Jim Carroll

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Leave it out: how the fuss over the Leaving Cert masks the real problems with our education system

It’s that time of year when learning essays and answers off by rote are sadly all that matter

Hand-cramp for the masses as the Leaving Cert exam season begins

Thu, Jun 6, 2013, 09:52


As rites of passage go, the Leaving Certificate examination is a fairly mild one. Unlike somewhat more primitive societies which have always had more robust ideas of what is required to mark the arrival of adulthood, Irish young people sit in a stuffy hall during the hottest weeks of the year and try to remember what they’re supposed to have learned in the previous couple of years by writing non-stop during eight or nine three-hour sessions.

They come out of this crazy second level exam season with a very sore hand, a library of notes they’ll throw into the nearest bin and a burning desire to never speak Irish or study English ever again. It’s not called the Leaving Cert for nothing, you know (and that’s before you take into account where many of the Class of 2013 and their social networks will end up in due course).

However, it’s the rest of society’s completely over-the-top obsession with these exams which is the most baffling thing of all. You can understand why the students and their families are up to high doe with that damn thing, but the Leaving Cert dominates the news cycle to an extent you don’t get with school exams in other countries.

Would you get a Minister for Education elsewhere appearing on the flagship radio news show to give exam tips to students (during which even he admits there is too much hype around exams)? Is there any other exam which produces ridiculous waves of nostalgia from other adults about their time in the exam process (and who feel they have to give advice to the poor suckers currently engaged in avoiding hand-cramp)? You can only imagine the fuss which will ensue in August when it becomes about the results, the night-of-the-results malarkey, the points race and the third-level entry process. We’ve turned the education system into an annual news cycle obsession.

No wonder the poor students who have to sit the damn exams over the next few weeks and cope with all of this pressure are unduly rattled by something which will, in time, quickly disappear into their rear-view mirror in terms of importance. They may be told by parents and peers, keen to keep them on an even keel, that these things don’t really matter, but the fact that there is so much attention put on those green and blue exam papers at this time by everyone else often tells a much different story to those in the middle of the madness.

When you have a large number of students who’re already hassled in their own heads about these silly exams, the fact that everyone around them is also fussing over how they did in English paper one – and knows that they started the murderous process with English paper one because the Leaving Cert has always started with bloody English paper one due to some ancient decree or other – just adds to the pressure.

The fuss also manages to take the shine off the real problems with our long-in-the-tooth education system and ignores the fact that simply getting candidates to undertake speed tests to regurgitate what they’ve learned off by heart may not be ideal in any way, shape or form. Many who’ve gone through the Leaving Cert system and come out the other end know that it’s not fit-for-purpose in the modern world, but then most exam-based systems like this also fail that test.

Yet there’s never as much focus or attention paid to this anomaly, little effort made to come up with an eduction system which can address its current failings and no real clamour to reform or at least address how it can be changed. The will to change just doesn’t seem to be there. After all, should change come about, you mightn’t have this ridiculous seasonal palaver over people learning essays off by heart and then shaping them to suit whatever question is on the paper.

Perhaps, then, this is what we think education should be about – the need to amass grades, points and degrees rather than actually learning how to apply knowledge to what we see, hear and experience around us. There has to be – there is – a better way, but we don’t seem willing to do anything about it except embrace the annual ritual.