Minister Bruton’s proposed reform of higher education must be set against the context of an education system which is in meltdown. It should come as no surprise to learn that the numbers applying to train as teachers has collapsed. Government expenditure on education as a share of GDP has fallen below the EU average since 2009. Over the period 2007/2008 to 2014/2015 there has been a fall in state grants for higher education of 38%. Overall funding for higher education has fallen by at least 13.5%. The overall number of full-time students has increased by 25%. At second level there is a serious lack of morale as teachers pay and particularly the pay of new entrants continues to impact on staff morale and poison industrial relations. Diversification of patronage and the creation of a secular school system has gained some traction at primary level but state sanctioned exclusion still operates and schools continue to prioritise children whose religious background is in accord with the religious ethos of the school. There is also evidence to show that Gaeilscoileanna have the least number of non-Irish pupils in the primary school sector. Early years education is in a state of crisis.
What is surprising, given the crisis facing the entire education system, is that Richard Bruton has been prioritising the teaching and learning of STEM subjects (Science,Technology, Engineering, Maths) at second level and in his reform agenda for higher education. Science, technology, engineering and maths are important subjects in themselves and children need to be equipped with them to enhance their career prospects. However, the Minister’s blind faith in the ability of STEM subjects to transform our education system into the best in Europe by 2026 is seriously misplaced. Retrofitting STEM into a seriously under resourced and dysfunctional sector is unlikely to make Ireland a leader in the provision of STEM education and may have the unintended consequence of creating a curriculum divided between collaborative problem-solving skills and technological competencies. Collaborative problem solving skills are the tools required for working with other people to create innovative responses to economic and social challenges. Such skills look set to be increasingly relevant not just to many of the jobs that will survive new waves of automation, but also to our ability to cope in everyday life.
As the Bertelsmann Social Justice Index Report made clear Ireland is not just a laggard when it comes to childcare provision but is bottom of the class. Ireland has the lowest spend on preschool education in the EU. According to the Social Justice Index Report Ireland is spending a miserly 0.10 of GDP on services compared to less affluent partners like Romania (0.30 of GDP) and Bulgaria (1.05 of GDP). Early years services in Ireland are provided by the community and private sectors. There is mounting evidence that both sectors are at ‘breaking point’. Early years practitioners pay is scandalously low-just above minimum wage level and staff engaged to deliver the State’s much vaunted subsidised free early years programme are only paid for 38 weeks of the year. It is against this backdrop that STEM is now to be prioritised in an early years education strategy. The STEM strategy also has too strong a focus on children as future adults and citizen workers of the future. It does not give equal weighting to the quality of their social lives and opportunities for broader self-realisation as active citizens who can think for themselves.
Apart from the serious underinvestment and lack of coherence in the education system there are some questionable assumptions about the labour market underpinning the STEM strategy and the proposal to spend evermore scarce public resources on expensive STEM higher education programmes. Employers want staff with a range of skills and qualities including independent critical thinking, self-organisation, community service, knowledge of national and international processes and developments. While STEM subjects are intellectually demanding and fulfilling, mastery of them teaches students little about morality, society and human culture. A curriculum over-focused on STEM subjects will result in a half-educated citizenry, ill-prepared for an uncertain future where the certainties around today’s technology may no longer apply. Brexit will increase the need for language and business skills to be given an increasing role in equipping Irish pupils with the collaborative problem solving, creativity and teamwork skills necessary for productive engagement with our EU partners. The new language strategy Languages Connect is to be welcomed in this regard but its implementation will be impeded by the same structural problems facing the STEM policy strategy – an education system in serious disarray. The future workforce will need broad-based knowledge alongside the specialised skills of STEM. The humanities and social sciences can provide STEM with the moral critical friend which is needed to ensure that it does not subsume the non-working lives of workers into their working lives.
Research exploring the fusion of arts and science skills in UK companies has demonstrated that firms combining arts and science skills outperform those firms that utilise only arts skills or science skills. Clear indication that the Government should be promoting the integration of STEM and Arts skills under a common STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) framework.
In our rush to meet the needs of the profit driven frequently globalised technological industries we should not overlook the needs of our citizens for social care, health, housing and education services.
If our education system is to tackle the great challenges ahead and our young people are to thrive in the future we must transform our entire education system through increasing investment, systematic planning and narrowing the gap between STEM and STEAM.
Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.