Helping schools to reclaim their purpose
Proposals may help take some pressure off Leaving Cert students
An expert steering group has made proposals that would help reverse the third-level sector’s hijacking of secondary education. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The distorting effect of the “points race” on second-level education has been a long-running concern. Instead of learning through a process of experimentation, innovation and discovery, students consume, memorise and cram their way to all-important terminal examinations.
The measures proposed today by an expert steering group won’t resolve this but it may take some pressure off students, and help secondary schools to reclaim their purpose as educational institutions and not just “feeders” for third level.
Universities and institutes of technology have a lot to answer for here. They’ve been quite happy to allow the CAO do the job of sorting through admissions, creating a fair but not entirely healthy competition. In addition, they’ve expanded the number of specialist courses on offer, intensifying competition for the most sought-after programmes.
Change of heart
The change of heart now among third-level institutions is a recognition that entry procedures are producing a poorer quality of undergraduate. A common complaint among lecturers is they have to teach students to think for themselves after being spoonfed knowledge throughout the Leaving Cert years.
Course designs that force students to specialise too early contribute to that but also to higher drop-out rates as undergrads discover new interests in college.
Thus, the “transitions reform” steering group – comprising stakeholders from the different sectors and governing agencies – puts a new focus on broad-entry programmes.
Instead of asking school leavers to chose between, for example, “physics with astronomy”, “applied physics”, “physics with biomedical sciences” and “analytical science” – to take four courses off the DCU prospectus – there will be a greater focus on putting applicants through “common entry” science, allowing them to specialise later. In fact, DCU already offers such a course.
Universities have been slow to change, believing they can get an edge over competitors by creating new, trend-spotting courses to lure the brightest and best. But there’s evidence from UCD in particular that reducing the number of entry courses doesn’t reduce quality. Over the past three years, the number of level 8 degrees listed by UCD has been reduced from 56 to 45 but first preferences to the college have risen – going up 8.7 per cent least year.
The steering group’s interim report says a commitment has been made by universities “to ensure that the number of entry routes offered in 2015 is brought back to the number available in 2011”.
The other main innovation planned is to reduce the number of grading bands in the Leaving Cert from 14 to eight. The high number of grades that currently exist are acknowledged to be contributing to a culture of “teaching to the test” and rote learning.
The measures would see points allocated for every 10 per cent in each exam rather than 5 per cent. Thus any score between 90 per cent and 100 per cent on a higher paper would get a H1, any score between 80-89 per cent would get a H2, and so on.
Prior to 1992, the CAO system operated on a similar basis, albeit with seven bands rather than eight at each level. The system was changed, the report notes, “at the request of higher education institutions amid concerns about the increased use of random selection for third level places”. Under the new scheme, “the luck of the draw” may determine college entry for an increased number of school leavers. But planners agree it is a price worth paying to reverse the third-level sector’s hijacking of secondary education.