The meritocracy myth, the 'smart' economy that ain't so smart, & the 'banking model' of education

We have seen repeated attempts over the past two years to tie justifications for government decisions - both 'common sense' ones and those now widely regarded as disastrous - to the necessity for an educated population.

Or, more directly, to the economic necessity for an educated workforce. Within this instrumentalist framework, which many mainstream media commentators and some educationalists have openly embraced, there is little, if any, room for actually educating society.

Rather, the economy and the grossly unequal labour market says 'jump' and the education system now seems entirely bound to say nothing else but 'how high?' There is no argument here with the notion that the education system should prepare people for the labour market; the problem is that what the education system has utterly failed to do is fundamentally challenge inequalities along class, gender, and ethnic lines which intensified in Irish society during the Celtic Tiger years.

While the boom years did not create the problem as such, they grossly magnified it. Since the 1960s, a number of blanket reforms ostensibly aimed at redressing the persistent relationship between educational attainment and social class have been implemented. It is well documented that the elimination of fees at second-level in the 1960s, contrary to its specified goal of reducing class inequality in educational attainment, actually provided a 'windfall' to those middle-class families whose children would have entered and remained in post-primary school anyway, while failing to have any real impact on equality of educational opportunity.

The abolition of undergraduate tuition fees in 1996 was symptomatic of a similar 'across the board' reformist mindset whose only real impact, somewhat ironically (although perhaps unsurprisingly), was to provide yet another windfall gain to middle-class parents who no longer had to pay tuition fees and who could therefore more comfortably 'invest' in private education for their children at post-primary level.

The media's 'newfound' realisation that across the board 'free fees' initiatives of this nature have not have their 'intended' effect of enhancing participation rates of children from disadvantaged background at the same time as the budget's reintroduction of university tuition is more than a mere coincidence. Rather, the reporting of this finding in the mainstream media provides a convenient justification for yet another flawed approach to educational decision-making (the re-introduction of fees and reductions in grants) that will have a much more detrimental effect on those from disadvantaged backgrounds than on those for whom the system is actually designed to benefit in the first place, namely the middle and upper-middle classes.

The entire education system is, in fact, based on one of the most persistent educational myths of all time—the meritocracy myth—such that populist 'we're all in this together' type slogans and ideologies further disguise the inequities of a system whose supposed egalitarian reforms often have more to do with currying favour with the electorate than with genuinely enhancing the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

An important example of how government cuts have blatantly used double-think to reframe populist educational inclusion rhetoric was former Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe's statement in February 2009 that the removal of funding for certain special educational needs (SEN) teachers and the subsequent integration of students with mild general learning disabilities into mainstream classes was a matter of inclusive practice internationally. Batt, who warned us not to 'cloud facts with emotion,' failed to state that this practice is only inclusive when the teaching workforce is afforded the opportunity to develop the skills to teach the spectrum of SEN students in a variety of ways relative to 'their' peers.

Furthermore, this practice can only be inclusive when teaching practices, the education system and the government itself confront and interrupt the biggest, and most counterproductive educational myth that is perpetuated decade on decade in Ireland. It is a myth that has both intellectual costs and financial costs for this supposed 'smart economy.' More crucially, it has costs for the healthy, democratic functioning of society, as the pushing of this myth embeds a culture that silences critical thinking and alternative ways of learning. Instead, it promotes transient, surface learning for extrinsic rewards. It is also very well aligned to the failed notion driving the Celtic Tiger: that economic progress can be considered the same as social progress.

The myth, if it is not already obvious, is that individualist, rote memory based teaching and learning practices and the examinations that drive them to dominance are effective in developing quality learning. As Alfie Kohn argues, the only thing that external rewards teach learners is how to get rewarded. Research from the UK has demonstrated that higher order questions which require analysis, synthesis, evaluation and application of knowledge are not needed as much as lower order memory and basic understanding skills in senior cycle schooling. The obsession with notes and grinds that pervades our post-primary system is evidence of a broadly similar problem. This obsession does not promote deep, meaningful learning; rather it is a sign that the use of one's cultural, financial and networking resources is what is most important to climbing certain ladders and maintaining or accessing certain privileges, such as a university degree. The system is premised on a 'banking' model of education, as Paulo Freire put it, whereby educators simply deposit information and knowledge in their students' minds.

Years of research on co-operative learning show that learning is at its most effective when it is social: interdependent thinking, where students work together to solve problems, pose questions and search for further information on topics that are of interest to them (or that they can be guided towards) is what makes for 'real' learning. While education and curricular policy in Ireland carries all the rhetoric of 'best practice' (and the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has been helpful on educating the government on this), in reality, the wider state has done little else but exacerbate the corrosive competitivism of schooling in Ireland by failing to reduce class sizes, to adequately resource teachers and provide them with meaningful assistance in classrooms, or to give schools the time to deeply engage with the lifeworlds and experiences of their students.

This system reinforces an ineffective, competition-based culture where good teachers are those who know how to navigate exam papers, rather than inspire students to get their teeth into different topics and be creative. Research evidence shows that collaborative schools and skilled, collaborative teaching and learning do two things: they yield higher achievement rates across the student spectrum and promote critical exchanges between children and young people along a variety of forms of difference (e.g. social class, ethnicity, gender, dis/ability).

Yet much like the 'there is no alternative' rhetoric that we have come to expect from the cabinet with respect to recent bailouts, the current Minister for Education and Skills Mary Coughlan recently stated that the Leaving Certificate points system is the best thing we've got, and last week proposed a narrowed, 'relentless focus' on assessment and 'on improving the core skills of literacy and numeracy in all stages of the educational system'. Seemingly common sense statements such as those by a soon-to–be-yet–another-transient Minister for Education reinforce the standard educational double-think that has long dominated the Irish educational landscape. They help prevent a spanner being thrown in our grossly unfair budgetary works by circumventing radical thinking about what it really takes to educate citizens in socially, intellectually, pedagogically and economically constructive ways.

Perhaps most surprising of all, the mainstream education sector in Ireland has never fundamentally refuted economic, meritocratic discourses by using the one thing it knows more than other sector: what counts as real, meaningful learning, and how it happens. Isn't it time that teachers, schools, teacher education providers - who are deeply committed to their work - started fighting back, or, to be fair, started joining with others in being more vocal about what they know best? Isn't it time that we started busting the meritocratic myths that have become, to use the Tánaiste's term, such a 'relentless focus' in successive education budgets?