The Leaving Cert is not the only way to measure ability

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

Leftfield:The decision by Trinity College Dublin to trial a model of college entry from 2014 that does not hinge solely on academic results is welcome. It shows a willingness by a leading higher-education institution to road-test new ways to widen college access, knowing that academic results are only one measure of a student’s ability.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, which represents second-level school leaders, believes that, while the points system can remain, it is time to consider trialling other modalities, such as interviews, continuous assessment and course-relevant skills, as part of a new college admissions system.

Our other proposals include a new cross-disciplinary first year for all college students, which would partly decouple the Leaving Certificate and entry to higher education. The points race is, in many ways, the product of an increasingly predictable Leaving Certificate exam. It is time to consider whether that exam is meeting the needs of students and preparing them as citizens and workers. Reform is under way in junior cycle, and it demonstrates the refreshing appetite of Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn to champion change. But the reforms must be accompanied by similar moves to improve outcomes at senior cycle.

While accepting that the current system is brutally fair and commands public confidence, the Leaving Certificate dictates everything that goes on in our education system. This is detrimental to the system as a whole and needs to change. The exam is now less about creating autonomous, self-directed learners and more about functioning as a filter for college entry. When both academics and employers agree that school-leavers lack problem-solving, analytical and creative capabilities, we know there is a problem. The points race has become a function of memory, with students cracking the exam code without necessarily understanding what they learn.

It is important that, before we embark on system-wide reform at senior cycle, parents and educators are assured that the reforms proposed in junior cycle work. Parents, in particular, must be convinced that the world will not end if their son or daughter can study a subject but not take an exam in it, that school-based assessments are as valid as a Junior Certificate exam, and that educators make sound professional judgments based on an innovative curriculum and a holistic grasp of student ability. We can afford to be imaginative in our reforms, provided school leaders are adequately resourced to deliver the new model.

Short courses, delivered by teachers, with input from external stakeholders such as industries in the community, are a key component of the junior-cycle reform model and a priority for the Minister. We often forget that schools have much experience designing these short courses. Already, transition year involves sampler modules of Leaving Certificate subjects, work experience and assessment by portfolio and extended essay. It challenges the ingenuity of teachers as well as unlocking students’ creativity and independence. But as soon as students enter the senior cycle, educators must revert to the long-established tradition of teaching from text.

It could be possible to design an individual curriculum that caters for the differing needs and abilities of each student to include whole-year and short-course modules. There would still be a Leaving Certificate, but it would no longer be such a high-stakes terminal exam, because a revised curriculum could be assessed using open-book exams, projects and extended essays, with marks for attendance and punctuality, extracurricular activity and demonstration of creativity.

We must ensure that the integrity of our education system is upheld and standards are not dumbed down. We need to avoid a system that reinforces artificial hierarchies of high-status courses, instead giving students the headroom to express individuality and build confidence and self-esteem. By trusting our high-calibre teachers and challenging preconceptions, we can aspire to a second-level system that is more responsive to societal needs and can stand on its own educational merits.

* Clive Byrne is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

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