Putting skills before scores


4 November 2011

One of the most eloquent indictments of education systems as we know them came from Sir Ken Robinson at the TED conference back in February 2006. Speaking to a packed audience, Robinson argued that education systems were geared not towards producing rounded individuals but college professors, a relentless conveyor belt "educating people out of their creative capacities" starting in preschool and ending at the top of a university department.

At last year’s Irish Software Awards then opposition spokesman on education Ruairi Quinn made an impassioned speech about how the myth of Ireland’s ‘world class’ education system has to be dispelled. In particular he argued the standard of mathematics needed to be addressed if schools were to produce the next generation of programmers and developers, the kind of talent needed to drive the Knowledge Economy forward. Since entering his role as Minister for Education and Skills, Quinn has followed up the rhetoric by endorsing a series of proposals for changing the Junior Certificate curriculum that could see an entirely new perspective on learning looking to balance exams with portfolio work, and academic with personal development.

Published last Thursday, a report by the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA) brought together the ideas of the need for more creative thinking and better standards in maths, publishing a radical vision for the Junior Certificate.





Based on sitting fewer subjects with less cluttered curriculums, from 2014 first year students would be assessed on a 40/60% split of portfolio and exam work in eight subjects. The core subjects of English, Irish and Maths would retain their higher, ordinary and foundation level split, while other subjects would have a single level. Core subjects would also have a duration of 240 hours over three years, others would have 200 hours. The Junior Cert would now be recognised as at level three of the national qualifications framework, a level 2 certificate would be introduced for students with special needs.

The NCCA’s proposals aren’t about redefining the length of courses and grading, they look towards finding ways to "strengthen key skills and provide for more flexible forms of assessment" – a system designed for ‘learning outcomes’ over grades. An A1 in English is of little value if a student can’t make a presentation, structure an essay or use a productivity suite like Microsoft Office.

Insofar as the application of technology in schools goes this is encouraging news. Part of the NCCA’s recommendations is the greater integration of technology into lessons, not as an end in themselves. There is already raw material for progress here in the t4 subjects of Architectural Technology; Design and Communication Graphics; Engineering and Technology; and Technology. On top of this are competitions like the Formula One in Schools Challenge and Scratch, both run by the Irish Computer Society, that foster project management, computer-aided design and programming skills.

Teachers will find themselves having to update their skills to handle not just interactive whiteboards but possibly virtual learning environments to micromanage students’ progress and increase teacher availability, and social media and coding skills like how to set up a class blog (as Saint Columba’s English department has done with great success).


Reaction from the Teachers Union of Ireland has been one of cautious approval. In a statment reacting to the proposals the TUI said any reform had to be "underpinned by a full commitment to the availability of the necessary resources for the implementation of any change." Well and good, but this also puts the onus on educators to embrace new learning models and tools. Bad teachers will either fail or refuse to change and this could be disastrous for schools trying to develop a reputation for positive outcomes. The gulf between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the system could become ‘do’ and ‘don’t bother’ as the focus moves to producing rounded individuals.

Watching from afar (and not so afar) will be the Googles, Facebooks, Havoks and Twitters – tech companies whose Irish operations specialise largely in ad sales and customer service, relying on foreign talent in coding and software development. If Ireland can prove its worth as a country that puts a premium on skills, flexible thinking and ethics it can transcend its perception as a convenient location based on low corporate tax rates, and promote its graduates as its most valuable resource again.

The NCCA has asked for it. The Minister has endorsed it. The market needs it. 2014 can’t come fast enough.

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