Bringing Maths and Students Face to Face Online

project mathsIt was only a matter of time before an entrepreneurial mind addressed students struggle with Maths as a subject and also devised a medium that is relevant to them as ‘digital natives’ to mathematically engage and test them. Aftermath: the new maths based software has captured the imagination of students and parents alike. It has been created to encourage children to enhance their maths ability in return for time that can be spent browsing social networking sites such as Facebook. Afterall, our young students are ‘tech-savy’ and they require technology to engage them to learn. We, the ‘digital immigrants’ into their technologically conditioned minds and worlds can only imagine the challenges that the traditional classroom poses for them.

Parents can install the programme and choose which websites they want to feature maths questions on, that must be answered, before their site of choice can be accessed. Aptly titled, the ‘Aftermath’ software is suitable for children aged between 11 and 16-years-old and requires them to answer a series of multiple choice questions, with credits awarded for each question they get correct. These credits can then be used for internet time – depending on the difficulty of the maths problem completed. ‘The game adapts the standard of questions based on the student’s ability in previous tests,’ according to the software developer.

Why should a parent access such software for their children? There are a number of concrete reasons: it controls unlimited use of the internet; it teaches students that they are rewarded for work completed; it is relevant to their technological and cultural experience, and in essence it becomes a game to them – which is a highly creative way to get them to connect with maths. The need to succeed is connected to their need to use sites like Facebook etc. – a need, most students can’t do without fulfilling!

There is a real need to get students to connect with this often testing subject; their future success is often (not always) determined by a student’s maths ability and success rate.  The Expert Group on Future Skills needs has outlined in the past how Ireland must raise its level of mathematical attainment to ensure healthy competition with other economies. A sufficient supply of people with mathematical, science and ICT skills is essential to Ireland’s future social and economic development.

Whilst many Maths teachers continually face the daily disruptive classroom question: I don’t need Maths; it is now well known that Mathematics is important, because it is the shared foundation to many other disciplines like science and technology. It is a crucial requirement for the growth of the knowledge economy. What the teacher has to consistently tell the student is: you need Maths as an essential stepping stone into college, apprenticeships, and many places of work. Not an easy task! As outlined by the Expert Group: Mathematical skills enable people to fully participate and work in a modern society. Improving national mathematical achievement is therefore vital for students on a personal and economical level.

The government has become quite proactive themselves in this area: the new maths syllabus ‘Project Maths’ and the awarding of bonus points to those who get at least a D grade in leaving certificate honours maths. However, students are still relatively slow in taking Higher-Level Leaving Cert Mathematics. Has Project Maths worked? This year there has been a dramatic fall in the number of students failing maths in their Leaving Certificate. However 4,000 still failed maths this year, which is down by 20% on recent years, but it still means a lot of students cannot access apprenticeships or fail to get into the majority of Higher Education Courses that require Maths as an entry requirement.

The leaving certificate results in August did provide good news for advocates of the Project Maths initiative – with a significant improvement in performance at higher level. According to official figures, of the 11,000 students who took the higher level maths exam, where a record 97.7% achieved a D grade or higher, leaving a failure rate of 2.3%. This compares with 8,000 students with a failure rate of 8.6% in 2011. These figures are welcome news for the science and technological sectors who are crying out for students with the necessary skills and drive to help make Ireland a centre of excellence. However, there were a lot of students who did question the higher level maths questions and how relevant they were to the project maths course that was actually covered in class. Perhaps the government needs to address the gap that exists between what students are learning and what they are actually being tested on as part of this new Maths syllabus.

This new Maths software is probably one example of what is to come in terms of technological incentives to do Maths. Alongside completing maths questions and engaging with Maths in a medium familiar to them: Aftermath ensures that students do not have unlimited and unstructured access to the worldwide web, which can actually be more detrimental to their learning experience than beneficial.

Catriona Lowry

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Over 5000 Teachers in the Line of Fire

Teacher - Budget CutsTeachers pay and allowances is always a contentious issue. The lengthy holidays with a working week of nearly half the hours of private sector workers have always made teachers and their perceived ‘perks’ a target for debate. Teachers themselves find it equally emotive and tiring; defending a profession that is day by day losing its credibility.

Some said it was just a matter of time; when it was announced that more than 5,000 teachers face losing their allowances under a government review. This is despite a European Commission report that found that Irish teachers’ pay has been among the worst affected by cuts to education systems across 34 countries.

What is up for the sharp blade of the government’s budget cut? An expected target is an allowance of between €532 and €1,572 paid to more than 2,750 primary and post-primary principals. In addition to this possible cut are principals who are in receipt of a payment for acting as secretary to the school board of management. The similar payment of an allowance to principals acting as secretary to a board of management in an Institute of Technology is also under review. Finally, special allowances paid to teachers who teach through the Irish language, work in the Gaeltacht or who work on an island, face possible abolition. Not an easy subsidy to let go of, especially if it is worth €3,063 to about 780 primary and post-primary teachers.

To-date, these seem to be the priority cuts to make but of course all is still pending on discussion with the Trade Unions involved. However, this is now good news for a profession that is continually a media target when it comes to the public versus private sector pay debate, with the latter winning out most of the time.  The teaching profession seems to have a difficulty mending the perforation causes by years of cuts and attacks which have gone a long way to lessen their once well-established credibility.

Teachers who have started work since the beginning of 2011 started on 13% less than their fellow teachers. Those appointed since last February faced a further 20% drop on foot of suspended qualification and other allowances. However these have subsequently been halted for anybody who started teaching after last February as part of last month’s public service allowance review. A new revised salary scale for new teachers has now marginally reduced the overall impact of the cuts. The starting pay of any new teacher since February 1 is €30,702; this is in contrast to €32,240 for those who started between Jan 2011 and that date, and €37,000 for new teachers in 2010.

