Mythbuster #2: The Irish Educational System is the ‘Best in the World’

Yesterday brought news of a drop in the standards of Irish education. There is concern in industry – as expressed by John Herlihy of Google that Irish graduates are showing up with impressive qualifications – and spelling and grammatical errors in their CVs.

There has been a huge rise in the number of firsts being awarded at third level and also an upsurge in the amount of  people achieving ‘perfect’ leaving certificate results.

While it is not amusing that the Irish educational qualifications are slipping in terms of their perceived worth, I could not help but be amused at the horror expressed by Batt O’Keeffe, the Irish Minister for Education.

I grew up hearing that the Irish education system was the best in the world and I was privileged to be able to benefit from  it. Then, I just believed what I was told by my parents and my teachers and the nuns. Later, I questioned this assertion. I was fortunate enough to live and work abroad and had the opportunity to examine other educational systems. It didn’t take me long to realise that ours is sorely lacking.

For example, Irish people leave school having studied the Irish language for a minimum of 14 years – yet most would be hard pressed to hold a conversation in that tongue. Irish people also leave school having studied other European languages – French, German, Spanish and Italian – without being in any way fluent in those languages either. At best, they can tell you about their family backgrounds, their favourite foods and hobbies and where they went on holiday last summer. They could probably also book a hotel, ask directions and tell the time in those languages. After that – they would be more than a bit stuck. Certainly, Irish school-leavers do not have the competence in languages their European counter-parts have. This is nothing short of disgraceful.

With regard to science and technology, Irish school leavers lag far behind school leavers in Asian countries. Part of the reason for this is the ridiculous notion, much held in Ireland, that people can’t be good at both languages and sciences. This nonsense is trotted out by parents and teachers alike and subject choices are split along lines which reinforce this myth in many schools. This crazy myth is not promulgated in any Asian school I have visited.

If you empty your wallet into your head, no man can rob you, yet our government chose to shave millions off the budget of the Department of Education and Science this year and class sizes increased. Bigger class sizes mean that each child in those classes does not get the help and attention they need. I know – I’ve taught classes of every size from 15 children (in a private school in Bangkok)  up to 44 children (in a government school in Singapore) –  and believe me, when the numbers go over 22, all you’re doing is crowd control.

Instead of the Irish Leaving Certificate, I would dearly love my children to complete the International Baccalaureate (IB). It’s a far more rounded approach to education and I love the continuous assessment element. In order to have my children sit the IB, however, I’m going to have to move. Either to an area on the other side of the city I couldn’t afford to live in, or to another country. We’ll probably take the latter option – but will avoid Lybia because that’s the only other country on the planet that also uses the Irish Leaving Certificate as the final school examination.

A poor educational system does not mean that Irish people are thick, however. Quite the opposite. They are very clever. Clever enough to figure out the system and how to, if not quite beat it, then to work it. This means learning how to write exams and learning how to write them well enough to score highly on their leaving certificate examinations.  No critical thinking or problem solving skills required.

That, in itself, is a critical problem that needs solving.


Does Why Matter?

There is no good news regarding my data. The book is still on the hard drive (we hope), but has not yet been recovered. My brother could not recover the data, even with the help of a Mac expert at work.

They have one or two other ideas, but I’m not holding my breath. Chances are that Enda won’t be able to do much, either. So I am bracing myself for an expedition to Ontrack Data Recovery – and the attendant expense such a trip would cost.

While that’s the practical side of things, I have taken the loss of my work very hard on another level. I wondered if it might be a sign from God that I’m not meant to write. That, while I might think I’m pretty good at stringing a sentence together, really I’m no great shakes. This was compounded by the fact that, yesterday, I wrote a post for my other blog and, somehow, lost 300 words. I rewrote them. I wasn’t as happy with the re-rewrite as I had been with the original. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d already posted the shortlink to the blog update on Twitter, I wouldn’t have bothered to rewrite at all.

I thought about just giving up writing. I thought that if God is against me and I lose years of work in a flash (literally), then what is the point in continuing to write? I mean, I can’t do it on my own. At some point – after the hard work is done – the stars need to be aligned. The agent you contact needs to be in a good mood and like what you’ve written. The publisher they approach needs to love your work and you need to be bringing it to market at just the right time. While so much of writing is exactly that – writing – in some ways, that’s the easy bit. The hard work – the blood, sweat and tears – will only result in publication if other things which are outside your control happen. In other words, you need a certain amount of luck.

Seeing as how Lady Luck and I have never been the best of friends, I thought this latest happening – losing my book – was a huge sign from God that I should just give up. So I did. I didn’t write for about a week. That is to say, I didn’t put any words down on paper. But I couldn’t stop the words dancing and tumbling around in my head. I couldn’t stop my opinions forming in my head. I couldn’t stop creating and crafting properly-constructed paragraphs in my head. I couldn’t stop.

Maybe I couldn’t stop because I’m not meant to stop. Maybe the whole book losing episode was just a way to tell me to back up rather than a way to tell me that I shouldn’t write. Maybe now is not the right time for my book to go to market. Maybe later will be a better time. Maybe the lesson is not in what happened, but in my reaction to it.

Maybe this has happened so that I could find out how I felt about my book and about publishing it. Maybe this has happened so that, on the bumpy road to publication, I will remember this and remember how much it meant to me and keep going.

The only other time I felt like this was when my ex-husband was threatening to kidnap my daughter. I found out by accident and I was terrified. At the same time, it brought sharply into focus for me what was important to me – my children. Everything else was gravy. I remember lying in bed with an arm around each sleeping child and thinking ‘this is what matters’. Money, work, a nice house, a decent job – none of that mattered. Only my babies did.

There are hundreds of files on my hard drive – short stories, my thesis, pictures of my children, about ten thousand words of a novel, notes made for future work, letters, emails etc. etc. etc. – yet, not one of those items is causing me grief. I would like to get them back, but if I don’t, I don’t, it’s no big deal. My memoir is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. When I think of the hard drive and what’s on it, the only thing that I think of is my book.

As you can tell, I am still living with the conviction that I will see my work again. I cannot bear the thought that it is gone. I cannot bear the thought of all that work having been for nothing. I cannot bear the thought of sitting down and re-writing it. In fact, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t.

I am trying to be philosophical about this experience, but it’s not always easy. The only thing that will make it all right is the recovery of my work. I’m holding out for that.