Our Stupid Education System

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.

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

2 responses to “Our Stupid Education System

  • Peter Lydon (@peter_lydon)

    Tom, I’ve only just found this and thought it deserved some clarification. Your article seems to confuse ‘gift’ with ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’. ‘Gifted’ is an academic term that has a distinct meaning. It does not preclude other children having gifts. Every child may have a gift; giftedness is the extent to which they have that gift.

    Far from wanting an elite system of education, I would like there to be an egalitarian system of education. The State promised to cherish all children equally, yet gifted children have to sit and wait until weaker students catch up(perhaps not in all subjects but certainly in many). Without going into the details here (you can find them all over the web), this situation produces a heap of negatives for everyone involved.

    Gifted does not mean better. But the norm is well defined (85-115 on WISC). About 5% of children are gifted academically. This 5% comes from all social and economic groups. Consequently, there are many more gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds yet these are the ones who fair worst in the education system as it is currently resourced.

    Finally, you identify many of the factors that contribute to the cognitive development of the child but excluded genetics. While the debate is lively, it is clear that there is a genetic component to giftedness.

    Giftedness is not something a child chooses. Certainly, a middle class child of average ability can achieve better than a working class gifted child. But it is inequality, not nature that lessens the opportunities for the majority of gifted children. It is only fair that gifted children get an education appropriate to their needs.

  • Lucia S

    The irish educational system is ridicouluos. I have a boy in primary school, we are not irish, and we were surprised how very basic the primary school is. You have to wait until the 3rd class -maybe – to have a bit suitable work at school, until then it is more a creche than a school. My son was able to read in two languages at 4 years old, very talented in Maths and Science: we have to do a lot for him to fill his curiosity, obviously at school he is very bored though he mix well with other kids. Apart our work with him (my husband teaches him electronics, programming, I teach him history, Maths and whatever he ask to understand), he is attending CTYI courses, he was excellent at the assessment test, and we pay lots of money for extracurricular activities (violin, german and chinese classes, some sports). The public school for us is like a creche, we are thinking to enrol him in a private school, hoping he will learn something challenge. The economical and psychological effort is huge for us and we think it worths it, but it is a shame the government does anything to support this talented kids in term of economical help for families of talented kids and in terms of educational level in the public schools: Ireland needs talented people as any other country in the world, it is a welcoming country for talented adult people coming from abroad but it does anything for the talented kids growing up in Ireland. That’s a pity.

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