The three unions representing teachers are preparing an equality case on behalf of those who started last year on the grounds of unfair treatment due to age, which they hope could make the campaign to reverse the cuts easier. Their strong argument is based on a question of fairness – that people doing the same job are on different pay rates.

It is hard to see how this profession will continue to attract a certain calibre of staff; which is a vision held by the Minister for Education’s – to attract prestigious graduates into teaching to drive the economy forward. The on-going attack on their wages and on their credibility will in essence drive a certain cohort away from this profession.

The reality is: a full time teacher may work 22 hours a week (the actual contact time between the teacher and his/her pupils or school); this does not take into account the actual preparation time that goes into every class. Afterall subject inspectors at any given time can enter a class and correlate a teachers planning folder with the contents of students’ copies. The 22 hours does not include: pastoral time that many teachers give for free to pupils in need and more so in the absence of the guidance provision of times gone by; time given to extra-curricular activities, and teacher & parent meetings.

Yes, the government has to make cuts, and when one considers that 80% of government spending is taken swallowed up by education, health and social welfare – it is difficult for any profession especially as large as the teaching one to escape this budget.

There will always be those in the media and private sector who will continue their campaign to challenge teachers. Many teachers would welcome them into a class of teenagers, of mixed ability, or in the case of some primary schools – mixed year classes and say: ‘see how you get on’. Perhaps public sympathy might sway more towards the teachers if the media reported their findings on a day spent in such a classroom.

For now, yes, the cuts are imminent. It will be interesting to see if the CAO Teaching Courses be in as much demand after this next much feared budget?

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Executive PA & Specialist Secretarial Open Day at Pitman Training Swords

Pitman Training SwordsThere’s usually just one reason to train – to help you secure a great job. This is what Pitman Training Swords is all about; over the years, many students have found career satisfaction and success after training with Pitman Training Swords.

There are numerous reasons for deciding to train with Pitman Training. You may want to update your skills or seek promotion at work. Perhaps you are thinking of going back to work or changing careers. Pitman Training Swords has helped many people change careers, – from insurance clerk to Legal Secretary – from Auctioneer to Medical Secretary and from Air Hostess to PA. Their comprehensive range of Diplomas has enabled people to do just that.

Of course, reasons to train are personal and will depend on your aspirations and career to date. The Course Advisors are skilled at understanding students’ needs and helping you choose the best course. Pitman Training Swords combine an analysis of your past experience, future wishes and knowledge of the employment market in your area to help guide you through the choice of courses.

Call in any time on Wednesday 24th October between 12pm – 7pm and the friendly, experienced advisors will be on hand to advise you.

Pitman Training Swords can be found in North Street, Swords, or on the Internet at: If you are social media-savvy, you can also find them on Facebook and Twitter!

Click Here to view Pitman Training Swords courses on

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Success in a Recession

Start Your Own Business Courses‘If I could start again, I would set up more businesses during recessions . . . such a climate is perfect for young, enthusiastic and nimble companies to set up and thrive. This is one of those times.’ Richard Branson, writing for the Telegraph, outlined this optimistic opinion on starting a new company in recessionary times.

Indeed, many of us might not consider a recession to be the ideal parent to give birth to a brand new company. However, some of the most successful businesses have had their origins in recessionary times: Hewlett Packard, Burger King, CNN and Hyatt Hotels, to name but a few. These companies are now multi-billion dollar corporations.

There are a number of concrete advantages to starting a business during a recession. Firstly, starting a business takes time, energy and determination; requirements that a lot of people fulfil when faced with unemployment, but yet have a hunger to work and succeed. After all, during a period of growth, we are busy chasing ourselves to keep up with workloads and hectic lifestyles – not to mention ‘The Jones’.

What can a recession offer a start-up business?

– Start-up costs such as labour and office space are more affordable, and their availability is not an issue during a recession

– There are many State financial incentives to hire staff, such as the government Intern scheme

– Grants are readily available to new companies through local enterprise boards

– There is a surplus supply of highly qualified people to employ

– Setting up a business in a recession teaches you key business endurance skills. Once the recession ends and economic growth returns, you will be left with a business capable of operating in a harsh economic climate, and  subsequently ready to reap  the rewards of sustainability and survival

– Other businesses and companies that struggle during a recession welcome fresh ideas from new businesses which could revitalise their existing business

– Media are always on the look-out for success stories in a recession; this offers a new company many opportunities for free public relations and editorial

Yes, starting a new business at the best of times can be a risky affair. They do say those who fail to plan – plan to fail. Before commencing your new business, it is essential that you look at you – the roots of the new venture. Nothing grows if the roots are inadequate to support the various branches of any business. Regardless of your qualifications and experience, many of us lack basic business skills like how to set up a business. Therefore, it is advisable to participate in a course that will equip you with the knowledge and ‘know how’ to ensure your business has the start and support it deserves.

Griffin College run a Level 3 ‘Business Start-up for Today’s Entrepreneur’ course. This is a Distance Learning course. As part of this course, the student will complete eight different modules, including: market research and writing a business plan.

Another added incentive in completing a ‘start your own business course’ is: when you present your business plan to an agency for grants (perhaps) or to a bank for finance, you will be more credible in their eyes with such a course completed.

Ireland has been in recession now for a number of years; yet, in 2010 over 14,000 new companies were set up in Ireland by entrepreneurial people who were willing to take risks. A recession does require risk takers to kick start growth and to create jobs. There has never been a better time to start a new business; the government has put into place a diverse range of incentives to encourage such start-ups. Sometimes all it takes to take you out of unemployment is a leap of faith into an entrepreneurial world!

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End of an Era – Junior Cert Overhaul

When it was announced by the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, that there would be a major overhaul of the Junior Cert examination; the country awaited the inevitable response from the teachers unions. It came as two words: ‘deeply regrettable’.

