Ireland's schools log on to the future - slowly
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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.)
On the question of languages, Irish children are still among the worst in Europe. Part of the reason for that is the huge amount of school time taken up each week by compulsory Irish.
Although the Leaving Cert curriculum now includes Russian and Japanese, most Irish children do French, German or Spanish and, of those, the vast majority do French. This situation has persisted, even though Spanish is now a much more important world language, simply because most of the teachers did French at school.
Overall, the Irish school system still produces kids with a liberal arts education that poorly equips them for the practicalities of the job market in today's challenging global environment. Today's Leaving Cert kids should be coming out of schools with good math, excellent English and one or more foreign languages, as well as a good grounding in either business, science or information technology.
Instead of that, many of them arrive in university or on the job market and have to start from scratch.
At one time that did not matter so much. There was time and a willingness to hire people and train them.
But now it does matter, in an ever more competitive world in which former Third World countries like India have tens of thousands of computer literate young people.
Just how much this matters was illustrated last weekend in the Irish Independent newspaper which sent a reporter down to the town of Youghal in County Cork, once a center for industry in the region. The reason for the reporter's visit was that last week the last factory left in Youghal closed down. The headline on the report was “Ghost Town.”
Youghal was once a mini boom town, famous for Youghal carpets which once employed 3,500 people. It finally closed a few years back.
Other plants had also set up in the town, including Artesyn electronics, Kodak, Seafield Textiles -- all gone over the past decade -- and the last one which closed last week, Tytex medical. The Tytex jobs are going to Slovakia and Thailand. Artesyn sent its jobs to China, Kodak to Poland, and so on with other industries in the town.
It's all down to globalization and the failure of Ireland over the past decade to keep costs and pay rates down so that we are competitive with the rest of the world. We were all so dazzled by our booming economy that we failed to notice that our manufacturing jobs were vanishing overseas, and our boom was being prolonged by an unsustainable construction bubble.
Now that bubble has burst, the real jobs in manufacturing are no longer here and we have very little to replace them.
There is desperation about what to do now in Youghal, a beautiful seaside town, and vague plans for expansion of tourism in the area don't inspire confidence. Tourism is only a small part of any solution.
The problem for us as a country is that there are dozens of towns like Youghal around Ireland that once had industries that gave local people jobs. Now those jobs have gone to cheaper locations in our ever shrinking, more globalized world.
There's not much we can do about it. But giving every school in Ireland a properly equipped computer room might be a good way to start.