David McWilliams and teachers

David McWilliams has a piece in today’s Irish Independent which basically suggests the problem with teachers is with teachers themselves, mainly, they are too stuck in the mud.

Debate on education in Ireland  is rarely if ever balanced and the current hassle causing discussion is linked to changes to the Junior cycle assessment. However, when you see people contributing to debate in a manner that includes “why don’t you leave it, oh yeah, you’d lose your three months’ holidays”, and “Overpaid, jobs for life”, my soul fades away a little people. Arguments of this nature are ignorant. In Ireland, probably led on by the UK, we don’t trust teachers.

We don’t trust teachers.

We devalue their work, reject their contributions to debate on their industry and suggest their sole motivation is for the easy life of three years holidays.

And then we throw Finland at them.

In not one column discussion changes locally and citing Finland as an example, do we highlight core features of the Finnish system that made it special. It is a highly equal system and its core objective was social equality. Becoming best in literacy and numeracy was a fringe benefit.

So here are some features of the Finnish system which perhaps Irish people should want to take on board.

There are practically no private schools. 

All those rugby playing schools who populate the elite in Ireland? Gone. Nothing. I personally have no objection to this  – I think it’s a good idea. What private schools exist in Finland are subject to a few rules which I don’t think would go down well here:

However, even in private schools, the use of tuition fees is strictly prohibited, and selective admission is prohibited, as well: private schools must admit all its pupils on the same basis as the corresponding municipal school.


Teachers have a great deal of autonomy.

Teachers are highly valued members of society and their contribution is recognised as valued. Certainly the Finns pay their teaching staff less than we do, but only ignorant people would fail to see that this is part of a whole. Living conditions in Finland tend to be better across the board and the last time I was there, it was also a noticeably less expensive place to live in. Comparing purely in monetary terms is something we really should learn not to do. However, one of the key things which they do not do in Finland is treat their teachers as leeches on the system. We could learn a lot from how the Finns in general treat their teachers. We are not anywhere close.

University education is free

If you are arguing that we should follow the Finnish method, then you can’t do it on a pick and mix basis. Our universities want to charge fees.

When David McWilliams suggests that teachers should be open to change, he is missing the point. They are interested in change. They are interested in change which they can effectively implement, which gives them autonomy. We don’t respect teachers in this country and we certainly don’t listen to them.

If I wanted to give an example, it’s worth looking at the respect rugby referees get from their players versus the respect, or lack of it, football referees get from their players. We, in Ireland, play football with our teachers, and not rugby.

Most of the debates on education in Ireland do not focus on the core objective of education. Nowhere, in any of the pieces I have read recently, does anyone advocating Finland, highlight the core objective of the Finnish system was to reduce social inequality. We want to emulate their numeracy and literacy and be the same as them without taking the hard decisions that they did. You could argue that yes, the Junior Certificate could be marked locally by teachers. But that doesn’t magically make us perform like Finland. It’s a cargo cult approach to education.

In the same respect, you cannot honestly claim to respect teachers if you 1) insist they’re only in it for the holidays 2) suggest they quit if it’s not all that and 3) impose change on them without understanding where their objections are coming from. They deal with the every day price of teaching and the every day challenges of it.

We also need a wider discussion on what we expect from our education system. We have tech companies complaining that our university grads are not skilled enough. We have business people screaming that we don’t have enough language skills while paying absolutely nothing for those skills which are apparently in short supply. We get fashionable demands like “every child must learn to code” and “we should be teaching kids foreign languages from the age of 4”. These are fads.

There are a bunch of core skills on which every other part of learning is built. We need to identify them and focus on them. Reading, writing and basic numeracy are amongst them. Critical thinking is another one which is sadly absent in a lot of discourse on education.

When I look at the education debate in Ireland, it strikes me as poverty stricken.

This article – which may or may not have formed some of McWilliams’ research for the piece linked above is more nuanced.

Even in Finland, the reforms have met objections from teachers and heads – many of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject only to be told to change their approach.

