Tag Archives: unemployment

Just what are schools for?

It’s the kind of question that can get you thinking.

Depending on who’s standing on a soapbox, you could be led to think that schools are responsible for any number of different, and possibly contradictory, functions.

  • Schools should prepare students for science
  • Schools should prepare students for business
  • Schools should prepare students for the world of work
  • Schools should prepare students for the arts

and so on.

In the midst of all of this there is the juggernaut of assessment.  The cycle of PISA brings panic and hysteria to departments and newsrooms as whole countries try to reassess how they are doing in competition with their neighbours.

I have previously stated my reservations around the Narrow Focus on Assessment, but for a better reply to PISA than I could ever write, have a look at this piece written in the Guardian.

But schools are, I  believe, more than just about turning out utilitarian units destined to be productive members of the business community or of industry.

I think that the piece of Irish Legislation dealing with the running of schools (The Education Act, 1998) actually gives a good idea of what schools can be.  In Section 9, (d) the Act states that schools shall “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them

That really opens it up.

The children we take into schools will one day leave as adults ready to take their place in the world.

Yes, some will go on to be business leaders, and yes, some will go on to be innovators, entrepreneurs, productive employees.

But not all of them.

There will also students who will not find a job, there will be the students who may be too ill, or have too great a disability to work.

The students who leave our schools will go on to become parents, friends and neighbours.  They will be members of communities and clubs, they will be a part of society.  And how do our schools serve them?

Schools are not something that are separate, where students are trained.  Schools are a part of society.  They are places that children grow and develop.  They are messy complicated places full of little (and large) dramas.  Schools have got ranges of students of differing abilities, and differing personalities.  Schools are full of students fighting their own battles and still trying to do their best.

We already know this.  But in the face of the constant pressure of assessment, we sometimes forget it.

There is a great line in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’.  In a scene where a library is burning, some characters argue over which books to save.  As one fights for scrolls on maths and engineering, another fights for literature and philosophy “these teach us how to be human!” he cries.

I like that.

Schools are places full of humanity, and places where we learn to be human.

Maybe, ultimately, this is what schools are for.  Places where we learn to become human.

Education and Equality

We have an ideal that all students who enter our schools will be treated equally, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will be offered equal opportunities.

This is a myth.  Not true. Good PR.

You see, we live in an incredibly unequal society, and this inequality is reflected in our schools.  And this is a fact that our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, seems to ignore.

So, just how does inequality show up in schools?

Well, all schools receive a running cost from the government depending on the number of students enrolled.  And yes, this does sound fair, but the costs of schools are such that the running costs will often exceed the money received from the government.  After all, taking the team to a match requires a bus, visiting the Young Scientist Exhibition or going on a field trip for geography requires money.  Some schools have more, some have less.  And this means the education experience of students can and will vary depending on the finance available.

You see, I don’t really believe the minister understands just what a disadvantage it can be to be from a disadvantaged area.  I mean how could he?  He hasn’t had to face a pay-cheque of less than €80,000 in years.  He went to a nice school (The Bish), and recently got to visit it with one of his advisers (coincidentally also a past pupil of the same school).

The thing is, if you attend a school where most of the parents have a decent wage, then the school looks for a top-up fee to support school activities.  These activities could include school tours, proper IT for classrooms (whether tablets, computers or whatever).

If your school is in a disadvantaged area, then things don’t look so good.   Being in a disadvantaged area you can expect to see higher rates of unemployment, lack of engagement with education, and social exclusion.  In short, schools could not in fairness ask for top up fees from these parents.  Any development is dependent on grants (which are getting scarcer).

The picture looks a bit like this:

 

equality-justice

Just because schools receive a similar grant does not mean that the students will benefit from equal opportunities.  The playing field is not equal, a student who starts from a position of disadvantage will need extra help.

Our education system is in a lot of trouble at the moment.  Teachers are under pressure; we have a new Junior Cycle programme that is being rammed in despite the concern and opposition of thousands of teachers; school funding is being cut.

And yet, we claim we believe that education provides opportunities for students; that education is valuable; that education is more than just about measuring students. There’s a disconnect there and I hope that someday we get an education minister who actually believes in education and trusts teachers as professionals.

Our students deserve it.