Change One Thing: Take the heat out of the CAO points system


If I could change one thing I would steer our second-level system away from the current one, where CAO points are the exclusive route to third-level education.

As an educator, I find it difficult to stand over a system that measures 14 years of education on performance in a three-hour exam. For many young people, a three- digit number, their points tally, becomes the ultimate measurement of self-worth. I acknowledge that end-of-year testing is necessary, but it should not be the exclusive form of measurement of a student’s aptitude when finishing second-level education.

I recommend complementing end-of-year exams with the introduction of personal statements from students, references from schools and a system which enables schools to give credit for extra-curricular activities. Such activities would include involvement in sports; BT Young Scientist participation; enterprise competition; local community participation; peer mentoring; school prefect roles and student council activity It would also award bonus points for success in subjects that are continued into third level.

Leaving Cert results day is a significant national occasion when we celebrate staggering achievements of maximum points: 600 points was not enough, so we upped it to 625. Morally speaking, it is hard to preside over a system that condemns so many young people to failure, a failure to achieve impressive points or sufficient points for courses of their choice.

The points race is also a significant source of stress for young learners. Grinds and mocks dominate the lives of our sixth years at this time of year. The national obsession with points also places unnecessary pressure on students at a time when they are also burdened with the issues of maturing into adulthood.

Many students are merely programmed to memorise how to beat the system as opposed to learning something new. As a consequence, many students advance into third level with a knowledge of a subject, but without an understanding of it. Coupled with that, many teachers are criticised for teaching to the test. I believe this is an unfair; isn’t that what we expect when the sole emphasis remains a written terminal exam? What needs to change is the system.

I have great hopes for Junior-Cycle reform but I recognise that the changing role of our teachers will require significant investment and resources. As educators, we need to change from being purveyors of knowledge to facilitators of learning.

The benefits of revolutionising final assessment of our students are endless. Young learners will graduate from second level with the skills of curiosity and a love of learning. These are the vital tools required for a better learning experience in third level which will equip graduates for advancement in work life.

Extra- and co-curricular activities are a rich tradition in Irish education and reflect well on the generous spirit of our teachers. These are the activities that foster the skills and attributes that are increasingly in demand in work and in society. Surely qualities such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and innovation have to be at the heart of any model of learning appropriate to the 21st century. We owe it to our students to give them credit for such achievements.

It must be acknowledged that there are moves afoot to look at the points system and third-level entry. Improved access routes such as HEAR, DARE and the Trinity Access Programme are steps in the right direction.

The points system is frequently described as brutally fair. Let’s take out the brutality and just keep it fair.

Pádraig Flanagan is president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and is principal of Castletroy College, Limerick

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