Finnish schools are obliged to introduce a period of “phenomenon-based teaching” at least once a year. These projects can last several weeks. In Helsinki, they are pushing the reforms at a faster pace with schools encouraged to set aside two periods during the year for adopting the new approach.

I honestly believe that we need to re-assess how we consider education. I’m not sure that doing it within the framework of criticising teachers for blocking reform is the most effective way of doing so.

Mercer Quality of Living Survey 2015

Much was made in Ireland, this morning, of the news that Dublin had rated highly in the annual Mercer Quality of Living Survey. This survey is carried out to provide some guidance for companies who are expatriating staff in terms of cost of living, suitable salaries for staff being relocated, and related matters. I have generally relocated myself so this is not something I have ever worried about but I had a look at the reports anyway.

Dublin came in joint 34th place with Boston. This placed it higher than London and New York, and depending on which reports you read, outranking either London or New York was the hook most of the media went with.

You can, with a little cooperating with Mercer, have a look at the data by clicking on “See Full List” on this page. So I did that because I wanted to have a closer look at the list and perhaps think a little more about whether, in fact, 34th place was good for Dublin or not. The only other Irish city on the list was Belfast and it came in at 63rd place.

One of the single most interesting things that struck me about the top end of the list was the prevalence of German speaking cities. The highest ranked English speaking city is Auckland. There are only two other English speaking cities in the top ten, namely Vancouver and Sydney which squeaks in at 10. Five cities are German speaking and of those five, three are in Germany and Switzerland.

No other country has more than one city in the top 10. Even if you stretch that out to the top 20 cities, Germany is still looking good.

Top 20 cities by country

Basically, a quarter of the top 20 cities ranked by quality of living, are in Germany. After that, if you stretch it out to include the top 50, the US squeezes in 8 cities. Germany still has 7. Australia has 6 which has to include pretty much all their major cities when you think about it.


Once I was done being surprised at the prevalence of German cities in the top ten, and Australian cities in the top 50, the other thing which caught my interest was that realistically, none of the top ranked cities were particularly big.

Here’s how they rank, left to right, in terms of population.

Top 50 cities by population

and here’s how they rank, left to right, in terms of population density.

Top 50 cities by density

There is a point to be noted about the population figures. If you look up population figures for most of these cities, you will find a number of figures, namely the figures for the city’s administrative area, and a metropolitan area figure. Taking Paris as an example, its population is 2.273 million inhabitants. The Paris metropolitan area, however, includes around 10 million people. For Tokyo, the difference is even more extreme: its population is given as around 13 million inhabitants; its metro area as 35 million.

That being said, Paris and Tokyo are two of only 6 cities in the top fifty cities in this ranking whose populations exceed two million. After you come to terms with the idea that the best quality of living standards are basically in Germanic speaking countries, the next point to be picked up is that the best quality of living is in comparatively low population cities. The highest ranked city with a population greater than 2 million is Sydney which comes in at 10th place; the next highest is Melbourne.

An interesting feature about Sydney, and Melbourne, and in fact, other English speaking new world cities (so Auckland, Ottowa and Brisbane as well) is compared to most of the other cities around them in the rankings, they have very low population densities. In terms of population densities, the three high hitters are Geneva, Paris which is way, way out in front in terms of population density, and Barcelona.

So while you could suggest that there is a quality of living premium to be gained from living in comparatively small cities by population, the same pattern doesn’t exist in terms of population density. The vast majority of cities come in with a population density below 5000 inhabitants per square kilometre and above 1000. There are notable outliers either side of that band. All six Australian cities come in below 500 inhabitants per square kilometre including both Sydney and Melbourne, the two biggest Australian cities featuring in the list.

What I do not have access to at this point is a detailed description of the features on which this ranking is calculated and that is a pity as I would be interested to see what those features were, and how weighted they were, and more to the point, whether all of them were necessary.

