Should the Leaving Cert be reformed?

A test of rote learning but alternatives in short supply

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan with Leaving Cert students Stephen Ryan and Jenny O Connor as they got their results at St Nessan’s Community College in Limerick. Photograph: Brian Arthur/Press 22

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan with Leaving Cert students Stephen Ryan and Jenny O Connor as they got their results at St Nessan’s Community College in Limerick. Photograph: Brian Arthur/Press 22

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

The Leaving Cert – to adapt a phrase of Winston Churchill’s – is surely the worst form of examination except for the alternatives.

What would you want other than a brutally competitive and completely anonymous end-of-school test?

School- based certification? In a country as small as ours and where clientelism remains the lifeblood of politics, the outcome would be depressingly predictable.

Reduce the number of subjects students have to study? What, and force teenagers to specialise even earlier, narrowing their future options, and also most likely pushing minority pursuits like history further into the margins?

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan spoke for many, if not for reason, this week when she said the Leaving Cert was a “fair, objective” and “very much trusted exam”. Which isn’t to say the Leaving Cert can’t be improved or adapted to the benefit of both students and society.

When people criticise the Leaving Cert they are usually referring to one of two things: the way subjects are taught in secondary school and the system for selecting young people for higher education.

The need for reforming secondary education to take a focus off rote learning and “teaching to the test” has been obvious for some time. Reform of the Junior Cycle is the first step towards to change.

A steering group on the transition between secondary and third-level education has already recommended a number of changes. These include reducing the number of grades in the Leaving Cert from 14 to eight – a move intended to take some of the pressure off exam day.

Universities have promised to reduce the number of specialist courses they offer and instead provide more general courses that allow students greater flexibility once through the gates of college.

However, change has been slow to date, and institutes of technology are even more resistant to reform.

Further tweaks to the system have been proposed by a task group of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), including offering CAO points to students who score above 30 per cent in higher level maths; offering bonus points for subjects related to the course for which students apply; and recalibrating points for ordinary and higher level exams to encourage students to push themselves into taking the tougher paper.

TCD is running a pilot scheme this year in which a small number of places on three courses are being offered outside the points system on the basis of aptitude and using personal statements from applicants. The IUA task-force says it will watch this with interest.

If Ms O’Sullivan wants to bring about change she needs to act fast, given the expected lifespan of this Government.

That would mean tackling a number of interest groups but her comments this week indicate otherwise. “There’s a belief in Ireland and internationally . . . that what you get is what you deserve [in the Leaving Cert]. I would be very, very slow to in any way dilute that.”