Minister says myth of 'world class' Irish education, a delusion
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Sep 6, 2013 - 6:08 AM

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IDA Ireland's iconic advertisement of the 1980s promoting Ireland as a location of skilled and educated workers

In a system where ministers are addicted to spin, it is refreshing and rare that one of them would confront the public with a bitter truth. So credit where it's due to Ruairí Quinn, minister of education, for acknowledging publicly that the common myth of Irish education being 'world class' is a delusion.

The Irish Times reports that the minister said Thursday at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, that the belief that the Irish education system was among the best in the world was:

an assertion based on no evidence whatsoever other than something of a feelgood factor that was communicated to us at home by the greater Irish Diaspora who felt, for whatever reason, that it was better than what their children were experiencing in other parts of the world."

This is very important because at policy level and in the media -- the transmission system for spin - - the perpetuation of myths is against the public interest because why change an inadequate system that is perceived as among the best?

It's also important to recognise that Ruairí Quinn didn't say the education system is bad. It compares well with several countries. What he said is that in general, it is far from the best. 

On ministers delivering inconvenient truths, it would for example be welcome if Richard Bruton, minister of jobs, enterprise and innovation, suspended his permanent publicity campaign and had the cojones to deliver some unpalatable truths to vested interests, develop a credible jobs strategy and for once challenge the demands of the third level research establishment.

In recent weeks, Prof Brian Mac Craith, president of Dublin City University, claimed that research performance of universities has soared over recent decades. After spending about €24bn on public science policy in real terms over a decade, the performance should of course have improved but the output metrics to not support the claim.

What George Orwell described as "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness," can be found in the common use of the term 'world class' in Ireland, which was vividly illustrated by an Irish Times report on 10 Oct, 2010 titled: "Fás board to agree plan for new 'world-class' skills body."

The aspiration of just competence and prudence in public spending may have required the need for some practical specifics rather than the realm of fairytales - - an art we excel at.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) comprises all the world's developed countries amongst its 34 members, coupled with a small number of emerging economies. It says that in Ireland, 73% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, close to the OECD average of 74%. In contrast to the overall OECD experience, more women have graduated high school than men, as 71% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 76% of women. In terms of the quality of its education system, the average student scored 497 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in line with the OECD average. On average in Ireland, girls outperformed boys by 11 points, slightly more than the average OECD gap of 9 points.

The proportion of 15-year-old students (17.2%) who underperformed on PISA 2009 for reading (below proficiency Level 2) is below the OECD average of 18.8%. These results have not improved since 2000.

The OECD has said that the apprenticeship system (limited to a narrow set of occupations) lasts four years, during which apprentices hired by firms follow a predetermined sequence of on-the job and off-the-job phases. "Because of the economic crisis, fewer apprenticeships were available. Diversifying apprenticeships into more sectors can improve the offer and better meet the demands of the labour market. Ireland has a comprehensive national qualifications framework that includes vocational and general qualifications, which can help remove dead ends as students’ progress through their education."

Earlier this year, Finfacts said the apprenticeship system was a shambles.

While Finland responded to its economic crisis in the early 1990s with a radical overhaul of its education system, there appears little appetite for change from across the Irish education system. Where are the fresh ideas from the universities?

Ireland and Finland, both members of the euro system, ended 2007 with the same level of GDP (gross domestic product). Finland had surplus public funds of €130bn while Ireland had net debt of €20bn after offsetting cash balances and the value of the National Pensions Reserve Fund.

In Ireland last September, a UCD-Trinity College university merger proposal in a leaked draft report triggered a rapid reaction from various interests to kill the chicken in the egg. It was as if a fatwa had been issued by the elite. There would not even be a discussion on it.

Seán Flynn, 'The Irish Times' education editor, reported: "Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and three university presidents last night moved to distance themselves from a controversial report recommending a merger of University College Dublin with Trinity College Dublin, and other radical changes. Mr Quinn said such a merger was 'neither feasible nor desirable,' while key elements of the report 'would not be acceptable to Government.'

