Educating the media

At our AGM John Walshe talked about how we need to change the way we look at further education and training.

“I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have views on education,” says John Walshe, who spoke at the NALA AGM in April.

John was special adviser to Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was involved in educational journalism for four decades, mostly with the Irish Independent. We were delighted when he agreed to give the keynote address at our AGM and talk about his observations over the years – especially how education is reported in the media in Ireland.

“You could say that education is deeply engrained in our psyche and mind set, and the way we think. And generally that’s very good. But unfortunately, sometimes we tend to look at education as a hierarchy – with universities on the very top. And subconsciously we think that only the brightest and the best get to university and get professional qualifications. However, I believe that we should look upon education and training as a continuum that people can dip in and out of all through their life,” said John.

“Education systems throughout the world have one thing in common. Young people are staying in education much longer than they used to. Participation rates are much higher than they used to be. In Ireland the Leaving Certificate is taken by about 90% of the school population which is a very high finishing rate. It has become a high status and high pressurised exam. Any young person will tell you that they feel under pressure in the run up to the exam and during the exam itself.”

“In Ireland we do things differently, we rely much more on a terminal written examination. Other countries have more use of practical tests, orals and portfolios or some element of continuous assessment. We don’t, we rely almost entirely on a written final examination. Which is a marathon writing session for students.”

“But we do something else differently in Ireland as well. We give it an extraordinary amount of media coverage – in fact no other country in the world gives it quite the same media coverage. We devote acres of space to analysis of the questions, the reaction of teachers and students, and if the reaction is very strong it will get on the front page of newspapers or television – the coverage is extraordinary by international standards.”

“There’s even greater media intensity and coverage when the exam results come out in August when the grades are then converted into points for entry to higher education”.

“And it’s interesting to note the way the question has changed in what we ask students. We used to ask ‘how did you get on?’ which allowed you to talk about the subjects you did well in. But nowadays you wouldn’t get away with that, as students are only asked one question ‘how many points did you get?”

“This in my view, adds to what you could call the academic snobbery around education,” says John.

“I don’t think we value vocational training, apprenticeships or skills training enough in this country. For example, if we look at the World Skills Competition which is held every two years. They are very competitive with people from all over the world competing in very skilled areas like electrical engineering, aircraft maintenance, craft design, welding and so forth. Irish apprentices traditionally do very well in the competition but I don’t think they are honoured sufficiently by Irish society and indeed the Irish media and by the political establishment when they come home.”

“The 44th competition will be held in Abu Dhabi next October and there are two things I would like to see. Firstly that our trainees do well at the competition and secondly I would really like to see them greeted at the Irish airport by the President who would congratulate them for what they have done for Ireland. Because they really are ambassadors for this country and I think they should be honoured as such.”

“It’s not easy to make a decision to take a different route through further education and training because there’s pressure from peers, parents and schools, and pressure from the media that favours the points system and college route. If that is to change we need to change the way we look at further education and training.”

We couldn’t agree more.