Why do so many students refuse to speak during college tutorials? I blame the Leaving Cert

We hammer out creativity in our children to such an extent that when they’re finally given the opportunity to speak up, they’re mute

You always know when there’s an American in a college tutorial. While most Irish students often sit idle and in stern refusal to put their head above the parapet, internationals frequently fill the void. God forbid a sprightly Yank is absent: you get the painful experience of a tutor pulling teeth from undergrads sitting idly for attendance grades and whatnot.

Something is amiss at colleges across the country and it started long before students set foot on campus. In Ireland, we’re pretty obsessed with going to college. We’re engaged in a tired love affair with higher education over “less desirable pursuits”. Ireland has one of the highest university-going rates in the world, jumping to more than 90 per cent for fee-charging schools. Now, we have too many arts graduates and not enough tradespeople. The haulage industry, for example, is relying on immigrants to combat an ageing demographic of drivers.

I don’t care how accurate the Leaving Cert is at predicting performance at third-level education, it shouldn’t be a glorified entrance exam. The worst part? After all that hard work, when students sit in a room with their peers at college: silence.

All too often I met people who hated or dropped out of college because Leaving Cert blinkers funnelled them into a course they weren’t interested in nor good at. As an arts student, I shared many a class with these unfortunates.


More important than poor course selection, however, is that the Leaving Cert continues to utterly fail young people, making them completely unprepared for college tutorials and the active participation it involves. In Ireland, we hammer out the creativity in our children to such an extent that when they’re finally given the opportunity to speak up, they’re mute.

While Irish children rote learned half a dozen textbooks, their American peers were learning public speaking, photography, graphic design, ceramics: things that actually encourage some agency. It’s little surprise we fail to instil our children with any meaningful sense of critical thinking compared to their North American cousins.

Even with the best guidance counsellor in the country, without the opportunity to personally grow inside the classroom – as many subjects fail to encourage – generations will continue to be stumped with that CAO form and feel profound aimlessness when they step on campus.

I’m not intent on lambasting our students for their lost voices when comparing them to students moulded from academically diverse education systems abroad. It’s clear that a student who has worked their entire academic life towards a two-hour exam, and perhaps not once volunteered their hand up to answer a question in class, can be completely incapable at meeting their international peers’ level of social ability.

It’s not like we’re blindly continuing with this antiquated system any more: our eyes are wide open. Everyone from the top of Government to the kids in the classroom know something must change but reforms are so slow that I can’t even be confident that my children (who are very much non-existent right now) won’t be slugging it with the same uncreative banality I endured.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education wrote in this newspaper last December that Ireland is “obsessed with CAO points” and “young people are forced to focus about the points they need, rather than the career they desire”. He was speaking in the context of what he called “a global war on talent” (where key skill shortages are leaving homeowners scrambling for an electrician and whatnot) but the Minister’s battle is against more than just the system. He’s faced with a cultural tradition of beelining for the highest point course possible. I, for one, faced serious pushback from teachers who took issue with my goal of 320 points as per the only course I wanted.

A blind acceptance of the Gospel of the Leaving Cert in our society – no doubt cemented by endless media coverage (I’m well aware how hypocritical this appears) – and the staunch resistance against change among teachers has created a bizarre groupthink in which we bow down to its grip on Ireland.

I’m not the first to say this but judging by the slow pace of reform, I won’t be the last. Recently, the Department of Education abandoned plans to move some of the exams to 5th year after being met with stiff opposition. If an “early win” like this, as it was described by one department official, can’t be pushed through, we haven’t a hope at seeing our kids stand a chance against their international peers for some time.

I’ll admit that the education system in the US is not the only differentiating factor here and I often think Americans are more alien to us than we think but I’d rather my child grows up to have the blind confidence of a lion than the underdeveloped sociability of a 6th year graduate in Ireland today.

Some will shoot back with something like: “We all had to go through that and you should too.” Forcing children to endure the suffering you went through doesn’t seem fair. It sounds more like sadism to me.

Conor Capplis is a journalist with The Irish Times Group