"The report, prepared by some of the most distinguished figures in international higher education, has been effectively buried, according to education sources."

OECD's tribute to the Finnish system

Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socio-economic status or ability. This chapter looks at the possible factors behind this success, which include political consensus to educate all children together in a common school system; an expectation that all children can achieve at high levels, regardless of family background or regional circumstance; single-minded pursuit of teaching excellence; collective school responsibility for learners who are struggling; modest financial resources that are tightly focused on the classroom and a climate of trust between educators and the community.

"Finland is a relatively young country, having only established its independence from the Soviet Union in 1917. Finland had to fight long and hard to preserve that independence through the Second World War. For a nation with a population of less than 4 million, the cost of the war was devastating: 90 000 dead; 60 000 permanently injured and 50 000 children orphaned. Additionally, as part of the 1944 peace treaty with the Soviet Union, Finland was forced to cede 12% of its land, requiring the relocation of 450 000 Finnish citizens. A Soviet military base was established on a peninsula near Helsinki, and the communist party was granted legal status.

"In 1991 only 5 Finnish workers out of 1 000 were in the research and development (R&D) labour force. By 2003 this number had increased to 22, almost three times the OECD average. By 2001 Finland’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index had climbed from 15th to 1st, and it has remained at or near the top in these rankings ever since." More...[pdf]

Finland has a 3rd ranking in the current 2013/2014 rankings, issued this week. Ireland is at 28th compared with 11th in 2001.

OECD Education Policy Outlook: Ireland (June 2013) [pdf]

Irish apprenticeship system a shambles

Irish Economy: Finnish lessons for Irish education?

Themes in the advertising in the United States of IDA Ireland, the inward investment agency, including: “The young Europeans: Hire them before they hire you,” “People are to Ireland as Champagne is to France” and “People are to Ireland as oil is to Texas,” were effective in promoting Ireland as having a skilled and educated workforce.

By 2006, the Irish Mind theme however, reflected the hubris of the period and was cringe-inducing for those of us who hadn't drank the contemporary Kool-Aid:

The Irish Mind. An abundant supply of that rare commodity you'll need to bring your business to peak performance. The Irish. Creative. Imaginative. And flexible. Agile minds with a unique capacity to initiate and innovate without being directed. Always thinking on their feet. Adapting and improving. Generating new knowledge and new ideas. Working together to find new ways of getting things done. Better and faster.

This flexible attitude pervades the ecosystem. Nowhere else will you find such close, frequently informal, links between enterprise, education and research facilities and a pro-business government. Connected by a dynamic information infrastructure. In Ireland, everything works together."

The reality in Ireland is that the conservative mindset endures.

Then a new series of IDA Ireland advertisements inspired by Albert Einstein at a blackboard explaining his theory of relativity (see below),  promoted Ireland as a knowledge economy and an innovation hub.

“The right environment for your company is a place where innovation comes naturally,” the announcer declares on one TV advertisement.

Eventually, reality strikes and today less than one third of IDA Ireland's client companies do even minimal research and development in Ireland. None of the Irish units of the giant American companies has a strategic R&D centre located in Ireland.

What these companies need are for example multilingual administrators and tech workers skilled in localisation. However, since the 1980s, Ireland has been debating the expansion of language teaching at primary level. The debate is ongoing -- see Eurostat's data on Ireland and the rest of the EU [pdf].

As for the 1980s aspiration that the graduates could well be hiring for their own businesses, another reality is that the indigenous sector today remains the poor relation of the foreign-owned sector in Ireland.  

...and back to 'world class.' This was the year when Ireland was to meet the 2006 aspiration to be recognised as a 'world class' knowledge economy. Don't mention the war! The issue has been quietly buried.

So cue lots of talk on education but do not expect Finnish-style change or even change.

Finfacts: Irish Innovation: Evidence of science policy failure mounts

Finfacts: Irish Economy 2013: Number of early-stage entrepreneurs in Ireland is low and falling

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