Killing Primary Education

Screenshot from Irish Times article

Back in October, The Irish Times ran a feature outlining the most influential people involved in education in Ireland. Eight months later towards the end of the school year, I thought I’d have a look at the man at the top of the list, Ruairi Quinn. The list itself was rather interesting in that it contained very few (if any) primary school teachers, but that’s for another article.
In my opinion, Ruairi Quinn has given both the most benefit and the most harm to primary education.
Quinn is a change-maker and, in general, I’m glad of that. He has single-handedly called upon Ireland to re-assess itself as a leading education system. I cannot comment on any level other than primary except to say that I believe that his proposals to change second level are to be applauded, with a standing ovation. At primary level, he has decided to open up discussion on highly emotive areas – the role of the church being the biggest of all. Academically, focussing on the time that is spent on certain subjects instead of literacy and numeracy is also a welcome discussion. He has also looked into the area of digital literacy in a small way and seems to be a  supporter of technology in education. Without going into everything, Ruairi Quinn has done a lot of good already in his tenure.
The big problem is that although he has opened up some much-needed discussions around the education system and has been making some changes to the way we do things, all this may come to a complete halt because of one decision he has made.
Schools are going to have to publish their standardised test results to the Department of Education for the first time as part of the drive to improve literacy and numeracy standards. While many people do not see a problem with this, I feel that this decision alone could potential kill everything that is right with the primary school system in Ireland.
As soon as standardised test results are collected by the Department of Education, league tables will be drawn up by journalists and primary schools will be compared to each other. While the literacy and numeracy document states that it is not the intention for the information to be used in this manner, there is no way to stop this from happening. The Sunday Times is one newspaper that has stated that it is hugely in favour of this. A recent editorial claimed that teachers will now have to be accountable for their children’s results and “as in football, league tables don’t lie.”
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As soon as league tables are published, school will begin focusing on being the highest rated on the list. In order to do this, they will need the highest scores in standardised tests. Therefore, teachers will be pressurised into hothousing children for these tests. Literacy lessons will change from dynamic, creative classes to practicing cloze tests day in, day out. While we will more than likely resist this for a while, inevitably as schools climb up the league tables and others don’t, the hothousing will begin and the culture will be cemented as it is in the UK.
Right now, Irish primary schools are potentially fantastic places for a child to be. I have written extensively on several brilliant things that schools do everyday and evidence of this can be seen on a daily basis on Seas Suas, the web site Nigel Lane and I set up to celebrate the wonderful stuff going on in primary schools around the country. Having said this, yes, there are some teachers out there that don’t engage in great stuff everyday but I would argue it is highly uncommon.
Sometimes when you are entirely focussing on data and “weeding out” ineffective teachers, you cause more damage than you would by simply accepting that not all teachers are amazing. The PISA results, though flawed, showed up that things aren’t all rosy. The literacy and numeracy document adds the extra ingredients to help Irish teachers to get better at evaluating where we are at and most Irish schools, I’m sure, welcome the opportunity to have the tools to do so. I’m sure that the reason to make schools send these reports to the DES is to ensure that everyone does it. However, the offshoot of this is how this will then be used. I would urge Ruairi Quinn to remove or change Section 7.9 of the document as all his great work will mean nothing as schools become hothouses.

0 thoughts on “Killing Primary Education”

  1. I agree that we need change, but I very strongly believe, that on balance, the changes proposed at second level are a disaster in the making.  This is an argument for another day.
    Standardised testing is also being proposed for second level.  Your prediction matches the experience in America with the No Child Left Behind programme of G.W. Bush. 
    There are bad teachers in the system, but high stakes testing is not a method for weeding them out but rather a way to entrench them in the system.  Teachers who can not inspire nor think creatively about their teaching will have no problem with the strait-jacket of standardised testing.
    The way to deal with bad teachers is not to have them become teachers in the first place – rigorous selection, standards-based teacher training, well-supported CPD and school-based peer evaluation would help.
    On the list of the most important people in education in the Irish Times, I counted only 2 practicing teachers. We cannot improve education if we believe the most important movers and shakers are those other than teachers.

    • Thanks for the comment Peter. I agree with you on the prevention strategy rather than weeding out existing teachers.

      • I too would worry about any form of ‘league tables’ being introduced and would agree with pulling away from ‘rote learning’ at second level.
        There is one other thing that Ruairi has done in Primary education, the results of which will not be seen for some years. Well, the results ARE being witnessed on a daily basis but they will not filter through to the Department etc for some time. Ruairi’s short-sightedness in the area of Special Needs Assistants is appalling. There are children already in the mainstream system or new to the system either losing or not receiving the support of an SNA. Regression IS being seen in some of The children who have lost their SNAs .
        As the mother of a child with ASD who started his primary education in a special needs school, transitioned into a full time place in a mainstream school with the full time support of an SNA and who today commenced mainstream secondary school feel that we are proof that this investment in a child’s education is worthwhile. I feel very sad and angry for the children coming behind who may not have the same success due to the cutbacks. My child will continue to blossom, will get a job and will become a tax paying citizen of this country just like his peers.

        • Special Ed is one of the many things being cut from primary schools in the last few years. From bus transport to Traveller grants, it has been a tough few years. No one has gotten away with cuts to education and all children will suffer as a result.

  2. I worked in London when League Tables were introduced there and their presence had huge implications for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 
    As you can imagine the more pupils with special needs there are in a school the lower their position in a League Table. It became a huge ludicrous vicious circle where well off families then pulled their children out of these schools and moved them to schools which were higher up in the League Tables, generally in wealthier type areas. House prices near these schools then rocketed, exacerbating the social divide even more. These schools then inadvertently became exclusive! One of the aspects of the Irish education system that I love is that often you have a really good mix of social classes in schools. This is often not the case in the UK and has huge implications for their society. 

    • Point very well made. This kind of behaviour is already happening in some areas and this will only escalate the problem – though I’m sure there’s a few broke Irish developers who might like the sound of their unsold houses in affluent areas skyrocketing in value.

  3. All these changes and proposals are quite overwhelming.  I just wish that as you go along in adopting these changes, education quality itself would not be sacrifice.  Standardizing everything is really good because you’ll be able to produce a system that can be useful to the education sector. 

  4. As a secondary school teacher I see kids struggle with the transition from primary to secondary on a daily basis. I’m my opinion the primary system as it stands is much more open to experiential learning and I am saddened by the transformation that must happen when these kids enter first year and try and mould themselves into our deplorable rote learning system! League table systems for primary schools will slowly erode the wonderful work that is being done in Irish primary schools.

    • Thanks for the comment Paula! I really fear for the primary system if we go down this route.

  5. The introduction of league tables at primary level will be a retrograde step that will encourage schools to enrol as few children with special needs as possible. The net result will be a school system that is not inclusive.

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