Through the lens of the unions, these extensive changes, with the end-of-cycle exam being replaced with a school-based model of assessment, are questionable for a number of diverse and quite complex reasons. The most controversial of these proposed changes for the unions will be that teachers will now assess their own students. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland sent a stern message to the Minister that the removal of an externally-based assessment model will impact negatively on what is seen as the impartiality of an externally assessed exam. ASTI general secretary Pat King said: ‘While there is an overwhelming consensus that the current Junior Certificate needs to be reformed, it is most regrettable that the Minister has announced the end of what is for students, parents and teachers: a credible, independent, objective and fair examination’.

The contentious issues:

– The reforms were done without the consultation of the education partners: teachers and parents
– The high status of a final exam will be obliterated with continuous assessment
– Continuous assessment by class teachers will lack impartiality
– Reforms are driven by budgetary rather than educational rationale
– A concern that fee paying schools and those schools based in wealthy areas will have an exclusive advantage over those schools in poor socioeconomic areas

In response the Minister continues to reinforce the fact that ‘there is compelling international evidence that students will perform better by moving away from terminal ‘high stakes’ exams like the Junior Cert.’  With an end of cycle Junior Cert exam replaced with a school-based model of assessment, there will be an emphasis on the quality of students’ learning experience. It is planned that this will be done on a phased basis with English being the first subject to be introduced to First Year students in 2014. Mr Quinn outlined that the new ‘lower stakes’ Junior Cert will represent a programme which will allow students to develop a wide range of skills, including: critical thinking skills and basic skills such as numeracy and literacy – competencies that are continually pioneered and promoted by the European Union and Educators.

In the new exam, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will still continue to be involved in the assessment of English, Irish and Mathematics. These subjects will be examined at higher and ordinary level, while all other subjects will be assessed at common level – similar to the current CSPE model. Teachers will be supported by the SEC and the NCCA, who will furnish them with resources to assist in on-going assessment of students’ progress and achievement.

The general consensus of the pro-changes side is ‘about time’. This announcement by the Department of Education has sparked a huge tug of educational opinions and biases. The general secretary of Irish Vocational Education Association, Michael Moriarty, differs to the teacher unions in opinion when he came out to say: ‘the proposed changes to the Junior Certificate should make it possible for students to engage more with their teachers and with curriculum.’ Whilst IBEC, the group that represents Irish businesses, welcomed the reforms with head of education policy Tony Donohoe stating that the reform, ‘could prove to be the most important education reform of recent years.’

Adding to the pro-changes debate, Education officer of the Irish Second-level Students’ Union, Brendan Power, said: ‘The new Junior Cycle has the capacity to revolutionise the educational experience of future second-level students in Ireland. I firmly believe that the new Junior Cycle will result in a more practical and functional education for students and prepare them for life and future education, rather than train them for exams.’ The minister did describe his plan as ‘the most radical shake-up of the junior cycle programme since the ending of the Inter Cert in 1991’. Many arguing for change believe that the education system needs more of these type of radical sweeping changes.

The reality is Ireland needs to start producing employees with a capacity for more than rote learning and who are actively engaged in their education rather than passive assimilators of large chunks of material that they simply regurgitate in a final state exam. Domestic and global companies need graduates and employees with ability to investigate, analyse, communicate, and manage themselves and others. The European Union in 2006 said that schools needed to teach students key competencies that included the basic subjects along with key skills like how to learn, how to communicate and how to engage using other languages apart from their native one. According to those in favour of this new curriculum, there now will be a real opportunity to develop these skills from first year.

Schools can also choose from a menu of subjects from Chinese, Physical Education to Digital Technology and students will study these eclectic modules alongside Maths, English, and Science etc. This subject combination clearly recognises that students possess any number of different intelligences and not just those related to literacy and numeracy. Up until these proposed changes, students who lacked ability in these two intelligences were let down by an education and exam system that never tested their own individual intelligences that could range from kinaesthetic to interpersonal skills.

There are certain cohorts of students who are excluded from education because they are not being engaged in the classroom; they often lack the traditional perceived idea of what is intelligence and therefore they fail to stay focused or be motivated for three years – often leaving school early. It is often the case that it is this exam that becomes their first and last experience of a state examination; it becomes a measurement of their ‘tested’ ability. This new state exam will not jeopardise those who normally do well in class tests and exams; infact it will add to their educational experience and personal development. What remains unseen for now but essentially is a real probability; those students who struggle to stay in school will now be engaged and encouraged by a junior cert cycle that recognises multiple intelligences and is supported by continuous assessment.

The former Governor of Mountjoy, John Lonergan, once said: ‘The problem with the Irish education system today is the fact that we are told what to think, instead of how to think.’ He has witnessed first-hand what happens young men who leave school early with poor literacy and numeracy skills. There is a correlation between these poor skills and criminality, and obviously unemployment. These changes are one step closer to real inclusive education.  The new Junior Certificate will instil in students that there is more to education than points. However, it is ironic that they will have to return to this mind-set when they face the leaving certificate cycle, post Junior Cert – which ironically remains unchanged.

Catriona Lowry

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October 2012 E-Bulletin

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Ireland’s Third Level Education through the OECD Lens

oecd reportThe latest OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) ‘Education at a Glance’ report reveals that the position of Irish universities on a world ranking scale has remained largely static this year. However, the Higher Education Institutes have issued a reality check on such optimistic OECD statistics; they question both their relevancy today and point to the now difficult task in maintaining such a ranking amidst current and continuous budgetary cutbacks.

Without doubt, the International reputation of higher education in Ireland has received a boost from a new global ranking system. The Irish third-level system is ranked 16th among 48 countries, ahead of Germany and even Japan. These rankings measure 20 factors across four categories: resources, environment, connectivity and output. Their relevancy comes under criticism because the rankings were compiled in 2009 before a series of staff and other cuts in Irish colleges were implemented.

