Next Wednesday some 60,000 Leaving Certificate students will undertake what many regard as a sadistic rite of passage: a marathon series of exams, the results of which will sum up their academic achievement, and may affect the rest of their education – and, possibly, the rest of their lives.
Then there is a brutal CAO points race to contend with: a system which pits students against each other in a competition where grades and availability of university places determine if they secure their dream course. Even then, some places are awarded by lottery.
If that was not anxiety-inducing enough, the fact that many of this year’s candidates have never sat a State exam before – due to the cancellation of Junior Cycle exams during Covid – adds to the sense of jeopardy.
Liadhain Quaid will not be one of them. The 18-year-old saw the levels of stress her older sister went through and decided on another path. Instead of sitting her Leaving Certificate, she pursued a post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course in healthcare at the age of 17 at Gorey Institute of Further Education in Co Wexford.
In general, applicants should have completed the Leaving Certificate to be eligible for a PLC course. However, students can also apply for courses if they have not completed the exam, have work experience relevant to the course or can demonstrate an ability in that area.
After securing distinctions in her PLC course, Quaid secured a place on a UCD nursing honours degree programme last year without the need for CAO points. The same course had an entry requirement of 531 points for regular applicants in 2022.
“I think it is an amazing option,” she says. “I don’t think people know enough about it. It’s often seen as inferior, or as a backup if you don’t do well in the exams. But it is far less stressful.
“PLC courses allow you to get a taste of what you think you’d like to do, without having to study subjects you’re not interested in. It’s not like school. There’s far more independence. You have control over what you’re learning.”
Officially, it is Government policy to attract more school leavers to choose PLC courses. Yet, the further education and training sector suffers from a status problem.
Education experts point to a “cultural snobbery” where the CAO route is seen as key to future success.
Ireland sends more school leavers to university – about 60 per cent – than almost any other EU member state; this is about twice the rate of Germany. Ireland, by contrast, sends far fewer students to more vocational routes.
So, why is there such stigma? Everything from the lack of an industrial revolution in Ireland to the media and guidance counselling have been invoked as factors.
The result, says Brian Mooney, a guidance counsellor and chair of two colleges of further education in Blackrock and Stillorgan, is that parental self-worth is often wrapped up with sending children to university at all costs.
“The perception that the only route to success is through direct entry to university through round one in the CAO is, to be frank, a load of nonsense,” he says. “If it was the only route to some careers once, it is certainly no longer the case.”
Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, says a key aim of his has been to “change the conversation at kitchen tables across the country” around students’ options after the Leaving Certificate.
He says he has visited dozens of secondary schools to talk to students about their options.
“Being honest, you can see the fear and the anxiety in the eyes of so many,” he said, recently. “Somewhere along the way, we have created an unhealthy and disproportionate pressure on our young people to excel in written State exams ...
“At school and societal level, there is an over-emphasis on the Leaving Certificate. Our country is obsessed with CAO points. This has meant our young people are forced to focus about the points they need, rather than the career they desire. We have allowed a culture to develop where all too often university is perceived to be the only gateway to personal and career success.”
Harris says that this pressure cooker environment is not just placing the well being of our young people at risk but is also leading to significant skills shortages in key areas of our economy and society.
It is why his department has focused on trying to broaden students’ horizons by ensuring school leavers are exposed to college and PLC options on the CAO website.
Ironically, recent Government decisions have led to fewer students choosing PLC options in recent times. The creation of thousands of extra university places during Covid – in a bid to take some of the heat out of high CAO points linked to grade inflation – resulted in a sharp drop in the number of school leavers choosing further education and training courses.
While numbers bounced back somewhat last year, it is reminder of the challenge of changing attitudes towards further education and training.
Harris says that 14 new “groundbreaking” degree courses, outside the CAO points race, could be a game changer. The courses, in areas such as nursing, computer science, engineering and business, are due to begin next September. A second batch of courses is due to commence in September 2024 in areas such as culinary arts, music technology, sustainability, performing arts and supply chain management.
These courses will start in a further education college before transitioning to a university. The move is part of a drive to create alternative pathways to third level without the need to secure high points. It also aims to forge closer links between further education colleges and universities and reduce student dropout rates.
The range of apprenticeships or “earn and learn” options is also broadening to include dozens of new roles in green skills such as wind turbine maintenance and white-collar areas such as international financial services, software and aircraft asset management. Many of these “earn and learn” options provide a degree-level qualification at the end of them.
Ethan McDonald (19) is one of the first students in Ireland to join a new apprenticeship in wind turbine maintenance.
