We need to talk about the Leaving Cert

The Leaving Cert debate has once again been thrust into the open recently with the coverage of the report from the HEA/NCCA to the Minister for Education and Skills. The same questions are  being asked as those following they Hyland report in the summer – how do we assess, why do we assess in that way and is it preparing our children for higher level and life beyond the Leaving Cert.

It is vitally important that we continue to ask ourselves these questions, and have the debate to fix our ‘broken’ education system. Equally important however, is that we keep in mind the products of that system – the current and recent crop of Leaving Cert students – and make sure that we do not diminish their achievements.

A letter published in the Irish Times recently highlighted the need for this all too well. The writer did not give details of the context in which he was writing – as a student, parent or even concerned onlooker – but made the point that in stating that memorising is so undemanding as to be undesirable, we forget that not all Leaving Cert students get maximum marks.

With respect to the writer of that letter, and having a great deal of sympathy with his position, I would argue that he has somewhat glazed over the crux of the matter.

Let it be noted from the start – I am not saying that getting 600 points in the Leaving Certificate is an easy task, by any means. It is woefully difficult, and the stress and hard work that accompanies it really do set those who do well and those who don’t do so well apart. Indeed, some would argue quite strongly that this environment does, to a certain extent, prepare students for the real world – a stressful place, where huge challenges face you and nobody is going to hold your hand. Where you do have to know things from the top of your head, and you do have to be able to recall information when required.

Yet, I submit that this is where Mr. Foyle misses the point. Memorising is not undesirable because it is undemanding – indeed, it is the opposite. Memorising is undesirable because it does not provide students with the ability to think critically, to question perceived truths, and search for their own. In short, it does not provide students the ability to succeed in college.

As Education Officer in Trinity College Students’ Union, I have had countless numbers of students in tears in my office having failed first year exams. The most difficult part of the situation in which these students find themselves is that many have done extremely well in the subject at Leaving Cert level, getting anything from B3s to A2s. They, quite rightly, are confused as to how they can do so well in a subject at secondary school, only to perform so poorly at college.

The answer? Our system does not teach people the skills they need to succeed at college.

Now, at this point, I would like to qualify my statements with an acceptance that not everyone who sits the Leaving Cert will go to college. Indeed, not everyone who sits the Leaving Cert perhaps should go to college. A student can be an amazingly talented designer or animator – they do not need to study law, they need to be honing their creative talents, which may eventually provide new and exciting job opportunities for other designers, etc. But as my experience is with the university sector, I will leave those more qualified than I to comment on other post-Leaving Cert destinations. I will merely focus on the matter in the context of the University sector.

The fact of the matter is that students who are putting in huge amounts of work to reach the standards set by the CAO are in fact putting in all this effort, only to ‘unlearn’ the skills the minute they walk through the gates of whatever higher education institution they choose. Students do, eventually, get used to college life and the standards expected of them. Most, by the time they reach 3rd or 4th year, are indeed at a standard when they are thinking critically, taking risks, and in short properly engaging with both the material they are given and additional material that they research themselves. Irish graduates, let it be made clear, are in high demand in industry.

However, we should be aiming to place our students in the best possible position to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the University sector, rather than assuming they will find their feet after the first couple of years.

This is quite apart from the fact that an emphasis on rote learning favours those from higher income backgrounds. Many who are in favour of the current Leaving Cert curriculum point out that it is a ‘fair’ test, a ‘fair’ way of ensuring that any student can make it to college if they get the requisite points. However, a curriculum focussed on rote learning is a curriculum that favours those who can be trained in rote learning, not those who necessarily know the material better. The grind schools have thrived under this system as training centres for memorisation, and those who cannot afford their fees are frozen out.

Rote learning, of course is not the only issue, but it does have huge knock on effect. For example, due to the fact that the Leaving Cert is the sole basis by which students are assessed for college places, subject choice has become as important as the subjects themselves. Students (and their parents) choose subjects that are ‘easy’ to rote learn so they will get the requisite points. This leaves some students in the absurd situation that they are studying, for example, science at undergraduate level having not taken Chemistry for Leaving Cert, because it is perceived as ‘too difficult’ to get high points. It is no coincidence that over 125 Natural Science students sat supplemental exams in Trinity College this year when many of them don’t have a proficient background in one of their core modules.

To that end, I am pleased to see the approach taken by the Minister of Education to reform the Leaving Cert  and place less emphasis on rote learning. However, I have been less enthused by the continuous references to a ‘lottery’ system to ensure fairness and transparency in access to college.

Let us be clear. A lottery system is seen to be fair, because there are no external factors – no human intervention to interfere in the mechanical process of selecting which students have the potential to do well at college. However, is it really fair that those who have worked the hardest may be frozen out because they were given the wrong student number – bought the wrong lottery ticket? Proposals for a weighted lottery system are equally damnable, as a weighted lottery is still a lottery, and brings with it the same problems of disincentivisation.

It is time for the University sector to really think strongly about the Leaving Cert problem, and actively provide solutions. Previous conferences have turned into sessions where grievances about the Leaving Cert are aired, without offering any solution as to how to change it.

I submit that we need to be radical in our solutions if we are to resolve a big problem. The fact of the matter is that currently, the exam determines the curriculum, not the other way round. If we are to prevent the tail wagging the proverbial dog, we need to find a way to reduce the influence of the Leaving Cert on place allocation for college. The only way to do this in the short term is to introduce another filter between school and college. Whether the filter is an interview, matriculation, weighting of certain subjects, or any other mechanism is for debate, and far beyond the scope of this mere article.

We must, however, frame the debate in this way if we are to make any real change in how we prepare our students for college. Otherwise, we run the risk of demoralising our students by inferring that their efforts are seen as undemanding – whereas in truth, the problem is that we are focussing their efforts in the wrong place.

We need to talk about the Leaving Cert. We need to talk about what skills our children have upon completing second level education. We also need to be brave enough to make radical decisions to fix a rotten system.

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