It wasn’t all good news for Trinity College Dublin; they have dropped two places from 65th to 67th internationally. In response, Trinity College’s Dean of Research Professor Vinny Cahill still maintained that it is positive that new rankings show that the performance of Ireland’s institutions has stabilised following a recent downward trend, despite cuts in university funding and grant aid to students. However, UCD has increased its standing slightly from 134th to 131st place but UCC has fallen nine places to 190th. Out of 48 countries, the US, Sweden, and Canada emerged as having the best systems. However, to be rated ahead of Germany and Japan, and several European countries is a boost to the third-level system in Ireland, and will more than likely contribute to attracting more International students to these shores especially when some of our universities remain among the world’s top 300 or 400.

The government must welcome the OECD’s report as it reveals that men who graduate in Ireland will pay back almost six times the amount of public money invested in their education, in taxes etc. This figure makes optimistic reading when one considers that this compares to an average of a four-fold return across the OECD.  Women graduates in Ireland also represent greater value for money to the Exchequer than their counterparts elsewhere. On average, a woman who graduates will contribute two-and-a-half times the cost of her third level education. However, that figure rises to three-and-a-half times in Ireland. On average, Irish graduates can over their working lives expect to earn up to €190,000 more than those who did not proceed to higher education

The report’s figures again reiterate that people with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely to become unemployed. However, time will tell and show the positive results of ever increasing access for mature learners and FETAC learners into our third level college system, with a large cohort coming from areas with poor educational attainment. It seems regrettable that it takes the majority of those from socio-economically disadvantaged areas to get to the age of 23 or over to consider third level education or to be eligible for college courses in the absence of the standard leaving certificate. Another issue of concern is the government’s continuous rising contribution fee which is creating a stumbling block for those who are just on the edge of financial survival. These students often come from PAYE families who do not have the contribution fee waived for them due to marginally failing to meet the criteria for a maintenance grant.

Higher Education Authority chief executive, Tom Boland said that the latest ranking was positive news for Ireland, hard-working colleges, their staff, and students.  He particularly welcomed the ‘Output Ranking’ which measures research and its impact, and the extent to which labour market needs are met by an educated workforce — Ireland was rated 17th for these areas. Projecting market needs and implementing and adapting college courses are key to producing graduates with relevant qualifications. An example of how colleges respond to market demands is in the area of Engineering; whilst civil engineers have significantly fallen in demand, there is a demand for energy engineers; something colleges have recognised. There are now a range of excellent energy engineering courses available to students. Also, the number of HEI conversion courses now available, reveal a proactive third level system who are offering much hope for graduates whose defunct degrees often force them to join the rising unemployment figures or to emigrate.

Overall the Irish education system is seen globally as one of the most efficient and effective in terms of the graduates produced. However, one is still drawn to the existing shortage and predicted shortages of home produced graduates with certain key skills like languages and IT; perhaps lessons will finally be learnt and importing skilled workers in key areas may become less necessary in the future.

Catriona Lowry

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The Lucrative Grinds Industry

studen grindsThere seems to be a common denominator arising time and again when it comes to our secondary level education and exam system; it is not a case of success to the brightest but predominantly success to the richest. Educational attainment and progression often comes down to having the means to access private tuition and grinds schools in addition to a student’s secondary school education.

In Ireland, grinds are private tuition offered on a one-to-one level or in a group setting. This has become a lucrative industry in Ireland, particularly at secondary school level. The ‘grind’ school system is now a €20m industry.

When one looks at how we store and retrieve information from our memory (repetition and recall); it is easy to comprehend how a grind works. A grind(s) works by repeated repetition and individual testing; ensuring the long term memory becomes a rich pasture to plant and reap information. There is an ‘intelligence’ to rote learning and the grind system has perfected it.

This unfairness of our education system (largely due to the grind industry) has been highlighted again by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), who have called for the entry and selection test for entry to university medical schools (known as the Hpat) to be abandoned. In a brave move, the Institute says the test gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford expensive grinds. Gerry Flynn, the Institute’s president, said: ‘the available evidence suggests students who retake the test and those who attend expensive preparatory courses obtain a significant advantage over those who have taken the test for the first time and have not enrolled in the preparatory courses.’

It is often the case that a market is created for goods/services by convincing the consumer that they can not achieve a certain lifestyle without it. The grind industry which is the ‘child’ of a competitive points system has created students who are hungry for after-hours intense lessons, study groups, lectures, and online classes.

What is this costing the parent/guardian? At a minimum, 35 euros per grind and this figure can go up to 55 per grind (depending on the subject and teacher involved). At leaving certificate level a student takes up to 7 subjects; the maths is easy to do in this case as to what grinds for one academic year could possible cost for a parent/guardian. In fact, some grind schools charge up to 1000 euros for one subject for one year.

The teachers unions warn against buying into grinds when they consider that all they do is repeat what is going on in the classroom – something a student should be able to do independently at home during study/homework time. This is perhaps where the kernel of the issue lies: we are not promoting independent workers or thinkers anymore and perhaps it is sheer laziness that a student needs to acquire a private tutor to make them do their subject course work or pay a fee to actually study.

What is the irony of this grind debate? The majority of those taking private tuition are made up of those who tend to do well academically anyways who predominantly come from middle and upper-class backgrounds. The students who perhaps could do with extra educational support; those from poor socio-economic backgrounds and those with learning needs are not necessarily accessing grinds. They either simply cannot afford it or do not come from a cultural background

where additional support is seen as valuable. This same argument was recently highlighted by the The Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI).

If over 40% of students are taking grinds and the majority come from homes with a cultural background of educational attainment and ability; how does a student who comes from a starkly contrasting educational and cultural background compete with these students on the points ladder?

There are bodies that are looking to ‘balance the stakes’. ‘Engineers Ireland’ offer free tutorials for Leaving Certs and their courses are in demand. Who is actually taking up the offer of free tutorials would make an interesting read for those who continually seek to create a fairer and more accessible education system.

