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.
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 . 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.
 – 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…