The long awaited plan for Literacy and Numeracy was published by the Department of Education this week. It was in reaction to Ireland’s slide in the latest PISA report, which saw Ireland drop down their league tables in both literacy and numeracy. The newest Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, promised reform in our education system, which began with a rehaul of the Junior Certificate system earlier last month. After a number of deliberations and invites for proposals, Quinn’s original ideas have changed little.
The Minister has outlined 5 key areas for improvement.
- Improved professional development for teachers
- Increasing the time available for teaching literacy and numeracy
- Improving arrangements for assessment of children’s literacy and numeracy achievement
- Better arrangement for reporting children’s progress
- Co-operating with the administration of national and international assessment studies
There can be no doubt that the first point should be welcomed by any professional. Any extra training is a good thing. The same can be said for improving assessment.
Other factors that haven’t changed since the original document included increasing the time of literacy and numeracy classes. Literacy must now be taught for an extra 1 hour per week and numeracy an extra 70 minutes per week. This works out at approximately 90 minutes per day in literacy (English and Irish) and 50 minutes per day in numeracy, the same as in the original report.
Quinn failed to outright say which subjects should be cut as a result of these increases. In my article about the first document, I quoted Quinn’s document where he spoke about the different social and interest groups that would make this decision difficult. I also said:
However, since this is a very difficult decision to make, the Minister, no doubt, will be leaving the decisions firmly in the hands of individual schools and their principals and deputy principals.
This is exactly what he has done. Schools will have to decide where they will get this time from. We can use Discretionary time, Integration of Literacy and Numeracy in other subjects or choose to take time off other subjects. I can see lots of debates in staff rooms over the coming weeks. Passionate Gaelgeoirí will be trying to convince the deeply religious who will in turn be claiming superiority over the scientists who will be proving, QED, that their favourite subject should be saved.
However, this potential in-fighting in schools is not the most worrying thing about the new circular. It begins innocently in the assessment section of the circular where teachers are asked to now assess children better. It goes through the whole theory of assessment and gives some recommended reading to schools. Finally, the section of standardised assessment comes to light.
Schools have been doing standardised assessments for many years and utilise the results from these tests to ensure the standards of teaching increase, the focus of learning changes and to identify children who require further support with their learning. It’s a good evaluation tool for schools to internally recognise the things they need to focus on. Most schools have been more than happy to share these results with parents too.
However, section 7.9 of this new circular may contain the sentence that kills primary school education forever.
With effect from 1 June 2012: Primary schools will be required to report aggregate standardised test results to the Department of Education and Skills once annually
Even the Department of Education see the potential pitfall of this as a few lines later it states:
Please note that there is no intention to publish data for individual schools or to enable the data to be used for the compilation of league tables.
It is interesting to note the language used. “There is no intention” is not quite the same as “It will be illegal” or “There is no way in hell”. It seems as if they are already resigned to the fact that some time next year a league table of primary schools will be published in a newspaper.
Once this happens, we can say goodbye to our education system, which presently has more in common with Finland (the top performing school in PISA). Finland seems to have succeeded through a number of initiatives. However, the biggest factor of all is the Finnish government’s trust in teachers to be professional, self-reflective and free to take control of their classrooms. Taking a completely opposite view are our neighbours in the UK where standardised testing, league tables, hierarchical structures and interference from government has not improved academic standards. In fact, it seems to have simply increased stress levels in pupils and teachers.
While our system is nowhere near perfect, it is essential that the government do not kill the foundation that keeps us “above average” in both literacy and numeracy. By allowing league tables to be published it will pit schools against each other, promote cherry-picking and create further gaps between disadvantaged schools and more prosperous ones. Teachers will be under pressure to rise literacy and numeracy levels at any cost. If standardised tests have to be taken in May/June, a parent can expect their child to be taught to this test to the detriment of real learning. We may even see a market for “Improve your child’s literacy scores in…” products emerging as computer games will hothouse our children for the Micra and Sigma-T tests – (there are only 2 tests published at each level). While it isn’t the government’s intention for any of this to happen, they may inadvertently have rung the school bell to announce the end of the holistic primary education our children have enjoyed since the introduction of the new curriculum in 1999.