Ireland's schools log on to the future - slowly


November 20, 2009, 2:13 PM

There's nothing like a recession to concentrate the mind! One of my kids is at the stage in school where he has to make choices about the subjects he wants to do in the Leaving Cert, the exam that Irish kids do before they leave school and either go on to university or out into the world of work. Or maybe that should be the world of unemployment.

So although he's only 16, the choices are important. For example, a kid who wants to do medicine must take chemistry in the Leaving Cert and might want to do biology as well. To do engineering in college you must take higher level math.

Those options, of course, are for the very bright kids who will get top marks in the Leaving Cert. You need an almost perfect score to get into medical school here.

But even for kids who are aiming lower or don't really know what they want to do (like my son and most of his friends) the choice of subjects is still important. If they think they might want to do a business or economics degree in university they should really be choosing business and economics as a Leaving Cert subject, and perhaps accounting as well.

If they feel they might be heading towards a career in manufacturing or engineering they need to do a degree in science or engineering, which means they should be concentrating on subjects like physics and math in the Leaving.

During the boom it did not seem to matter what you did in school or even in university. There were jobs aplenty for graduates of all kinds.

Now we're deep in the worst recession we have ever seen and jobs are much harder to get, even for those with specialist qualifications.

So for a lot of parents in Ireland -- and for a lot of teenagers -- this recession has been a wake-up call. Suddenly everyone here is much more focused on what one needs to do in school and university to maximize the chances of getting a job.

Kids who a few years back would be talking dreamily about doing degrees in marine biology (not that there's anything wrong with that) are now talking about degrees in international trade or business.

The harsh world out there now has also made parents start asking a lot of questions about the emphasis of the Irish school system, which is still centered on the arts rather than on the sciences and the business world.

A lot of nonsense is talked about how brilliant the Irish education system is. The reality is different, with poorly equipped science labs and computers still a rarity.

The Leaving Cert subjects Irish teenagers can do in the exam include Latin (don't remind me), Greek and classical studies -- but they can't do computer science. That's right. Shocking though it is, computers or programming or any other information technology subject cannot be found on the list of Leaving Cert subjects.

Why? Because that would mean all schools would need a computer room with a few dozen computers and broadband access. And in spite of the boom, we can't afford it.

Instead of spending the education budget on computer rooms or even updating some of our disgraceful old school buildings, we gave it away to the teachers in extravagant pay hikes.

Many fee-paying private schools do have computer rooms, but many of the free public schools don't have any computers at all, so the subject can't be put on the Leaving Cert curriculum.

On Monday, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen made a big deal out of promising more computers for schools over the next three years. But we're in such financial trouble now that we can afford only one "teaching" laptop for every classroom. A few years ago, at the height of the boom, the then-minister promised a laptop for every student!

What Cowen said this week was that every classroom in the country will get a teaching laptop and a digital projector within the next three years as part of a €150 million initiative. The first phase, in junior schools, will see €22 million in grants before the end of the year. Funding for the laptops in high schools will begin in the New Year.

It's a start, but teachers pointed out that the €22 million will do little to bridge the technology gap that has developed between Irish schools and our Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) neighbors.

Ireland ranks 19th in the OECD league in relation to the use of computers in classrooms. And there's a long way to go before computer science can become a Leaving Cert subject.

To make matters worse, during the boom we failed to invest in the expansion of the broadband network, so that now we have one of the worst levels of broadband access in Europe.

This situation is shameful, particularly because Irish kids have shown a facility for computers, programming and so on. Yet instead of studying computer science in school they spend hours and hours every week studying Irish, which few of them will ever use and which is useless in the struggle to get a job, either at home or overseas. (Unless, of course, you find yourself a cozy hole in one of those Irish language quangos on the state payroll.)