Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

3:00 pm

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Question 38: To ask the Minister for Education and Science his views on the statement of the general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland as reported in a newspaper (details supplied) that grind schools add to the pressure and panic in the run-up to the leaving certificate examinations; his further views on whether in some cases grinds courses can be counterproductive as they are used as an alternative to teaching during the school year rather than as a complement to it; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14348/04]

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I am aware of the comments made by the acting general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. I share his view that in some cases grinds can be counterproductive when they interfere with normal school teaching and learning and may add to the pressure and panic in the run-up to the leaving certificate examinations. However, I recognise that in certain circumstances, such as a prolonged illness, additional tuition may be useful or necessary for a child. I also recognise that revision courses, whether organised within schools or outside, can help children with their study, if they build upon previous work.

I support the concept of a broad-based and holistic education for children to develop all aspects of the individual to the greatest possible extent. Education should contribute to the aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, intellectual, moral, physical, political, social and spiritual development of children. The institutions referred to are private commercial enterprises. As they do not come under the jurisdiction of my Department, I am not in a position to investigate or regulate their operations. In addition, the right of parents to make choices for their children's education must be respected.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I agree with the Minister on the need for students to develop certain skills. However, a student will not earn 500 points or more in the leaving certificate examinations for them. When will the leaving certificate examinations be reformed to test more complex skills than memory and the ability to pass exams? Such reforms would make grinds schools less attractive to parents.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is responsible for making recommendations on the leaving certificate curriculum and examinations. Over 12 months ago, it instituted a consultation process on the leaving certificate examination which is now being finalised. Aspects of the leaving certificate have been changed and alternatives to the formal leaving certificate have been introduced. I am delighted that the Deputy shares my view on the need for reform to make it more accessible and relevant.

The Deputy will appreciate that changes in education are never easy. However, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has identified changes such as continuous assessment, a three year leaving certificate and modularisation of courses. All of these would help to ease the points pressure and make the examination more relevant. The Deputy will agree that a new set of life skills is needed for young people. In that context, it will have to be decided whether six subjects or less should be available for points.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Has any research been carried out into the amount of money spent by parents on grinds and grind schools? Has the Minister any advice for parents under pressure to do the best for their children in the appalling points system? Is the Minister aware of the terrible pressure it places on students, with some committing suicide? Will the Minister make it a priority to relieve this pressure on students? Additional funding to the work of the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, on the Youth Work Act, would give youngsters an alternative to the terrible grind school culture that has developed.

Does the Minister have anything to say about teachers who are underperforming in the classroom? This leads to students being forced to take grinds, which results in high results for those teachers. Is there some way in which these teachers can be assisted in the classroom so that students do not feel they must have grinds?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I have no idea how much grinds are costing parents or how much the grind school industry is worth. The advice I give to parents and students is that the leaving certificate is not the be all and end all. There are alternative routes to most jobs or courses. I also advise parents not to put undue pressure on young people who are studying for the leaving certificate. There are alternatives available. However, if a parent believes he must drive his child towards obtaining high points there is not much anyone can do about it. We can only encourage people to strike a balance.

Underperforming teachers are certainly a factor in the number of students who are taking grinds, but not an important factor. The typical students who go to grind schools are not academically challenged, nor are they financially challenged. They generally come from schools that are regarded as top performers. All this underlines the need for reform of the leaving certificate but also the need for more information from schools about their performances. I look forward to the Deputies' support for my attempts to achieve this so that parents can have a real choice. I do not approve of league tables, but the more information schools make available the better it is for parents and teachers.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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The leaving certificate examinations begin in two and a half weeks. There is an extraordinary amount of stress on young people. Is there any way the Minister can speed up the process he described, whereby the NCCA must make recommendations and agreement must be obtained among all the partners involved? Something must be done about this quickly so that young people need not go through this any longer. From what the Minister has said, it seems there are a number of years to go before we see any changes. Can the Minister inject a sense of urgency into his attempts to have a leaving certificate that will bring out the best in and provide for the needs of all young people, not just the high achievers and those who can afford grind schools?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I have taken every opportunity to advance the cause of reform in education and of the leaving certificate. The Deputy has been present on some of these occasions. I have spoken to the NCCA to try to ensure it arrives at a speedy conclusion of its discussions and issues recommendations. The NCCA works on the basis of consensus so the process is quite slow. That is a disadvantage. Its advantage, however, is that when recommendations are finally made there is a high level of agreement. It would probably be better to have as much consensus as possible in an area as sensitive as this. I will not delay the process unduly — I will convey the views of the Deputies to the NCCA and try to speed it up.