Focus on rote learning causes problems for Leaving Cert students

Conference hears of ways of improving transition to third level

Universities complain the Leaving Certificate points system affects students’ capacity for independent thinking. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Universities complain the Leaving Certificate points system affects students’ capacity for independent thinking. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times


The focus on accumulating CAO points causes Leaving Certificate students to struggle with the transition to third level education, a conference has heard.

Deputy secretary at the Department of Education Mary Doyle said the transition of students from second level to onward education must be improved.

“You can’t get further and higher education right until you get second level right,” she told the Association of Principals and Deputy Principals national symposium.

Projected growth in demand for second level places will bring greater challenges for schools and policy makers in an area which already accounts for 16 per cent of Government spending.

Earlier, the president of the association Pádraig Fallon said Ireland had a high level of secondary school participation but it was important to improve access to further and higher education, especially among students from disadvantaged, Traveller and foreign backgrounds.

By 2018 an extra 70,000 students are expected to be in secondary education with enrolment due to peak at 990,000 in 2024. “Whichever way you look at it, it’s going to be big and it’s going to be expensive,” Ms Doyle said.

The transition to third level could be made easier if upward pressure on CAO points was eased by reducing the number of grade bands in the Leaving Certificate; addressing “problematic predictability” in the exams and reducing the number of specialised degree programmes in higher education, she said.

These factors push up CAO points requirements which then puts pressure on teachers to encourage rote learning among senior cycle students. This, in turn, leads third level institutions to complain that students lack the capacity for independent learning when they enter college.

“Using the Leaving Cert to decide who goes where in third level may have a negative effect on teaching in fifth and sixth years,” Ms Doyle said, adding that evidence suggests some students make subject choices based on what is easiest to rote learn.

Trinity College vice-provost Professor Linda Hogan agreed with Ms Doyle and said educators had to co-operate across the sector to bring about reform. It is “all too easy” for stakeholders to demand reform but to believe it should start somewhere else, she said. “If we are really going to reform education then we really do have to start working together and stop pointing the finger.”

She added the third level sector bore a significant level of responsibility for the problems besetting education in Ireland.

“The single biggest issue we are trying to the emphasis on rote learning,” she said. A “byproduct” of the points system. Third level institutions are “dismayed” by that system but ignore the role they play in it and the power they have to change it.

She added that Trinity was trialling a new admission route which would consider a broader range of achievements rather than a single set of exams. “Every college wants to admit the best students,” she said. “But we have to move away from equating the best with a simple points score.”