A move in the right direction: PE takes off for Leaving Cert

Students are warming up for the first ever PE course to attract CAO points

Fifth-year students record PE activities for video analysis as part of the new Leaving Cert PE subject in Castleknock Community College, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fifth-year students record PE activities for video analysis as part of the new Leaving Cert PE subject in Castleknock Community College, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Not so long ago, PE was seen by many students as the kind of optional subject that got in the way of proper subjects that yielded precious CAO points.

But the introduction of PE as a Leaving Cert subject, say teachers, is a game-changer. It is giving students with a love of sport a chance to excel in exams. And there is now a strong incentive for pupils to keep active right up to exam time.

Schools are warming up for the first ever Leaving Cert PE exam, which will take place in 2020.

Sixty-four secondary schools are piloting the new examination subject, which is due to be rolled out to all schools following the pilot phase.

But any notion that the new exam will represent easy points is quickly knocked on the head by PE teachers.

The subject is made up of 10 topics, ranging from improving skill and technique to inclusion, technology, business and enterprise,

Castleknock Community College is one of the schools trialling the new PE programme, and teachers Shane Davey and Conor Dempsey say fifth-year students who will sit the first exam next year are embracing the new subject.

It is not just about PE, says Dempsey; it’s also about important topics such as diet and nutrition, ethics in sport and biomechanics in a variety of areas.

“So far the feedback has been positive and the students’ attitude to sport and exercise has been very good,” says Dempsey.

“While they were all interested in sport and participate in it, the programme is educating them more on the importance of sport and reasons why we exercise.”

Huge interest

More than 50 applicants wanted a place in the class. While only half could be chosen, nearly all of those students – along with their parents – attended an information night in the school, which Dempsey says indicates a huge interest in the subject.

And though many of the students already play sport, Dempsey feels the PE programme does not simply preach to the converted but is integrated across the curriculum.

“The structure of the course gives them great opportunities to work with ICT and learn skills such as video editing, analysis and presentation,” he says.

Students record exercise form through tablets and edit the clips together into packages for analysis.

So how do you assess exercise? A total of 20 per cent of the marks are awarded for a physical activity project. A further 30 per cent is for performance assessment.

This involves students submitting a recording of themselves demonstrating skills and techniques.

The remaining 50 per cent comes from a traditional written exam.

“The specifications are very similar to GCSE PE and A Level PE in England, ” says Shane Davey, who taught both subjects for more than 20 years in the UK before returning to Ireland.

Fifth-year students at Castleknock Community College, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Fifth-year students at Castleknock Community College, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

When thinking of PE, you might assume it’s all about movement, but Davey explains the theory side is actually proving to be very popular with students.

“One of the most popular topics so far has been topic six: ethics and fair play. Learning outcomes in this topic include codes of ethics, drugs and sport, anti-doping rules and best practice for use of supplements.

“There has been so much in the media, World Anti-Doping Agency, doping scandals, not to mention the Olympics.

“Students really enjoyed the topic as a lot of them have an interest in going to the gym, and there is so much advertising about supplements, both legal and illegal.”

By using resources in the media, such as the recent RTÉ Investigates documentary into supplements, Davey says students are given practical and relevant material on which to learn from.

And as a mixed school, Davey says that there is no gender distinction with the content of the PE programme.

No assessment

The senior cycle PE curriculum is also being rolled out, so far in 40 secondary schools. With no assessment, the programme’s aim is to encourage students’ confidence and participation in physical activity while in senior cycle and in their future lives.

But the Leaving Certificate is, for many, a year where extracurricular activities disappear. Sports and hobbies take a back seat to studying.

With the traditional PE subject in schools, many students, with their parents’ permission, opt out of the subject entirely in favour of revision.

Buy if exercise is now study, will we see a change when students, and their parents, see that the extracurricular is actually curricular?

“As we only have a fifth-year class so far, it may be too early to know if attitudes have changed,” Dempsey notes.

“But I hope as the programme develops and becomes embedded in the school, the attitude towards keeping up playing sport in Leaving Cert year will remain positive.

“We won’t see many if any dropping out of sport once they see the positive link between exercise, study and exam results.”

Fifth-year students taking part in the new Leaving Cert PE subject with Shane Davey at Castleknock Community College. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Fifth-year students taking part in the new Leaving Cert PE subject with Shane Davey at Castleknock Community College. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Dempsey says the impact of the subject could do wonders to help provide a much broader assessment of students’ skills and abilities.

“It will reward those students with an interest and talent in sport, just like those with a talent in art or music are able to study it for their Leaving Cert.”

WHAT’S COMING UP ON LEAVING CERT 2020?

From computer science to Mandarin Chinese, the Leaving Certificate is receiving much-needed modernisation with new subjects becoming mainstream

Computer science

Along with PE, computer science has commenced as a Leaving Cert subject in a pilot phase of 40 schools. The first students will take the exam in 2020. The national roll-out will commence in September 2020.

Politics and society

This new Leaving Certificate subject was part of a pilot phase of schools in September 2016. It has since been made available as an option to all schools that wish to offer it from September 2018.

Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Polish and Lithuanian

Under the Department of Education’s strategy for foreign languages in education (2017-2026), a range of new languages will be introduced such as Mandarin Chinese for non-native speakers and the introduction of Portuguese, Polish and Lithuanian for heritage speakers, from September 2020. The first exams are due in 2022.

Updated subjects

A number of revised Leaving Certificate specifications will be introduced from September 2019. These include agricultural science, economics and art.

Revised specifications, and implementation arrangements, in applied mathematics, classical studies as well as Leaving Certificate Applied module descriptors in English and communications, ICT (introductory module and specialism), and mathematical applications are also being finalised