Education: Competing Against the World
Everything hinges on how well students perform on the Leaving Cert, a series of exams at the end of secondary school.
Irish parents select their child's school; half of the children don't attend the nearest school. Admission is nonselective at government-supported schools, but the wait list at desirable schools can be long. Secondary school begins at age 12 or 13 with three years of junior level studies, ending with the Junior Cert exams on nine to 11 subjects covered in the three years.
After three years of junior level, about half of the students take the great innovation in Irish education, the transition year. Not tied to any exams, the "TY" is designed to develop a person socially and personally and can include cycling to Irish sites, work experiences, "fun" courses such as oceanography, volunteering or foreign travel. "A wonderful year, a splendid year," says Susie Hall, former president of the nation's secondary school teachers union who is also a foreign languages teacher and a year head who's responsible for a group of students from the time they enter the school at age 12 or 13 to when they leave at age 18 or 19. Her school, Malahide Community School 10 miles north of Dublin, is huge by Irish standards, with 1,200 students.
The final two years of secondary school are built around the Leaving Cert exams. "The strength of the Irish system," Hall says, "is that it does give them a very, very broad education to a very high standard." Indeed, only 5% of students take an alternative continuous-assessment program, which is widely seen as for weaker students and those not interested in higher education. Interestingly, research shows about 20% of the student population isn't suited to the Leaving Cert regimen, but most choose to stay on the more rigorous track anyway to better prepare them for their future, says professor Sheelagh Drudy, head of the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at University College, Dublin.
Ireland does well in comparisons of student performance and satisfaction. The teaching profession still draws high-caliber students. Education is the second-highest item in the budget, but Ireland's education spending as a share of GDP isn't high compared to Europe overall. "I think the great thing about Irish education is the respect it holds in the national" mind, Keogh says.
The system, despite its strengths, has issues. One is immigration, especially in more urban areas, in a country that has been a nation of emigrants. Ireland also sees a need for more scientists. It only recently added science to the primary school curriculum.
The Leaving Cert gets its share of debate on whether the exams are given too much importance and whether they address the needs of all students and employers. Still, the consensus is that the exams are fair in a small country where connections might otherwise hold sway. "Now it doesn't matter whether your father and mother are doctors. What matters is your score on your Leaving Certificate," says Drudy.
Stephen is well aware of that. A clarinet player in two bands and a youth orchestra, who gave up piano in the crunch of preparing for the Leaving Cert, he feels he did well, but then there's math. "I'm a bit worried about it," he says. "Your life is based on how well you do on two and half weeks of exams in June after two years of study."