I come from Spain, a country in which the high school dropout rate is about 19% (as of April 2017). That is a whooping 12.7 percentage points higher than Ireland, which sits comfortably at 6.3%, well below the 10% goal set by the European Union for 2020.
In the light of these figures one might jump to the conclusion that Ireland has successfully adapted its teaching methods to the needs and interests of the kids of the 21st century. Leaving behind the ever critiqued Factory-Model Education System that originated to provide the newly industrialized world with competent workers, using a one-size-fits-all approach.
This method was, allegedly, debunked years ago, and its detractors argue that it is not well suited to develop successful professionals in today’s society. We will not enter the debate of whether this is so -for now we will just accept it- but I shall return to this topic in future articles.
However, if one takes a look into Irish and Spanish high schools, it will strike them at first sight that the similarities largely outweigh the differences. What is more, we have not taken any steps into eliminating the old model, we are still stuck with standardized tests, large ratios of students per teacher, age divisions, and the old-fashioned set of subjects that our parents, and theirs before them, learned at their time. This is not to discredit the innovations that have taken place in the last years, such as the popularization of bilingual or even trilingual schools, it just goes to show that model wise, Spain and Ireland are very alike, and that neither has evolved into a new system.
Why are Spainish students dropping out of second level education at a much higher rate than their Irish counterparts?
After agreeing on this point, we are again left to wonder what is the cause of the vast difference between these two countries. Are Irish teenagers smarter than their Spanish counterparts? Are Irish teachers so much better? Maybe the perspective of dropping your studies is much more appealing in Spain, could that be the reason? I think it is safe to say that the answer to all these questions is no.
The first one goes without discussion, there is no significant difference in intelligence between the two countries. We could start an argument about the second, as there could be differences found in that regard, but being such a arduous topic, we will settle it by saying that the quality of the teachers is about equal for both countries. Which I believe is fair enough.
What then, is it that easy to find a stable job in Spain that the pros of finishing your basic education do not outweigh the cons of not starting to work early? Not at all, the unemployment rates of Spain and Ireland (as of 2017) are, respectively, 16.7% and 6%. This would lead us to believe that any sensible teen would want to be as prepared as could be when joining the work force, and would like to delay its incorporation for as long as possible, in hopes of a positive change in the rates as years go by. Besides, high school dropouts do not normally start working right away, they are usually unemployed and unfulfilled, and they constitute a heavy economic burden for their parents for many years.
Surprisingly enough, it is when we look apart from elementary and secondary education, and start looking into higher education, that we finally find some clues as to what could explain this phenomenon. For those of us who have attended college lectures in both countries, it is clear that, in the field of science, the level is lower in Ireland compared to Spain. They have a weaker basis, specially in Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Biology, which translates into basically every topic they cover, rendering them less meticulous in their explanations and often forcing them to avoid going into depth in topics of great importance. But this problem does not stem from the college, I am sure that professors would love to teach at a higher level, they have the knowledge to so, and the students have the intelligence necessary to assimilate more rigorous concepts and more intricate theories.
Alternatively, one could also argue that the level is kept low to ensure higher success rates in a institution that benefits from the number of students who enrole in their courses. But we shall not discuss that today, and nevertheless, both cases are not incompatible.
After all, the fact is that Irish students start their degrees with a lower level than Spanish students. And this can only be so, if the level taught in high schools is also lower. I am under the impression that the main reason -albeit perhaps not the only one- why Irish dropout rates are significantly lower is because the standard is set low enough that even low performing kids can reach it. I believe that if Irish students were placed under the demands of the Spanish system, they would perform similarly to Spanish students.
Despite my harsh words, it is not my intention to establish any sort of superiority here, but merely to point out what the current situation is. It would be wrong to think that Spain is not to blame here as well, as it has seen a continuous decrease in academic level within the last thirty years, even if to a lesser extent than Ireland.
Finally, we come to the argument of whether all of this is of any importance. Ultimately, the purpose of a society is to be prosperous and inclusive of its people, and if that can be achieved with a lesser strain on our children’s minds, then so be it. If they can make a smaller effort and achieve the same outcomes in life, isn’t that desirable? Maybe even wiser?
Well, the problem is that by lowering the level of our education and thus making it more achievable, we make it ever easier to obtain qualifications and therefore their value plummets, forcing each new generation to go one step further. The only limiting factor being the cost of paying for the studies, which we can all agree is not something that we should strive for. Education should be equally accesible for people of all economic levels. Thus, the limiting factor ought to be difficulty, in order to slow inflation without cutting less wealthy families off.
In conclusion, we must seek deeper changes in our education system if we intend to arrive to long term solutions. Ireland has taken a step in the right direction of reducing dropout rates, but like Spain -which still has a long ways to go before catching up- should aim to do so in a sustainable fashion. One that does not lower the demands of the system but rather prepares the children to meet even the highest of them.