Thoughts on Ruairí Quinn's Plan for Literacy and Numeracy

Ruairí Quinn has figured out how we can improve literacy and numeracy standards in primary schools across the country.  Since the PISA reports damned our education system in late 2010, a number of solutions were offered to our Minister.  Many organisations suggested that we train up teachers and trainee-teachers in more modern teaching methodologies. Some suggested scrapping the dreadful English curriculum that we have to teach and make a better one.  Others suggested that we utilise the tools that children use all the time, that is, technology to help them to learn.  In fact, some of us even had the audacity to claim that the lack of investment in good technology was to blame for the decrease in standards.  Others were questioning whether teachers were even looking at the curriculum before they planned their lessons or were they just teaching the same way they were always taught.  With all this in mind, Ruairí Quinn found the answer: teachers should simply teach literacy and numeracy for longer.  Great.
In a rather unnecessarily long document, Quinn outlines his vision for literacy and numeracy.  In fairness to him, he has recognised that our literacy curricula (both English and Irish) are terrible and he has recommended a “learning outcomes” approach rather than the waffle that is currently there.  However, the headline grabber is that literacy now has to be taught for 90 minutes per day and numeracy for 50 minutes per day.  Now, perhaps I am mistaken, but didn’t Ireland drop dramatically in the PISA numeracy standards and only a little in literacy?  Anyway, with an extra load of time needed for these subjects, obviously Minister Quinn bit the bullet and stated exactly which subjects would have to be cut due to the obvious time constraints.

In recent years, for example, there have been demands from organisations, interest groups and various educators that greater emphasis should be placed in the curriculum on such areas as social and life skills, environmental issues, arts and music education, scientific understanding, and numeracy among others.

That’s about as far as he goes.  I probably don’t blame him though.  Some subjects in our curriculum (and outside of it) are highly emotive.  For example, who would dare suggest decreasing the allotted time for Irish; and let’s not even get into religion.  The drama brigade, who probably rightly felt most at risk, were quick off the block stating on numerous teacher fora the unique skills that drama gives and how cutting it will cost us dearly as we will no longer have these skills to create plays, films and so on.  As a “by the way”, in the UK, drama is part of the literacy curriculum.
However, if I were an SESE subject, particularly one of the social sciences, I would be getting nervous.  History and geography are at risk.  In fact, we enter a bizarre situation where science is being seriously offered as the “sacrificial lamb” in this scheme.
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.
Another step in the wrong direction is the move towards compulsory standardised testing and the inevitable competition between schools who will start launching campaigns showing their average STENs (a score between 0 and 10 of literacy and numeracy scores).  All of a sudden, 7 year-old children are going to be taught to a test, where rote-learning is king just so schools will be able to show off their higher STEN averages compared to the other schools in the village.
I’ve written before on the effect SATs (or some similar form) will have on the lives of our children.  Simply put, it will kill education.
However, there is hope among the 88 pages of this document.  There is one key sentence, which if valued might make this plan work for literacy.

Revise the contents of the English curriculum using a “learning outcomes” approach, specifying clearly what children will be expected to achieve at each stage of the primary cycle (while respecting the child-centred and integrated nature of the Primary School Curriculum)

The bit in brackets is supremely important and, in my opinion,  it is this little bracketed sentence-segment that sets the government’s key challenge that will either succeed or kill our nation’s education system.

0 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ruairí Quinn's Plan for Literacy and Numeracy”

    • Thanks for the comment Dave. You’re saying what some people are thinking but don’t in case they’re lynched by an angry mob of teachers 🙂

      • Well its not as simple as “teachers should spend more time working” if rich kids spend their summers having the occasional read and poor kids don’t (making an absurd generalisation from the research) it might be worth asking, why?

  1. Four interesting points that get missed in all the talk about PISA. 
    1.  While scores in Literacy and Maths declined, we maintained the same rank in science.  This actually represents an increase given that China entered for the first time and bumped everyone down. 
    2. No mention is made of the impact of increasing PTR and various other cutbacks.  The relationship may not be linear, but had investment increased between 2006 and 2009, the results would have been different.   No mention made either of the money that needs to be spent to implement the literacy and numeracy changes.
    3. Irish teachers work above average hours of the OECD countries.
    4.  We are second from the bottom in terms of education spending.  On a pro-rata basis we could expect to be second for the bottom in scores, but we’re much higher – and 15th in Science.
    You’re correct about the standardized tests – one would have though the DOES would ahve looked at NCLB in the USA to see the disaster it has been.

    • Nobody ever looks at the good news I suppose. On your third point, while we do have one of the highest contact time with children, our non-contact time is low. I think a lot of good evaluation work can be done.

  2. Look – we need to accept the findings and rather than ploughing energies into finding excuses and justifying the poor results, we need to reconcentrate the effort, get a proper focus based on a ‘learning intentions’ and ‘success criteria’ lesson approach  in the classroom using the resources that we have and up our game in order to derive better outcomes. Not easy but a reality. + the English curriculum documents need to be quickly reworked to bring absolute clarity to what is required because there’s hardly a teacher in the country that has a good word to say about the way they are currently formulated & expressed. Minister take note.

    • Thanks for the comment, Martin. I think you are generally correct although what you say might annoy some people. Teachers, like most other workers, are rightly angry about being forced to work more for less. Another problem is that teachers have been complaining about the literacy curriculum for years with no response until now. The next problem is that the proposed solution from the government is going to be terrible. I believe we are about to witness the death of our education system if current plans go through. However bad our literacy and numeracy scores have been, the solution is going to make things worse.

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