I would also be interested to see on what basis cities were selected for review. The populations for Bern and Geneva, for example, are below 200,000. The lowest ranked city is Baghdad. Manchester does not feature which is surprising bearing in mind that Aberdeen does and it has less than half the population. Of the five UK cities in the list as a whole (not just the top 50), two are in Scotland. Only two cities from France feature. It is hard to argue that quality of living wise, Nice comes in somewhere below Baghdad. It is clear that the choice of cities is not on the basis of population but given Mercer’s primary business, it may well be in terms of the cities they get inquiries about.

From an Irish point of view, you could ask whether Dublin is doing well coming in at 34th place. Coming in ahead of London and New York City might look good except both London and New York are large cities and as already noted, larger cities are not ranking very highly here. Without knowing what the basic criteria for the survey were, it is, to some extent, guess work, to identify where the gaps are in terms of improvement. I would suggest that arguably, the following items could be addressed:

  • public transport
  • health system
  • cost of rental accommodation

Connection wise, Dublin is well connected with most of Europe and some key locations in North America. Culturally, it is reasonably well served, if not as well as some of the other cities on the list. Shopping wise it isn’t terrible. But then, this is true of cities ranked more highly on the list, like Brussels in 23rd place. Admittedly, accommodation and public transport, in my view, almost certainly should rate Brussels higher than Dublin.

If I were somewhere in Dublin City Council where policies get made and implemented, what would I want to do with this, if anything? Is it something useful to have under random news or is there anything to be learned. Given the audience of Mercer reports, ie, companies relocating staff, and Ireland’s heavy dependency on foreign direct investment, is there anything to be noted here?


Ranking data available from Mercer

City and density data from Wikipedia

Density data not available for Kobe, Japan


Uber, Github and You’ve got to be kidding me

In major goof, Uber stored sensive database key on public Github page.

via Ars Technica.

Disclosure: I have a Github account, on which I have stored very little. However, I do have a project going in the background to build a terminology database which will be mega simple (I like command lines) and which will have a MySQL database and an interactive Python script to get at the contents of the MySQL database. However, one thing which has exercised my mind is a reminder to myself that when I promote all this to Github (as I might in case anyone else wants a simple terminology database) to ensure that I remove my own database keys.

But this is not a corporate product, or any sort of corporate code. Nobody’s personal data will be impacted if I forget (which I won’t).

In the meantime, Uber, which is probably the highest profile start up, which has money being flung at it right left and centre by venture capitalists, managed to put a database key up on Github.

I don’t understand this. Why is Uber database related information anywhere near Github anyway? If they are planning to sell this as a product, why would you put anything related to it on an open repository?

I like the idea of an online repository for my own stuff. I don’t actually love Github but it’s easy enough to work with and, a bit like Facebook, everyone uses it. But that doesn’t mean any corporate site should allow access to unless they are open sourcing some code and even then, any such code really should be checked to ensure it doesn’t present any risk to the corporate security of the company.

Database keys in an open repo: there really is no excuse for this regardless of whether you’re a corporate or an individual.


Language skills.

The Economist is shouting about lack of language skills in the UK again. Their basic thesis is that the lack of language skills amongst UK workers costs in economic growth. I’m not sure how much we can stand over that assertion – the Economist admits as much –

This lack of language skills also lowers growth. By exactly how much is hard to say, but one estimate, by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University, puts the “gross language effect” (the income foregone because language barriers alter and reduce international trade) in 2012 as high as £59 billion ($90 billion), or 3.5% of GDP.

which suggests it’s basically educated guesswork.

For unrelated reasons, I had a look at CPL’s language vacancies yesterday and the one thing that interested me is how low the salaries are on average.

The simple issue is this: if we do not value language skills economically, people will not study to acquire those skills.

Comparatively, we value programming skills more highly although they are significantly easier to come by. Put simply, the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a programming language (including assembler) is significantly less than the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a foreign language.

Put simply, the return on effort in acquiring foreign language skills to a high level, is low compared to the return on effort in acquiring programming skills.

I might have more sympathy for the idea that the economy was suffering by a supposed lack of foreign language skills if foreign language skills related salaries were increasing. The truth is they aren’t, really, because the skills are being imported.