation and focus. I was discussing this concept with some colleagues recently, and we could not think of a single example of something learned in the Leaving Certificate core subjects that would be useful in life to somebody working outside of the areas covered by the core subjects.

    I do not agree that making Irish optional would eliminate it! It might actually foster it because now people would do it because they actually want to do it! It is also very dubious to talk about preserving the language, when by many measures it is already dead! I agree that Irish culture is very much alive and well, but for the majority of Irish people the Irish language is not a part of their culture in practice. My point in relation to this is that the learning of Irish at secondary school level should be an individual choice.

    The problem I have seen with Third Level courses that do not mandate a related subject (such as Physics for Engineering) is that a full year is often lost to enable students to “catch-up”. The result of this is that Irish degree courses are “dumbed-down”, and this puts those graduates at a huge disadvantage on the global stage. Other examples that I have experienced of this happening are the acceptance of Leaving Certificate students who did Pass level Maths into Engineering degrees, and Leaving Certificate students who did not do any form of Science into Science degrees. I agree with you that Irish teens seem particularly immature when it comes to deciding what Leaving Certificate subjects, and subsequently what Degrees, to pursue.

    My point about the teachers was really coming from the perspective of seeing how change is encouraged, expected, and normally embraced by “teachers” in Third Level.

  4. Eimhin says:

    Ok, so my example is exaggerated. :-)

    I still believe a common base in secondary level education is important and arguing that it is already very small doesn’t strengthen your case for eliminating it. I also don’t think Irish schoolkids have any less career motivation than in other parts of the world. The disconnect seems to be education in steps they can take that may help them achieve their ambitions. Many Irish schools never have Career Days and guidance counsellors are typically only available for Leaving Cert students. Why not start a project to track students from their school days to their career and provide concrete examples for educators?

    Do babies have an option on which language they learn? A language is dead when nobody speaks it and making Irish optional is a step towards elimination. Also, I would argue that all Irish people know at least some words of the Irish language which they can identify as uniquely Irish. This shared knowledge is part of Irish culture.

    Having seen some of the resources available in US universities and met many students of these universities, I have to agree that Irish degree courses are at a disadvantage on a global scale. I remember teaching at CTYI and being told that many of the kids would need to go abroad for University, as Ireland didn’t have degree courses that could cater to them. Perhaps it is a question of scale and the population base necessary to sustain specialized institutions like Ivy league colleges that admit only the top 1% of academic achievers. I would like to think there are other options.

    I agree with your perspective. Perhaps the teachers unions, which are the main voice of teachers in Ireland, are the wrong place for change. Two educational movements that have impressed me in the US are Teaching For America and the specialized high schools. Perhaps there are some lessons to learn there?

  5. Teknovis says:


    Regarding career motivation – many other EU countries require students to consider their Third Level direction at a much earlier age. For example, the UK and Spain fall into this category. Agree with you about the career guidance.

    Babies do not have an option regarding the language that they learn, but I do not see the relevance :) The discussion about Irish being dead really depends on how you define dead. By your definition, Latin is not a dead language. So I would then say that Irish is in the same category as Latin. I would also say that if a language depends on compulsory usage, then the language is already dead. The discussion should then move from “keeping it alive” to “reviving it”. Either way, if people feel that it is important, they should be allowed to learn it. However, equally importantly, other people should be allowed to learn other skills instead. It is all about choice, and not about forcing one viewpoint on everybody.

    Regarding the teachers – I think you could be right about the unions being the problem. I have actually met several teachers who disagree with a lot of the union stances.