Will the Minister for Education follow through on looking at whether the Hpat should remain in existence and listen to Guidance counsellors who argue that this exam has done little to ease the CAO points pressure on students. The writing seems to be on the wall: those who can afford the expensive preparatory H-pat courses do well in this exam as opposed to those who can’t afford the luxury of participation. The Guidance Counsellors label this test as ‘a further obstacle to stated Government policy of promoting equality of access and opportunity’. The Institute is urgently calling on the Minister for Education ‘to examine the available evidence and request the medical colleges to abandon the practice of putting additional obstacles to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds accessing medical courses’. It is evident that the Hpat has done little to widen access to the profession as the Department of Education and Medical profession hoped it would.

Prior to this growth industry, we all pretty much were on the same level playing field where our natural aptitude, ability and interests put us in our pre-destined place. The reality was students went into various jobs: teachers, doctors, nurses etc., or went into direct employment; without going through and being conditioned by this lucrative grinds machine. The reality is that on paper we are producing a high calibre of students but the reality is a student population less able to work and think independently.

The good news is that according to the latest OECD report on education in Ireland; compared to other countries, students who are educationally disadvantaged are more likely to progress to third level than those in other OECD countries. For example, 51% of second-level students whose parents have low levels of education go to third level. This is compared with an OECD average of 33%. Where the 49% go remains to be documented accurately.

Sometimes anecdotal evidence speaks louder than facts and statistics. Recently, one leaving certificate student told an honours English Secondary Teacher, as the teacher tried to promote dialogue and discussion in the classroom: ‘just give us the information or photocopy it. I need to get an A’. Yes, we have come along way!

Catriona Lowry

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The Reality of Educational Cuts in Secondary Schools

secondary school class sizesThis September many students walked into familiar classrooms and many took a seat; those late to arrive looked to the teacher, wondering where to sit in the absence of not just chairs but space. We don’t miss what we never had; however, this current generation of students are accustomed to a maximum of 25 in their classes. This September, the classroom setting has changed, with many students joined by an additional 8 to 9 students. Ask any assertive and empowered adult would they contain – yet alone teach a class of up to 34 teenagers in a confined space and you might just hear a resounding ‘Not a chance’. Yet, this is what teachers today are facing in packed classrooms, made of students with probably a number of diverse abilities and ambitions.

There are schools who are dealing with budgetary cuts in the same manner as a manager of any factory/company would do – they are making serious internal cuts. In the case of a school day, many are creating everything from study periods in the absence of subject teachers available to reduced timetables for some students. The Department of Education has responded by warning schools that they could face serious consequences if they send students home early or cancel classes because of cuts in staffing. Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, is concerned at unconfirmed reports that secondary schools have chosen to deprive students of tuition time. There are many principals that would welcome Ruairi Quinn’s alternative plan to work with his cuts.

About 800 jobs have been cut from 720 secondary schools by the inclusion of guidance counselling into overall teacher allocations this year, forcing schools to decide between less guidance provision, reduced subject choices, larger classes or a mix of those measures. A recent news report reported that one secondary school is sending younger pupils home early four days a week after axing a class, and another was replacing some taught classes with study periods — both in order to maintain the level of guidance and counselling for students. These are schools that for very good reasons recognise that they must maintain a guidance and counselling service in their schools. After all, little education can be attained by a child distressed or with emotional behavioural difficulties in the first place. It is not just the said child that is affected but the class that contains him/her.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) recently said that it can understand why a principal might make a choice to reduce class times for some students. ‘We don’t know any schools where it’s happening, but it is a sign of the tough choices they are facing.’ For some schools, they have already cut subjects or merged higher and ordinary-level classes,’ a spokesperson said. The probably reality is: principals are getting creative with the budgetary cuts but nobody wants to formally admit to it – certainly not the Department of Education.

The most recent OECD’s annual education report shows that Irish second-level schools out-perform most other countries. The report shows that Ireland has one of the highest school completion rates in the world with only two countries out of 26 coming ahead of Ireland. The average school completion rate for OECD countries is 84%, while in Ireland it is 94%. It is widely accepted that completing second-level education is highly correlated to employment status, lifetime earnings and according to the ASTI General Secretary Pat King, ‘A country’s completion rates for second and third-level education are vital to the development of a workforce which can compete in the global knowledge economy and ensure long-term economic growth.’ However, the ASTI has issued a stern and realistic warning to the Government that Ireland’s education ‘successes’ are under serious threat due to four years of Budget cuts. They also highlighted that the OECD’s educational findings does not take into account the impact of the cuts on second-level schools as the findings presented mainly relate to data collated before the cuts took place. The impact and results of continuous reduced funding, loss of teachers and the axing of vital support services on schools, such as Guidance and Counselling has yet to be measured and evaluated.

Recently, there was a news report that outlined how incensed parents were when their children attending a particular school were asked to bring in their own toilet paper. As humorous as this maybe for the reader of the report; this is just one example of the measures that principals have to resort to – in order to keep the school doors open. Hardly comparable to cutting classes or overcrowded classrooms but still evidence of the times we live in and an indication of what is yet to come. The next OECD report will no-doubt be a very different read in terms of our education ‘successes’.

Catriona Lowry

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The Junior Cert – The State Exam Where Fairness Prevails

junior cert examThis year 58,798 thousand candidates received Junior Cert results. This is an increase of over 3% on last year. There was a time, not too long ago, when the Junior Cert was the first and last state exam for some students; destined for direct employment or apprenticeships. With many apprentices left today unemployed or unable to finish their apprenticeship programme (due to the lack of employers to take them on for the job phase of their apprenticeship and the collapse of the construction industry); it is little wonder that more and more young men especially, are choosing to remain on in school after the Junior Certificate. This not only gives rise to the numbers sitting the Junior Certificate and their subsequent Leaving Certificate – it also contributes to an increase in the actual level of grades achieved. Education is taking on a new found importance with a certain cohort of students who once just saw it as a finishing line to leaving their secondary education. According to the report ‘Monitoring Ireland’s Skills Supply 2012’ (in relation to students competing the leaving certificate): the retention rate in schools rose from 84.8% (2000 cohort) to 87.7% (2004 cohort – exiting in 2009 or 2010).

