Critics claim Leaving Cert is past its sell-by date

How does the international baccalaureate compare to Ireland’s traditional State exam?

The Leaving Cert is considered “deficit-based” and forces students to take subjects which they may not be able for. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

The Leaving Cert is considered “deficit-based” and forces students to take subjects which they may not be able for. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

Next week almost 50,000 students will find out how they fared in this year’s Leaving Cert. The results will play a crucial role in shaping the future path of school-leavers. But is the State exam really fit for purpose?

Many educationalists argue that the high-stakes system is discouraging independent thought, failing to foster critical thinking and not resulting in a rounded education.

Plans to establish a secondary school in Dublin that would only teach students an alternative to the Leaving Cert – the international baccalaureate – are likely to spark a debate on how we assess our students.

St Andrew’s College in Dublin is currently the only secondary school which teaches the programme, though it is optional for students.

The international baccalaureate – often associated with private schools that educate the children of diplomats and multinational executives – comes from an international educational foundation based in Geneva. It is taught to children from primary to secondary level, culminating in a two-year diploma.

While the two-year duration is comparable to the Leaving Cert, that’s where the similarities end. The international baccalaureate allows students to focus on fewer subjects and in greater depth.

While students take on six subjects, only three are at a higher level (though higher and standard level are awarded equal points).

These higher-level subjects are at a first-year university level, while the standard level subjects are at a level slightly lower than higher level in the Leaving Cert.

The programme also has a core that all students must take. This includes a 4,000-word “extended essay”, which involves researching an academic topic of students’ choice.

There is also a component on the study of the philosophy of knowledge, aimed at  encouraging students to think and to question knowledge, how it is gained and effectively how do we know what we know. This is assessed through a presentation to students’ classmates and by a written essay.

The way students are marked is also different, with a greater emphasis on continual assessment. All subjects in the international baccalaureate have some form of course work, which accounts for up to 55 per cent of marks. This is followed by two or three written exams.

So, is the international baccalaureate a better model to measure the ability of students in Ireland?

The answer depends on who you ask.

“The Leaving Cert, sadly, is well past its sell-by date and very content-driven,” says Arthur Godsil, former principal of St Andrew’s College. “Critical thinking is crucial nowadays. The international baccalaureate assumes in general that you know the facts and asks you to deal with them; the Leaving Cert asks you to show that you know the facts.”

Greater depth

The Leaving Cert, by contrast, is “deficit-based” and forces students to take subjects which they may not be able for, damaging their confidence and self-esteem.

Employers’ group Ibec also says the international baccalaureate seems more closely aligned to the needs of the workplace of the future.

“It emphasises analytical, communication, creative and entrepreneurial skills,” said Tony Donohoe, Ibec’s head of education policy. “Given the highly globalised nature of Irish business, its emphasis on modern languages, multiculturalism and respect for human differences is also significant.”

Most importantly, he says, it uses multiple methods of continuous assessment rather than just relying on the retention and reproduction of facts in a terminal exam.

“This approach is more likely to develop a younger generation of reflective learners with the skills and attributes that business values,” he says.

However, William Hehir, the international baccalaureate co-ordinator at St Andrew’s College, feels there is merit in both exams.

“No programme provides an accurate measure of a student’s real ability as every student is unique, so quantifying the real ability of a student is difficult,” he says.

Workplace skills

He also says the Leaving Cert has changed in recent years, with a much greater focus on fostering the skills required in the workplace.

“Inquiring and thinking are at the heart of the international baccalaureate learner profile,” he says.

“While the Leaving Cert papers have been criticised in the past for not having these at the core, this is not the case any more. Over the last few years, it is increasingly testing these skills. This change is a gradual process but it is happening.”

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