Education and Foundations in Ireland

The experience of finding a topic for my first Mitchell blog in October was so traumatic, that since that frantic fall night I have been slowly stockpiling blog topics. Today, with only five months and one remaining blog left before I return to the US, I realize I have to begin dipping into this carefully built WordPress-worthy arsenal of observations, commentaries, and reflections about my time in Ireland or it will all go to waste. Below are some thoughts on Irish secondary and tertiary education, and the role foundations play in Ireland.

Since September I have been tutoring high school math through a federally funded community development program based in Limerick City designed for lower income students. Dependent on parent and student volunteers, and the guidance of a dedicated and over-stretched administrator, the tutoring program has given me insight into egalitarian and unequal aspects of Irish secondary education and university admissions.

The Irish university application package is sparse, revolving around the Leaving Certificate, a multi-day standardized test that would make the SAT-wonks at Educational Testing Services at 666 Rosedale Road, Princeton NJ devilishly proud. Subject specific like the AP or IB exams, while designed to test thinking like the ACT or SAT, the Leaving Cert is a behemoth of a comprehensive exam.

At best, the undiluted influence of the exam in admissions means students from low-income families who work an after school job or care for siblings – and consequently cannot play sports or do extra–curricular activities – have as equal a shot at admission to the NUI, Trinity, Limerick, or DCU as a well-off student. At worst, students from low-income families do not have access to the very expensive, informal Leaving Cert university student led tutoring machine that whirs in suburbs around university campuses to the tune of 30 Euro/hour. This leaves a hole in the Irish national admissions process that needs to be fixed.

Like American foundations endowed by Gilded Age barons or more recent tech-era pioneers, Irish entrepreneurs turned iconoclastic philanthropists are similarly targeting inequality via analysis at foundations and charitable giving. I am involved with an initiative, enabled by an Irish entrepreneur and philanthropist, which is working to get Irish students simply excited about math education. We are facilitating a weekly online math problem competition that will culminate in a nation-wide MATHletes championship. Separately, there may be opportunities to link Khan Academy’s online learning platform to the Leaving Certificate curriculum, to serve as an online, free video-tutoring platform accessible to all Irish secondary school students. This would mitigate some of the inequality that stems from the costly, tutoring-centric culture.

In the US we take for granted the intellectual and financial might that lies behind major American foundations. Education in America has long captivated the attention of an institution like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Being in Ireland has reminded me foundations are a unique part of American life, and being involved in this discussion led by Irish entrepreneurs and philanthropists about Irish education, has reminded me how essential they are to civic life.

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