In a letter in the Irish Times (21st March 2011), the authors, Peter Lydon of ‘Gifted and Talented Ireland’ and Catherine Riordan and Karen McCarthy of ‘Irish Gifted Education Blog’ state that – ‘Our education system does not develop our best talent. Gifted or “exceptionally able” pupils are ignored in the Irish education system. While the US, China, India and many European countries have specific, government-mandated provision, we insist that the most able pupils in our classrooms must wait while everyone catches up with “the basics”.’
There is a fundamental problem in what these people write, specifically in how they apply those words ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ to particular children and not to all children. What they appear to want is an elite system of education for those children who, for a variety of reasons, are able to excel in certain subjects or who demonstrate particular talents to a higher degree than is the ‘norm’ – whatever that means.
It is not difficult to understand why some children do well in particular disciplines and many do badly. Physical nourishment during pregnancy, infancy and childhood plays no small part, as does emotional nourishment – sometimes difficult for parents who may lack maturity or support or who may be struggling in extreme conditions for survival. Early intellectual stimulation is also vital, and good quality early schooling helps, particularly in language acquisition and development of other communications skills, and in building self-confidence. The quality of teaching across subjects, size of class, range of teaching aids available, a proper mix of mental and physical exercise, access to external stimuli such as nature studies, music, art, museums, theatre, etc. all play into the development of the child and the opening up of talents and potential.
It is patently obvious that a defining factor in the proper development of the child is likely to be, apart from parental love, economic. Of course there are instances where the child of wealthy parents will not ‘do well’, and conversely that the child of a poor family will. But simple research shows that it is the children of better-off parents, particularly children who have access to private schools, who succeed across a range of professions, while poorer children either do not access university education or, if they do, generally opt for courses that train them for functional employment and not leadership.
Surely we should begin with a different premise – that all children are gifted and talented, until their gifts and talents are stifled. 100 years ago that great educationalist and patriot Patrick Pearse wrote a profound essay on education, a critique of the British education system which he named ‘The Murder Machine’, and his vision of a better way of teaching. That vision can be reduced to the principle of ‘fostering all that is good in the child’. Pearse did not differentiate between poor children and wealthy children. The aim of all teachers, Pearse said, must be to ‘foster all that is good in the child’. But to do that the system must also foster all that is good in the teacher.
The ‘education’ system that we inherited from the British on independence, and did little to change, was one, according to Pearse, whose primary aim was to turn out obedient subjects, ready for work. Rather than stimulating each child’s strengths and potentials it ‘molds’ the child according to the needs of the economic system and the State. That system, from which the only escape could be the privileged private school system whose aims were different to the State controlled public system has failed utterly to foster all that is good in the child, and in fact has failed to provide even the most basic of skills necessary to function in and to enjoy adulthood.
According to the latest OECD findings almost a quarter of our 15 year-olds are functionally illiterate! That is a catastrophic state of affairs, and is matched by abysmal figures for competency in reading and maths. As a teacher at post-leaving cert level these figures come as no surprise to me – they are confirmed from experience. Further, very many school-leavers have little knowledge of history or of the political, social or economic world, and have virtually no philosophical foudation outside of narrow Catholic teachings on which to evaluate a position and make a sound, informed, moral or ethical judgement.
Instead of providing the tools and the space for young people to grow and develop their talents and gifts, and to prepare to be fully functioning intelligent human beings in a fast-changing world, the Irish education system is geared towards using a bogus points system based on supply and demand of and for courses at third level, the most crude way of determining what is wheat and what is chaff. It is an Irish ‘murder machine’. It is a disgrace!
In what purports to be a republic the failure by the State to provide equal access for all children to a top-class system of learning and development must not be allowed to continue any longer. Not only does it create unfair advantage for the few over the many, but it is a grotesquely stupid policy in economic and social terms. Throwing 20-30 per cent of our children onto the scrap-heap to maintain an unfair two-tier system, condemning them to a lack of opportunity to generate wealth for themselves and for the nation, makes no sense at all.
When it comes to education we have to stop being stupid. Nothing less than a revolution in our approach will do. It is time to dismantle the Murder Machine, time to foster all that is good in every child, time to be intelligent.