The Junior Cert Exam gives students their first experience of the state exams process and is invaluable in guiding them as they prepare for Senior Cycle and their Leaving Cert. A quick glance of a master copy of the results in any given school will have one striking characteristic, the grades seem more similar across the board and there is more an equal sharing of A’s B’s and C’s amongst students. This makes the Junior Certificate one of the fairest exams which helps young people to learn about setting and reaching educational goals in their lives. It also takes a valuable snapshot of a student’s aptitude for teachers and parents in planning for learning needs, the Leaving Cert and beyond. In fact it is in comparison to the Junior Cert that it becomes questionable how fair the Leaving certificate is as a state exam as there are such extreme contrasting grades and results between different types of schools in different socio-economic areas. This is not the case with the Junior Cert Exam results.

There are calls to reform the Junior Cert and whilst change is always welcome, unions are favouring reform that maintains the fairness of this state exam for all students regardless of family background, socio-economic status and other factors. The president of the ASTI made the valuable point: ‘It would be folly to subject the Junior Cert exam to a cost-saving exercise which would lower its status and reputation and increase social inequities. This would cause irreparable damage to young peoples’ experience of the exams system.’

Every year grades across 26 different subjects are revealed with maths and science again the ones under the spotlight, as they were during last month’s Leaving Certificate results. It was a welcome sign for those trying to promote more students to take the honours paper to see that 48% in total opted to sit the higher Maths paper. According to the president of Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), while there have been many debates on the significance of promoting math and science in today’s education system, modern languages are still very important in terms of fulfilling the country’s economic demands. To him, the relatively reduced numbers of language graduates being produced is somehow alarming. Therefore, something needs to be amended on the current learning system – which could be addressed in the junior cert phase in secondary schools.

What can be learnt from the Junior Cert cycle and the exam itself? The National Council for Curriculum and assessment could address the inequities that exist in the Leaving Certificate Examination by looking through the lens of the Junior Certificate Exam. Rather than looking at reforming the Junior Certificate, perhaps it is time to make it more realistic on a practical level for those who traditionally would have left in order to undertake an apprenticeship, is it possible to combine both (academic achievement alongside a type of apprenticeship)at this stage in the school system, for those who wish to undertake such an option. Finally, with worrying shortages of graduates with language skills and the reluctancy of leaving cert students to undertake a foreign language – perhaps this reluctancy along with the inequities of the Leaving Certificate could be addressed by the NCCA by emulating the key advantages and success of the Junior Certificate Examination in the Leaving Certificate.

Author: Catriona Lowry

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Six Centres for Teacher Education Announced

teacher education centresThe Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn T.D., is to proceed with radical plans to overhaul the provision of initial teacher education (ITE).

Minister Quinn has accepted the recommendations set out in a report commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on the structures of teacher training. The purpose of the report, requested by the Minister, was to identify new possible structures to improve teacher education in Ireland so that it is comparable with the best in the world.

The main recommendation in the review by an international panel of education experts is that teacher education be provided in six “centres for teacher education”.

Currently there are 19 state funded providers of ITE (and three non-state funded) offering more than 40 college programmes in primary and post-primary teaching.

Changes are already underway to the content and length of teacher education, with a greater emphasis on literacy, numeracy and pedagogical skills (teaching methodology).

Today’s announcement on structural changes will complement the curricular reforms already outlined by Minister Quinn and assist in positioning Ireland at the forefront of teacher education.

“We know from research that the quality of our education system cannot exceed the quality of our teachers,” said Minister Quinn. “This is why I am driving changes at both a structural and content level in teacher education.”

“The new collaborations recommended by the international panel will mean that a smaller number of centres for ITE exist, but that they offer education across multiple sectors from early childhood to primary, to post primary to adult education.”

“These centres for teacher education will also possess a critical mass in terms of research capacity which is not always possible in smaller institutions. The new configurations will mean strong research bases will be cemented in each centre.”

The report from an international review panel on the Structure of Initial Teacher Education Provision in Ireland recommends the following configurations:

  • Dublin City University – St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra – Mater Dei Institute of Education
  • Trinity College Dublin – Marino Institute of Education – University College Dublin – National College of Art and Design
  • National University of Ireland Maynooth – Froebel College
  • University of Limerick – Mary Immaculate College – Limerick Institute of Technology
  • University College Cork – Cork Institute of Technology
  • National University of Ireland Galway – St. Angela’s College Sligo

The Review Panel has also suggested that the Church of Ireland College of Education would be suitably positioned to join any of the first three new configurations.

The review is in keeping with the recommendations of the National Strategy of Higher Education 2030 or Hunt report which sees local, regional and international collaboration as the key to higher education system development. It will also form part of a wider review of the entire higher education landscape which is currently underway by the HEA.

Minister Quinn has now asked the HEA to submit a detailed report, before the end of the year, on how to implement the recommendations of the Panel. He will then report back to Cabinet with more formal proposals including financial implications.

“Ireland continues to attract the highest calibre of students into the teaching profession. I believe the restructuring of teacher education which I am now initiating will mean these top performing students will receive an education which equips them to become the best possible teachers,” Minister Quinn concluded.

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Is the End Near for the Points Race?

cao points system

Secondary school teachers continue to feel aggrieved at their exclusion from debates and decisions related to them and their students. This has become clearly apparent in the current plans to restructure the exam and points system. Whilst universities are in the discussion loop, secondary teachers feel left out in the cold.

The common ground seems to be the agreement that something has to be done in an interventional way to dilute the tension that surrounds chasing points for college places. Therefore proposals for changes to the point system are a welcomed idea. However, the contentious issue concerns those who are drafting the changes.

