'Focus on data, exam results and league tables is negatively impacting on education’

Friday, June 27, 2014 - 00:00

An escalating focus on data, exam results and league tables is having a negative global impact on education, delegates at Maynooth University ’s Education Forum heard today. Policy makers must move away from evidence-based policy to evidence-informed policy, according to Professor Bob Lingard from the University of Queensland, Australia who was addressing over 100 strategists, policy makers, researchers and practitioners in education as they gathered to debate the theme of ‘Transforming Curricula: Empowering Learners’. 

We must move away from evidence-based policy making, instead focusing on evidence-informed policy making. The focus on achieving a narrow set of data, whether it is exam results, school league tables or third level rankings, is leading to a system which is increasingly detrimental to education. A vision for Irish education is required, framed by what citizens see as a desirable future for the nation - socially, culturally and economically. Education data under evaluation should be expanded to include elements which will lead to a more rounded student and ultimately a better society. This data should inform policy development but policy should not be solely based on data, which is the situation currently.”

Professor Lingard also argued that social inequality needs to be addressed by education policy, redistribution of funding to schools serving the poorest communities, and through broader public policy reforms. “Equitable access to higher and further education can only be achieved through creating an equitable schooling system, including addressing social justice matters in the early years. In times of austerity we must focus our restricted budgets on socially disadvantaged schools and students. Accountability of the system to schools, students and communities is also necessary for a high quality and equitable schooling system. This requires the system to listen to professionals in the schools and students and communities. Our research is showing a marked disconnect between what parents and communities want from their educators, and what schools are being forced to deliver.”

Speaking at the Forum, Dr Kerry Murphy Healey, President of Babson College, Massachusetts, one of the world’s leading entrepreneurial institutions said: “20 years ago there was debate about entrepreneurship and we looked at people such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and said you had to be born like that to be an entrepreneur, it can’t just happen because you go to school.  Students were taught how to write a business plan in a very dry manner. But things have evolved significantly and now we focus on entrepreneurial thought and action.  How do you approach problem solving in an innovative way?  How do you learn to take action, fail, and then pivot to get it right next time. A curriculum needs to constantly evolve in order to stay relevant.”

Exploring the learners’ experience, Professor Gary Granville, Professor of Education, National College of Art & Design said: “A rewarding educational experience for the learner depends on a liberated, empowered and autonomous role for the teacher. Education should be concerned with enhancing the life experience of the learner in the present moment - a 12 year old person is a fully formed entity, not two-thirds of an 18 year old. Educators should be free to engage with the learner as a person in their own right, not as a work in progress.”

Analysing a study of students’ perspectives on their second level education, Professor Emer Smyth, Research Professor and Head of Social Research Division at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said: “Students are generally satisfied with the personal and social development they receive in second level education. However, they do not feel sufficiently prepared for the transition to third level or the labour market. They are moving from a context where students are treated as children, with little input into policy or procedures, to adult life where students are required to be completely independent, making financial and life decisions, with very little preparation for it. Students have also expressed a view that they are not getting the active learning experience that they value and that engages them in learning.”

Dr Anne Looney, Chief Executive, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment focused on the forces shaping the school curriculum in Ireland and elsewhere, the growing political and public interest in what children and young people learn at school and the inevitable controversies and tensions that arise. “We are familiar with the seemingly endless debates about Irish and religion in the school curriculum, but in recent times, contestation has extended to mathematics, history, and to early childhood education and beyond. But we must ask ourselves, where are these debates taking us, and where are they taking our schools?”

Addressing attendees, Professor Philip Nolan, President, Maynooth University said: “Curriculum is an increasingly problematic topic, as we try to match our education system with the needs of our society.  We recognise that content-based curricula by themselves are an inadequate preparation for a world of easy access to information and high expectations for sensible use of that information.  It has become a cliché to suggest that learners need to develop the skills of analysis and critical thinking.  But designing a curriculum that helps to develop those skills, and can engage the full spectrum of learners, is a much more difficult challenge. Today’s Forum was designed to provide an opportunity to think about curriculum at all levels in the education system and provide an opportunity to debate alternatives, and to refine our thinking on the changes that could benefit the sector over the coming years.”

The event was the second Maynooth Education Forum. Presentations are available here.

Photcaption: Madeline Mulrennan, Special Advisor to Department of Health, Prof Bob Lingard, University of Queensland, Dr Kerry Healey, President Babson College and Prof Mary Corcoran, Maynooth University and Anne Looney, NCCA at the Maynooth Education Forum