Moyross, Education, and changing the debate - Thomas Bibby

Every Tuesday evening I volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul, giving leaving certificate Maths grinds to secondary school students in Moyross, Limerick.  It’s been ten years since I last taught in a classroom setting and it’s a nice reminder of the buzz you get when teaching, getting to witness that ‘aha’ moment when one of the students grasps a concept.

Corpus Christi primary school in Moyross, taken last week as I was going in to give my maths grind
Corpus Christi primary school in Moyross, taken last week as I was going in to give my maths grind

Moyross is an area known to many Irish people as one of the most disadvantaged areas in Ireland and the statistics bear this out: according to the Census 2011 Small Area data, the area around Corpus Christi primary school where I go to give the grinds has well over 50% unemployment, nearly 80% of families have only one parent, and less than 5% of adults have a third level eduction [1].  Yet despite the fact that many people from Limerick would never venture this direction it’s actually quite a pleasant place to stroll through: one of the few places you would ever see kids kicking a ball around on the street for example.

Teaching for two hours a week in Moyross isn’t going to drastically change the education landscape, granted, but for me it’s an important contribution.  The culture of ‘grinds’ is well-embedded in the Irish education system, and it’s almost compulsory to get some form of extra tuition to help you through your leaving cert.  This works well for kids who have parents wealthy enough to pay for it (and, anecdotally, many working teachers seem happy to accept payment in cash for this work without bothering the taxman), but for kids who don’t have access to wealthy parents, it puts them at an immediate disadvantage.  I used to rent a house in Dublin where over 75% of my neighbours had a third level education: again the equivalent statistic for the area around the primary school where I teach is less than 5%.  It’s sad to think that our system might be serving to maintain or even widen that gap, rather than close it.

It would be naive to assume that there are easy solutions here, but it’s always struck me that we’ve never managed to have a good discussion about education in this country.  We spend a lot of time talking about inputs (e.g. teacher’s salaries, class sizes and the size of the education budget), but little time thinking about educational outputs and outcomes.  Focusing on our standardised test results in literacy, numeracy and science might be a start.  The 2009 OECD PISA report (results of a standardised test of 15 year-olds across 65 countries) ranks Ireland 21st out of 65 for reading, 32 out of 65 for maths, and 20 out of 65 for science (data taken from this PDF report, from the table on page 15).  Perhaps not extremely shabby, but not exactly wonderful either, especially for a small society hoping to get out of a recession through reaping the benefits of the knowledge economy.

One of our problems is that the debate about education in Ireland is mostly about the producers (i.e. the teachers) rather than the consumers (i.e. the students).  Not that I’m trying to apply some third-rate business thinking to our education system, it’s just that when most of the discussion about education comes from teacher’s unions, who for good reason are concerned primarily about their members’ pay and conditions, we end up missing the point a bit. I don’t have an irrational hatred for the teaching profession or their trade unions – for the record I think the teaching unions do a great job in advocating for their members (indeed, their professional approach makes me think that we’re not making the best of the organising ability of some of our best teachers…), I just think we as a society need to shift the debate a bit on to how we can improve educational outcomes for all our children, but particularly those who live in the country’s most disadvantaged areas.

When I was in first year in college, I shared with an American, Tim, who is now president of TNTP, an American non-profit which focuses on working “with schools, districts and states to provide excellent teachers to the students who need them most and advance policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom”.  I’d love to see a similar organisation in Ireland, advocating for more effective teaching, including better teacher evaluation systems.  Another innovation across the water that I’d love to see in Ireland is Teach for America, a programme which recruits graduates (mostly from the top Ivy League schools – competition is fierce to get in) to teach for two years in inner-city schools.

I did supply teaching for a few months in Ireland before I headed off to Ghana to do volunteer work for two years – I loved the teaching but it was the atmosphere in the staff room which put me off any notions I had of training to be a teacher when I returned from Africa.  It wasn’t just that I was the only one with a lesson plan and a scheme of work, but the pervasive atmosphere of cynicism and unprofessionalism put me off.  My heart goes out to committed teachers who have to put up with that every day.

The kids that I teach every week in Moyross are great, they’re eager, intelligent, funny, and ambitious for their future.  Teaching them makes me optimistic about the future.  I only hope we can give them the education system they deserve to fulfil their potential.

[1] – see http://maps.pobal.ie – you’ll need a Silverlight plugin and a few hours to waste – really this is nerdvana for stats-minded political people…

4 thoughts on “Moyross, Education, and changing the debate

  1. Interesting experience Thomas !

    I see Ireland is sitting at 32/65 on the Maths scale – not very impressive for a country proud of it’s education system.

    I wonder what it would have been back in the 70’s when an Honour in Maths was worth two Honours (back then it was honours that got one into college). So it was equivalent to two subjects.

    That in today’s points system would be saying that Maths was a 200 point subject, and not the 130(?) its jumped to lately.

    Irish students are capable of reaching that standard if the incentives are put in place. But if its much easier pick up the points in Ag-Science, why work at Maths?

    The recent increase in Maths points is an improvement, but it has to be made 200 points to match the incentives of the 1970’s.

    I could be factually wrong here. Let me know if I’m incorrect, please !

    John

    1. @John – I’m not sure how effective the points incentive would be – although it will be interesting to see if the 25 point bonus introduced in 2012 has any effect.

      The interesting thing about the distribution of maths grades is that more students get an A at Higher Level ( 13.4% in 2011) than almost any other subject (e.g. English at 10.4%), yet more people fail maths than most other subjects – contrast the 5% who failed pass maths with the 2.7% who failed pass English.

      My suspicion is that those figures point to the fact that there is nothing wrong with the attraction of maths as a subject, or even the easiness of the subject itself, rather that many students aren’t getting enough teaching of good enough quality to get more than a rudimentary grasp of the subject. And the real tragedy is that nobody seems to mind that much.

  2. Hi, Thomas –
    We talk about this very same topic in our house quite a bit – of course, we talk about South Boston rather than Moyroos, though. My brother and wife taught physics and math in Dorchester, respectively. They are concerned with students falling further behind rather than catching up or advancing, and both look to the environment and experiences of students outside the classroom as a primary driver of educational achievement.

    I agree that most large education systems are broken, and that dedicated teachers and volunteers are only a part of a solution. Teach for America is incredibly competitive…I’d like to see a program that targets a broader spectrum of volunteers than just recent college grads. I’m looking forward to more posts.
    -W

    1. @Wendy – interesting hearing about the situation in the US. The one think that strikes me about the US is at least the voting public seems to care a bit more about education – I remember reading about the uproar when George W. Bush introduced the No Child Left Behind Act – which regardless of the merits of the Act itself seemed to indicate that Americans cared deeply about how their kids were educated. I’m just not sure I see the same evidence here.

      I think you make an interesting point about the wider environment and its influence on students – it does seem unfair to place the burden of ‘fixing’ large and complex problems in our society solely on the shoulders of teachers.

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