He sat his Leaving Certificate last year at Tarbert Comprehensive, Co Kerry. The fact that he his place secured in advance transformed his experience of the exams, he says.
“It was unbelievable, really, the amount of pressure it took off,” he says. “There was no freaking out over having to get 500 points. All that was expected of me was to sit the exams. Points didn’t come into it. I’d say I was 10 times less stressed than others who were looking for college places.”
He says he always had an interest in hands-on learning in electrical and mechanical engineering, so jumped at the chance of an apprenticeship with Enercon, one of the world’s biggest wind turbine makers.
The “earn and learn” approach combines classes at Kerry College and on-the-job training over three years. The advance certificate at the end of it, he says, will allow him to work internationally.
“I think people see university as the only way to chase the bigger salaries,” he says. “But, I’m earning already. You can make a very good living when fully qualified. I’ll be able to work anywhere in the world or stay locally. There is so much employment in this area ... I don’t see any downside to it. I think people don’t know enough about this.”
If we have so many school leavers heading straight to university, does it really matter? Surely, having too many college graduates is simply what is called a first-world problem?
Tom Boland, former head of the Higher Education Authority and Ellen Hazelkorn, professor emeritus at Technological University Dublin, who run the education consulting firm BH Associates, disagree.
They argue that Ireland urgently needs a much more balanced tertiary (or further and higher education) system to provide for the wide range of skills that our society and economy needs. There are, for example, urgent skills gaps in construction and areas like retrofitting, which cannot be filled by higher education.
Despite strong employment and earnings potential, Boland and Hazelkorn say further education, and many of the careers which stem from it, occupy a much lower status in society compared to Switzerland and many other European countries.
One senior education source, who declined to be named, conceded that there is an uphill battle to convince school-goers over the merits of further education.
“We haven’t won the culture war yet – there is still a tendency to say, ‘that’s what my mum says I need to study’,” said one source.
Another says vocational routes will continue to be seen by many parents and students as second-best until employers like Google start hiring from the sector.
But Andrew Brownlee, head of Solas, the umbrella body which oversees further education and training, says this is happening already.
Tech companies such as Microsoft have started to hire from the further education pool and have developed cloud computing traineeships with the further education sector; in addition, new degree-level apprenticeships in cybersecurity, network engineering and software development are now available.
“All the big tech companies are now engaged in taking on apprenticeships, such as Salesforce and Google. The tech companies are starting to realise that it can be better to bring people in, allow them to earn and learn, and shape them into the kind of tech workers they’ll need,” says Brownlee.
He says there is increasing evidence to show further education works, as a destination or a route into higher education.
“We know that 90 per cent of PLC graduates are going directly into sustainable work or progressing into higher education degrees after study,” he says. “We also know that doing a PLC gives you a better chance of completing a higher education degree.
“On top of that, there is also an acute need for so-called intermediate skills areas – the green transition, the knowledge economy, hospitality, construction – so the opportunities are tremendous,” he says.
School leavers, in the meantime, will need to adjust to the fact that education no longer ends following a degree or qualification in their early 20s.
With the rise of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, experts agree that lifelong learning is a reality for everyone.
Claire McGee, head of education and innovation policy at employers’ group Ibec, says today’s school-leavers will probably make multiple career changes and transitions, requiring new skills and new expertise at every turn.
“As a result, we will constantly be on a learning journey, regardless of our initial qualifications. Business is constantly seeking new ways of attracting and retaining people with talent and skills. This new economy and the new workplace is anything but conventional. This is why, as school leaders and business leaders, we must do more together to promote the depth, breadth and range of opportunities that exist beyond school,” she says.
With the range of jobs and careers that now exist, she says there is no longer only one entry ticket to the world of work.
“The once tight relationship between degree and job is widening, creating a window of opportunity for different forms of education and qualifications to gain valued recognition.”
Meanwhile, Theo Monaghan (17), another school leaver who opted out of the points race, has no regrets about taking the further education route.
Driven by a passion for amateur drama, he bypassed the Leaving Certificate and started an acting course in Ballyfermot College of Further Education last year.
After a year, he realised he wanted to keep acting as a pastime rather than a full-time career. In September, he is due to switch to a highly-regarded two-year film and TV course where he will try his hand at screenwriting and production. There is also a route into a college degree at the end of it.
Monaghan says he is conscious that if he did the same in a university degree course, there would be a considerable financial penalty. There are no such fees for PLC courses.
“I think doing a PLC gives students a lot more freedom to study and learn about things that interest them,” he says. “It’s more of an introduction to university, the stakes are much lower if you feel that the course is not for you.”