By Jennifer O'Connell
Within minutes of opening his mouth to announce an official review of Leaving Cert and university results last week, Batt O’Keeffe was doing his bit to make the case for those bemoaning falling standards in our education system.
“I’ve asked the State examinations commission and the HEA and my own senior officials to look at the state exams profile over the last ten years since 1992,” he announced.
Let’s hope they’re starting with Maths.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a 500 per cent increase in the number of students getting all A1s in their Leaving Cert would be deemed good news by our Education Minister.
You might even interpret the fact that three times as many students are leaving university with a first in their degree as a sign that, while we spent the last decade mismanaging the health system and running the economy into the ground, we at least managed to get something right.
Not so, says O’Keeffe.
The Education Minister announced his review in an attempt to allay the concerns of executives at Intel and Google, who have decried the Irish education system as ‘only average’.
But rather than take the opportunity to reassure potential employers that our highly-educated workforce is the one thing we can safely take pride in, he decided instead to tell them that yes, in fact, we are more stupid than it says on the tin.
“The first thing I wanted to do was to get the profile to see what the pattern of the marks were, was there inflation of grades, how serious was the inflation of grades and then why would this happen,” he told journalists last week.
O’Keeffe seems to have missed the point – actually, several points - here.
For a start, neither John Herlihy of Google nor the former Intel chief executive and adviser to Barack Obama, Craig Barrett, said anything about grade inflation. Rather, their concerns were mostly about the failure of the education system to equip students with the skills employers really value.
Barrett said Ireland's education system needed to do better, especially in the areas of maths, technology and science, if the economy was to compete on the world stage. Herlihy pointed out that students coming through the school system might have good exam results, but they lack other essential skills such as problem-solving.
Second, while it is true there that average Leaving Cert points seem to have been on an upward trajectory since the 1990s, and that university students are getting better degrees, there are a number of possible explanations for this.
The higher number of firsts being awarded is at least partly attributable to the realisation by the NUI colleges in the mid 1990s, that our universities were awarding fewer honours degrees than their counterparts in the UK. A decision was taken to redress the difference by dropping the threshold for a 2.1 from 62 per cent to 60 per cent.
But there may have been something more subtle at play too; the third point that O’Keeffe failed to address.
The period when these changes happened was a time of enormous cultural and social change. I did my Leaving Cert in 1993, the year when his review begins.
Back then, in my school at least, there was an unspoken understanding that you didn’t want to risk getting more points than you might need in your Leaving Cert. If you did, your parents and teachers might insist you didn’t waste them, and you could find yourself doing something demanding and unappealing like Medicine, when you really wanted to do something fun and directionless like Arts.
There has been a huge cultural shift in Irish life since then, the dawning of a period in which competitiveness, ostentation and aggressive self-promotion became the norm.
During the years since, ‘Gen Y’, the generation that was born in the 1980s and lavished with parental approval from the moment they emitted their first milky gurgle, came of age. The parents of GenYers have high expectations for their offspring – and their children have even higher expectations for themselves.
The simple possibility that the students who came through the system during this time might simply have worked harder and – buoyed along by hands-on parents with the cash to fork out for extra tuition - raised the bar set by their predecessors, seemed to have escape almost everyone who commented on this issue last week.
One exception was the DCU President Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who said on RTE radio that students today simply “approach the exams and their assessements very differently” than they did in the past. When he was a student, “a degree would get you a job, regardless of the grade of the degree”.
Now, he said, there’s a much greater pressure on students to get a 2.1 or a First. “Students do work harder now and they work in a more tactical way,” he added.
The final point which demonstrates that O’Keeffe’s approach is fundamentally wrong-headed is one made himself in radio interviews last week.
The acceleration in grades at Leaving Cert and university level began in the mid 1990s, and ended, O’Keeffe says, when the State Examinations Commission was set up in 2003.
That’s seven years ago. So why does he seem so determined to make life difficult for the current batch of graduates, who are already struggling to impress potential employers in one of the toughest economic climates in our history?
Cossetted, over-privileged whingers they might well be, but the simple truth is that those currently graduating from school and university have been have been failed dismally by O’Keeffe’s government, to the point where emigration is the only realistic hope of finding a job for many.
Our education system undoubtedly needs an overhaul. But it needs to be much deeper and more comprehensive than what O’Keeffe apparently has in mind.
We need to look at the subjects students are choosing, and make the kind of subjects valued by employers more attractive. We need to shift the emphasis from rote learning to a deeper, more analytical thinking. We also, as Herlihy points out, need to ensure they know how to string a coherent, grammatically correct sentence together before they get anywhere near thinking about the points race.
In the meantime, here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a leaf out of the book of the Americans whom O’Keeffe seems so keen to impress, and try talking ourselves up for once.
This column was first published in The Sunday Business Post on March 7, 2010