Teachers unions are demanding that they, along with teachers, parents and students be included in drafting these radical proposals. However the proposals to-date are exclusively coming from the Irish Universities Association (IUA) which include measures aimed at alleviating the pressure associated with the annual points race for college courses – measures which could be in place by 2015.

They include:

  • The introduction of more general first year courses that would be easier to access and allow students time to sample and reflect on what they want to focus on at a later stage.(Thus reducing the low retention rates in first year for some courses).
  • Proposals to reduce the current 14 grade types to eight in order to smooth out the level of points a student can expect to achieve.
  • The group of seven universities say they would like to see the extension of controversial bonus points to incentivise certain subjects.

These controversial proposals have already been submitted to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. The TUI president, Gerard Craughwell said: ‘We welcome certain aspects of it but we think an awful lot more work needs to go into it’. He went out to say how he regretted the exclusion and opinions of parents, the practitioners and the students themselves.

In relation to the bonus points awarded to those who take higher level maths, The TUI continues to highlight the negative effect they had following this year’s maths exams. It is now obvious that the awarding of bonus points did push up the points for certain courses. This could be seen to discriminate against those who cannot take an honours maths paper. It highlights the students who would normally have got onto their choice of course but who have been left with no place on such courses – due to competing with students who had the extra awarded maths points to win a place on that specific course.

Aside from the points debate, the teachers unions recognise that there is a bigger issue at play aside from the points race. They want to look at how students are assessed in the first place and the fact that they are assessed on learning attained or not attained as a result of rote teaching and learning – the reality of the education system currently; rote methods of teaching and learning have to be used when quick memorisation is required where there is a substantial amount of material to cover as part of the curriculum. The points system is therefore rewarding points for essentially chunks of memorised material reproduced in state exams.

Rote teaching and learning is based on memorisation and it discourages exploration and reflection. This is clearly outlined in the report Entry to Higher Education in Ireland in the 21st Century which indicates that whilst HEIs are taking in high points achievers – there is a real question surrounding what learning has actually taken place and the ability to transfer this learning and ability into their course of choice.

Gemma Tuffy of ASTI said: ‘The report from the universities today is just one voice in the debate on the Leaving Cert and entry into higher education.’ It is hoped that this points race debate and existing proposals for changes will be opened up to the other relevant parties so that it will realistically fit into the context of secondary schools and be amenable to both teachers and students. Students and the art of teaching are currently being conditioned by a competitive points; their future course of choice and career is in fact overshadowed by an unfair points system.

In fact as far back as In 1999, the Report of the Points Commission also referred to the negative impact of the points system on students and on their senior cycle school experience. Issues raised in that report included high levels of student stress; the negative impact of the points system on students’ personal development; choice of subjects by students to attain the highest levels of points for entry to third-level education; a narrowing of the curriculum arising from the tendency to teach to the examination rather than to the aims of the curriculum; and an undue focus on the attainment of examination results.

The teachers unions recognise that aside from their role to play in formulating a fairer points system; they acknowledge the HEIs are addressing future skills/needs shortages and are addressing these by producing courses and subsequently graduates for these existing and future growth sectors – something that secondary schools need to address also. This would counteract the existing focus on chasing points and divert the attention on addressing the reality of the current jobs market.

Finally, the HEIs make the additional point that because the points system is based on the Leaving Cert, students tend to conflate the Leaving Cert with the points system. This is evident when they are asked about their Leaving Cert results. Instead of stating their results in terms of subjects and grade levels achieved, students will usually respond to the question of ‘How did you get on in the Leaving Certificate?’ with the reply, ‘I got X number of points’. Let’s hope that the new proposals will lead to an improved system of college place allocation and less student stress over points scoring.

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Evening Courses for Autumn

There was a time (not far gone) when we were privileged enough to move from one job to another; now we exist in a recessional world that is characterised by high unemployment. Many of us can no longer afford the luxury of taking a career break for further study. However, rather than forgo further study for professional or personal reasons; many people are turning to short-term, evening courses (either on-site or via distance learning) to satisfy their professional, educational and personal requirements.

Most VECs and educational institutions (who run evening courses) have Adult Guidance Officers who can offer guidance in the right course direction. Along with VECs, there are secondary schools, private colleges and distance learning providers who offer a comprehensive range of evening courses – all up-dated annually. They also have websites with in-depth information and some have downloadable evening course brochures. Higher Education Institutes also offer an array of exciting evening courses. This gives students the opportunity to experience learning on a college campus and avail of other college services.  HEIs offer everything from classical Greek to psychoanalysis.

Of course, evening time learning is the ideal time to learn if you are committed to a day-time job, have children or other time demanding commitments. There is also the shorter evening which often entails lounging and flicking through mindless television with little personal development and productivity going on.

The hunger for learning and progression is truly reflected in the choice and diverse range of classes available and they continue to grow every year. As they say, there is something for everybody: IT, business skills, first aid, languages, car maintenance, DIY, crafts, community development, criminology, sustainable development, counselling skills amongst others. They cater for hobby, leisure and professional needs and there are a range of professional and accredited qualifications on offer.

In terms of popularity, it is little surprise to see the constant and increased demand for computer related courses – whether to keep up with IT savvy children at home or to learn simple tasks like copying and pasting to sending an email. Evening courses start from the very basics to the more advanced. Web and graphic design courses are also increasing in demand.

With the media keeping a close eye on future skills needs – it is little surprise to see that people have a new found interest in learning languages. Employees and graduates with a second and third language are hard to find and students see an evening course as their first step to building language skills and impressing employees for undertaking such a course for professional development.

Another growth area is the area of personal development and counselling skills. Aside from an interest in ‘helping skills’ for professional reasons – people also have a healthy awareness of how the mind works and wish to attain skills to perhaps deal with their own or family mental health issues, phobias or sometimes they wish to acquire counselling skills to help them in their own workplace.

