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School Markets and Educational Inequality in the Republic of Ireland  

Kevin Cahill

Educational inequality is a persistent feature on the landscape of Irish educational history, and it remains a significant issue in the early part of the 21st century. There have been significant efforts at school reform in recent decades to intervene in a system that continues to provide significantly different outcomes based on socioeconomic position and background. These differentiated outcomes continue to be exacerbated by structural inequalities in the lives of people as well as by an increasing focus on neoliberal market principles in education. Interschool competition, particularly at the postprimary level, has fueled an ever-increasing marketplace where schools vie for desirable middle-class students through media-published school league tables. Indeed, this competitive landscape is partly constructed by an intense and high stakes race for third level places in Ireland. Nevertheless, significant policy measures have also been aimed at leveling the playing field and providing opportunities for people in communities that are more marginalized in terms of economic status and educational outcomes. Some of these policy interventions have had some impact in terms of retention in postprimary school, including the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools program; curricular interventions into education such as the Junior Certificate Schools Programme; the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme; and the allocation of additional teaching resources to schools experiencing marginalization. Schemes such as the Higher Education Access Route and the Disability Access Route to Education have also done important work in terms of ameliorating opportunities for students from marginalized economic groups and students with disabilities, respectively. However, there are overarching sociopolitical ideologies that work to maintain educational inequality in Ireland, such as the significant impact of neoliberal choice policies on schools in communities experiencing poverty and educational marginalization. These neoliberal ideas are characterized by increasing focus on outcomes, testing and assessment, school and teacher accountabilities, within-school and between-school competition in terms of admissions policies, and “syphoningoff” high-achieving students (academically, musically, sports, etc.), and they often manifest in blunt instruments such as school league tables. These policies often benefit citizens with wealth and cultural capital who use their position to distance themselves educationally from the complexity and diversity of everyday society in favor of academic and cultural silos that work to reproduce advantage for the elite sectors of society.

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21st-Century Skills and Current Nordic Educational Reforms  

Gunn Elisabeth Søreide, Hanne Riese, and Line Torbjørnsen Hilt

Twenty-first-century skills are a global network of corporate and governmental influences that promote competences suited to fit the future knowledge economy. The competences described as 21st-century skills vary across frameworks and initiatives, but the emphasis is predominantly on metacognitive, social, and emotional skills. Some of the most prevalent capabilities are learning to learn, self-regulation, in-depth learning, creativity, innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, ethical and emotional awareness, communication, and collaboration. Research tends to portray 21st-century skills initiatives either as evidence-based knowledge based on the latest research or as part of an economization of the learner to the interests of the market economy in line with neoliberal ideology. The ideas associated with the 21st-century skills movement have nevertheless become part of educational reforms worldwide and are currently also translated into a Nordic education policy context. When global ideas such as 21st-century skills are taken up and used, they are colored by national concerns and consequently change as they travel across contexts. The Norwegian LK-20 reform for compulsory and upper secondary school is an example of how policymakers include global educational ideas in the national curriculum and educational policy, by balancing core 21st-century skills elements with national cultural sentiments about assessment, childhood, educational purposes, and schools’ responsibilities. The balancing of global and national educational ideas can be done by promoting 21st-century skills as a solution to specific national challenges and thus urgent for pupils’ and the nation’s future. A more sophisticated technique is when policymakers frame 21st-century skills by familiar concepts and language associated with existing traditional national educational values, thus seemingly promoting change and continuation simultaneously. In such an intersection between global educational ideas and national educational sentiments, both core elements of the 21st-century skills as well as the more traditional educational concepts and values can be adjusted and altered.