Ex-Intel Chief directs his fire at Irish education

I didn't know what to expect from Craig Barrett, the Irish-American former head of Intel, when I heard he'd been made Chairman of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) last year. At the time all I thought was, "That's a good idea. He'll open a few doors." I never expected he'd actually be so active, so keen to voice his opinion about where Ireland needs to go to achieve economic success in the 21st century.

Barrett {photo} has not been shy. He's been all over the papers and radio expressing his opinions, particularly about the Irish education system. So far the reaction to Barrett's views has been non-existent, possibly because to engage with him would be to call into question some of the sacred cows of the education system.

One of those sacred cows is the Leaving Cert. Ireland's secondary school system is built around the Leaving Cert, which is a series of exams taken at the end of the sixth and final year of secondary school (basically junior high & high school). All the exams count the same, which means an 'A' in Home Economics or Art counts just as much as an 'A' in Math or Physics. Each grade gets so many points and a student's point total determines what college course he or she gets.

All the college places are doled out on the basis of how you did across all your exams*. This means a genuine math/science geek, one who could be a great software engineer, might lose out on a college place to the kid whose math talent doesn't match his ambitions, but who did better in Spanish and Irish than the geek. The aptitude of the two students is irrelevant.

The system is treated as almost a matter of religious faith here. Anyone who raises the topic is told time and again that "it's the fairest possible" system, which it probably is, but it's designed to reward effort rather than to identify talent and potential of college-bound students.

Barrett says the key to success in the 21st century is to let "smart people get together with smart ideas," but that's not happening enough at the moment. It may not be "fair" on those who worked harder at second level, but we need to get the smartest people studying math and science and that will require a change to how college places are distributed.

This change must be made and is a logical outcome from any discussion framed by Barrett's argument about the future and the Irish government's own repeated statements on building a "knowledge economy." That change, however, would strike at the heart of how university places are decided, which would mean a complete revamp to how the second level system is run.

That's only one aspect of the system called into question by Barrett's analysis. The organization of primary schooling, teacher selection and training, rates of pay, are all matters that must be considered if you take Barrett seriously. I'll know Barrett's constant hammering is starting to hit home when those who have a vested interest in the current system start to take aim at him. For the moment I'm just grateful that the ITLG gave him a platform and that Barrett has been keen not to waste it.

* Last year an aptitude test was introduced for those who want to study medicine, but it has been widely criticized in the press with many stories of those students who "missed out" despite getting high points totals on their Leaving Certs.