Three urgent questions before Leaving Cert grading changes are adopted

Opinion: A national convention on education needed before decisions are taken

Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Thu, Apr 24, 2014, 00:01

The proposal to reduce the high-stakes nature of the grading system in the Leaving Cert, as reported this week, in favour of more student learning might, at first, seem highly attractive and one to be quickly enacted. However, there are a number of important questions that urgently need to be considered before the Minister for Education and Skills adopts this initiative.

This issue is sufficiently important to warrant another national education convention, similar to the conference held in 1993, as an important public space to debate this matter in depth.

The first question relates to recent vociferous demands from a number of prominent commentators in Ireland for our young people to become creative and critical thinkers as an essential way of succeeding in a knowledge world. How will a reformed grading system in Leaving Cert that takes its focus away from depth in subject disciplinary knowledge lead to our young people becoming this new type of powerful learner?

Dumbing down
You have no opportunity of ever taking part in the creation of knowledge if you have no access to disciplinary or theoretical knowledge.

We are currently experiencing a Europeanisation of education that is rapidly dumbing down school knowledge so that we will have a general population of flexible learners who will never, no matter how long they remain in school or college, have access to this powerful knowledge.

The second question follows on from the fact that recent research indicates the contemporary knowledge economy is seeking employees who will be flexible, reliable, literate team-players, willing to follow employment wherever it takes them and never ask searching or critical questions. This knowledge economy also requires a minority of elite learners who will more than likely be drawn from a top percentage of elite schools and colleges.

So an important national question for us in Ireland is: do we as a small nation on the geographic edge of Europe, with such a high risk of losing the majority of our educated young people to the global economy, want to educate for this middle tier or should we be setting our national education policy sights higher?

The third question is regarding the value Ireland has traditionally placed on education. Compared to many of our European neighbours, we have high completion rates in senior cycle. What if we were to lose this by lowering our national testing standards in favour of what the expert steering group is calling “learning”?

Cognitive sciences
While much interesting research on learning comes from the cognitive sciences, these studies fail to take into account the full complexity of teaching teenagers and refuse to acknowledge the role of environment. Why should we rush to make a policy change of this importance based on such narrowly focused research? Any policy proposal to reduce the importance of grading in the Leaving Cert examination needs a reasonable timeline for a measured national debate.

The history of policy reform in education nationally and internationally has more failed reforms than successful.

Convention needed
I am calling for another national convention in education similar to the one convened by then minister for education Niamh Bhreathnach in 1993 which was seminal in its approach to issues of importance in education at that time. This education decision is far too important for a small nation like ours to be taken by a handful of experts working in steering groups behind closed doors.

Dr Geraldine Mooney Simmie lectures in education policy studies to structured PhD students at the University of Limerick. Her recent textbook is What’s Worth Aiming for in Educational Innovation and Change?

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