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.

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