Big furore here in Ireland over the recently announced budget. Its aftermath has seen government rowbacks on cutbacks on medical cards to the old age pensioners and a 1% tax levy which would also have affected the most vulnerable in society. Government cutbacks in education have also faced massive opposition, with 12,000 people turning out to protest last Wednesday evening. It is fair to say that the education sector is in need of reform, however the impact of some of the cutbacks are draconian. Schools will now have less language support, which means students in disadvantaged areas will suffer as teachers struggle to accommodate migrant students. Teachers are scratching their heads at the lack of substitute support, which will effect Leaving Certificate geography students’ field trips or foreign language students’ oral exams.

Despite the economic climate, these education cutbacks are seriously shortsighted. There are countless studies out there highlighting the importance of education in addressing societal problems such as obesity or crime. Popular Mechanics has a really interesting interview with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter and AutoSyringe (hattip to BoingBoing and PSFK). During the interview, Kamen hits the nail on the head of the importance of education:

What do you think is the most important science and technology issue to be addressed by the next president? What’s the biggest issue he should take on?

Is it energy? Genomics? Is it bird flu? Is it the polar caps—are they really melting? Is it terrorism? You pick the crisis du jour: The answer to all these issues is going to be an educated, competent global society. This country ought to lead the world, for lots of reasons. And we ought to help the rest of the world get educated, because if they are educated, their impact on the environment is actually way less. If they are educated, they’ll have better ideas than killing each other or killing you and me.

My headline might read a little harsh but a truly well educated society (that isn’t taught in prefabs and that has computers in the classroom) is a society where as Kamen points out “all kids are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And with 50 percent of the kids in the 20 largest school districts in the country not graduating high school, they’re part of the problem. This is unsustainable. It has to change.” Just this week a report published by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland showed that “a growing body of evidence documents the link between education and health inequalities,” according to IPH chief executive Dr Jane Wilde in an article in the Irish Independent.

Underlining the importance of education in these challenging times, Sheelagh Drudy, professor of education and lifelong learning at University College Dublin, has a great op-ed in the Irish Times about how Ireland should imitate Finland’s rescue via education and R&D. However as Tom Farrell from Nokia points out in a letter published in the same paper in response to Drudy’s op-ed, we need to realise that when it comes to education (much like the medical cards) that if we want a quality service, we have to pay for it. More importantly in a post Celtic Tiger era, we need to decide what type of society we want to live in and shift our cultural values to reflect this.


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Piaras Kelly
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