Following widespread calls for educational reform, Matthew Jones evaluates the need for focus and streamlining in the CAO system
Education, don’t you just hate it? I mean, it seems as though I’ve spent my entire life learning one thing or another. Whether it was those gruelling months learning my first words, the first day of primary school, when I first came to terms with the horrors of maths or finally, the Leaving Cert; those two weeks that separate the men from the nerds. Then, as a reward, you make your way to college, where the only things you need to know are the opening hours of the bar. Gone are the days of learning on the job, with experienced workers guiding you through your education. No, nowadays, we’re far more sophisticated than that, you can’t just change a circuit board, the circuit board has to want to change. And for that, you need a degree, with elective modules in things like psychology and social policy.
The idea of requiring somebody to earn a college degree before taking up their trade is in a word, wasteful. It wastes time registering those students, it wastes teaching hours in college, it wastes money funding the college course, and worst of all, it wastes the student’s time and effort. And yet this is what has been happening increasingly in recent years. University has turned into merely the next step, giving you an extra three years of procrastination before starting on your career path.
In an effort to reach seemingly random targets for students continuing on to third level, the government appears to have lost sight of the original aim, which was to make education available to all. Instead of making it easier for anyone to go to university if they wanted, they just turned all career paths into college courses, and charged students two grand a year (plus lost earnings) for the privilege. All the previous potential avenues to a good career have been merged into one – the CAO. Setting arbitrary targets just leads to people fiddling the numbers, even intentionally, and the victim has been our education system. Every career you can think of has a qualification course, from journalism to bartending to fish farming. I just hope you like sitting in a classroom.
Áine Hyland’s recent report supports this analysis and calls for a complete overhaul in the next few years, particularly recommending the streamlining of the CAO system. Chief among her recommendations was the removal of unnecessary courses from the Education System. Some things need the college environment; courses needing specialised equipment or constant access to dusty old books, but other things in life are inherently practical and shoehorning them into the existing system is absurd. There is such an extraordinary array of career paths potentially available yet they are all taught the same way: sit down, read this book and do an exam. There are people who might otherwise be brilliant workers who cannot flourish in a classroom environment, and the current education trend is leaving them out in the cold. The proposed streamlined CAO should once again allow for freedom within job training, allowing practical work to be taught in a practical way.
The report also predicts a lowering of points in many of the remaining college courses. The Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, called the current Leaving Certificate system ‘beyond reproach’, and agreed that it was ‘ruthlessly fair’, but it is clear that there are elements that need to be adjusted. He seemed adamant that if a new system were to be brought in, it would not have any impact on the standard of equality imposed by the CAO.
This all goes back to my initial argument; that third level education should not be a goal in itself, but should be providing more opportunities to train for employment. I would argue that the majority of freshers have already forgotten most of what they crammed for the Leaving Cert and will never have occasion to use that information again. The widespread creation of near-useless or redundant college courses has left third level education drifting down the same path, becoming merely the next step of pointless mandatory education. If streamlining the CAO system is to work, it requires a complete revaluation of what the government regards as the purpose of education.