DIY courses and car maintenance courses are also growing in popularity as with little disposable income, people want to learn how to tend to their own DIY and car servicing themselves.

Evening courses are usually short term; however there are evening courses that go on for an academic year or even several years and these usually lead to a professional accredited qualification. Some evening courses entail getting a FETAC award, whilst others award certificates of completion, diplomas and degrees (NUIG for example offer longer term options for attaining degrees in several fields of study). The cost (aside from the longer courses) tend to be minimal and are often subsidised and there are reduced rates for those on social welfare payments.

Motivation is the ability to move or to find something that makes us move forward. The range of Autumn courses offered nationally are just that; they are there to assist us move forward personally and professionally. It is nice to leave the Winter behind with a new skill or course under your belt.

The settings for evening courses are friendly with a diverse range of age groups all with different life experiences and backgrounds. Learning is made digestible and fun and for those who have had a past negative experience in an educational setting; this is the ideal way to introduce yourself to a new and enriching life experience.

Learning gives us a renewed confidence and it is ideal for meeting new people and making new contacts. This is relevant if you have moved to a new area or have recently being made unemployed. In terms of seeking employment; it can demonstrate transferable skills like determination, motivation, and independent learning to a future employer.

Evening courses allow you to sample different courses over a short period of time – a course that might one day lead to setting up your own business or being successful at a job interview and going on to finding that job of your dreams.

They say schooldays are the best days of our lives; that would make evening classes the best evenings of our lives.

Find Evening Courses on

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Dorset College Announces New Scholarships for Business Students

Dorset College Dublin has announced two scholarships in their Bachelor of Business, Level 7 programme to celebrate 30 years in training and education.

The Bachelor of Business, recently validated by HETAC will commence in October 2012 at Dorset College’s three locations in Dublin 1 (Dorset Street, Belvedere Place and Mountjoy Square). The programme is three years in duration.

Speaking about the degree, Programme Head Mr. Fergus Moore said:
“This degree has been specifically designed with industry expert consultation to provide graduates with pragmatic business skills to join the job market. The degree culminates in a entrepreneurial based business case to industry experts, allowing students to highlight both their potential intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial skills.

Another key aspect of this degree is that graduates will be placed by the college on internships every summer allowing them to forge their own industry connections, and graduate with almost a years work experience under their belt.”

The Scholarships are available to incoming first years on the Business degree programme. Scholarships will be awarded to one full-time and one part-time student on the basis of their application and interview – which includes completion of a 500-word essay.

The college will hold a number of Open Evenings every Wednesday from 5pm – 7:30pm from the 22nd of August for five weeks. Application forms are available on the colleges website and the deadline for scholarship applications is 5pm, 6th September.

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What Next? When the points don’t add up – post leaving certificate options

Last Wednesday saw 56,000 receive their leaving certificate results; a celebration for some and a disappointment for others. Today’s leaving certificate grades are measured in terms of CAO points and for the majority of leaving certificate students; that is the only place where their grades have meaning and value. What might appear on the surface as a healthy leaving certificate result might leave students short of the necessary points for the course they chased with hard work during their leaving certificate course.

There are endless anecdotal stories of past leaving certificate candidates who failed to get their number one or even number two CAO choice; those who never made a CAO application and others who just didn’t pay much heed at all to the race for grades, places and points. Many went on to be very successful in their own right without attending a higher education institute.

However, there are students who know that their results are not a true reflection of their ability and of their effort made; there are those who know if they worked that little bit harder they could have got the grades they wanted and needed. These are the cohort who would rather face it all again to get that course of their dreams as regret is too much of a burden to carry for the rest of their lives.

The decision to repeat is not to be taken lightly; it requires reflection and it requires professional advice. Afterall, there is no guarantee that going back will lead to higher grades. Some students will realistically reflect and know they didn’t do well because they just didn’t put in the work. However, there is no point in going back if the attitude to work remains the same. The year has to be one of motivation, dedication and commitment to specific grade aims.

Aside from repeating, there are some really excellent alternatives: a gap year, which can be filled with work experience, volunteering, work in itself or undertaking some part-time courses to explore what you really want to do. VECs and third level colleges offer an excellent programme of part-time and evening courses where the fees are minimal and the commitment required is usually one evening a week for a few weeks.  Future employers look favourably on Gap Years when they are structured and well-thought out and where there is evidence of development and learning and skill acquisition.

Post Leaving Certificate Courses are also a credible way of gaining FETAC qualifications. PLCs still have vacancies at this time of year on some of their courses. They usually continue interviewing up until the end of August. These courses can be a stepping stone into a Higher Education Institute or they can lead into direct employment. Some PLC courses offer many students an alternative entry into the CAO course that they initially missed out on in the first place.

When all options are considered; sometimes repeating the Leaving Cert can be the better option but there needs to be a definite plan in place to ensure there is no further disappointment. Some students choose not to go back to their original secondary school and choose to attend a school that specialises in the leaving certificate programme. There are some secondary schools that have a special leaving certificate class set up for repeat students. These classes are extremely focused, where the students are treated more like first year college students.

If you do choose to repeat and the reason you are repeating is to maximise points; look at your choice of subjects and establish where you can gain points. Remember, you cannot combine two leaving certificates for points purposes but you can use one leaving certificate results for minimum entry requirements, which means you can take up a new subject if you think you could get a better grade in it aside form sitting a required subject again. For example, if you have a C in maths or any one of the required languages, you could drop it and take up another subject like Home Economics if you believe you could get a better grade in home economics than you could in your maths or languages. You must be extremely motivated and dedicated to complete a two year course in one year.

There are repeat leaving certificate students who will relay personal stories of how happy they were to repeat and how much they actually enjoyed the leaving certificate experience second time around. And there are others who will tell you that what seemed like a curse at the time of getting a disappointing leaving certificate ended up being a blessing in disguise – when it changed their course and career path for the better.

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