Graduates lack ‘basic skills’ such as writing without spelling or grammatical errors

Key skills such as teamwork neglected by Leaving Cert, says employers’ group

Many graduate recruits are failing to accomplish “simple tasks” such as writing cogently on a business topic that is free of spelling or grammatical errors, an employers’ group has warned.

Neil McDonnell, chief executive of Isme, the organisation for small- and medium-sized businesses, said skills such as teamwork and communication were being neglected by the Leaving Cert.

While the modern world of work requires these types of skills, young people were not being exposed to them during the senior cycle.

Mr McDonnell was speaking at an Oireachtas education committee which discussed reform of the Leaving Cert and the need to address skills needs in the economy.


He was also critical of our “determination to open ever more universities in Ireland” at the expense of education in technical areas, which was contributing to a skills mismatch.

Dr Emer Smyth of the ESRI said the institute's research shows that the Leaving Cert's focus on end-of-school exams is having a "significant negative effect" on the nature of teaching and learning and on the skills acquired by young people.

She said interviews with students show a contrast in their classroom experiences in senior cycle, where they feel under pressure to cover the course, with junior cycle where they enjoyed more time to engage in a variety of approaches to learning and have more interactive classes.


“The exam-focused approach is seen by students, parents and teachers as leading to rote learning, with a focus on memorising material at the expense of authentic understanding and a neglect of the development and assessment of broader skills,” she said. “Exam marking schemes have become a key driver of student engagement in exam preparation.”

Tony Donohoe, chair of Expert Group on Future Skills Needs - which advises the Government on skills gaps in the economy - said the "stranglehold" of the CAO points race on the Leaving Cert means it is failing to develop "higher order skills" and the ability to self-manage learning.

He said assessment methods trialled during the pandemic- which involved a wider variety of sources to provide evidence of learning - should be considered in future reforms.

International evidence, Mr Donohoe said, points to greater involvement of teachers in assessment practice in classrooms a key way of improving standards.

Overall, he said skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communications, creativity and management will be need to be embedded to support students’ capacity and resilience in dealing with change, such as the transition to a digital and greener economy.

Fundamental changes

Ruth Freeman of Science Foundation Ireland's said many governments, including Australia, Finland, South Korea and Singapore, have already begun to implement fundamental changes to their education systems as part of a re-imagining of how they organise teaching, learning and assessment so as to better meet the needs of society in the 21st century.

“I strongly believe we need our education system to recognise different types of learners, different ways of thinking and consider the different skills and expertise that contribute to a functioning society,” she said.

“It is incumbent on us to ensure that we educate now in a way that will enable us to build a sustainable, inclusive and just society in the future.”

Meadhbh Costello, Ibec's policy executive, said there was now a significant opportunity to introduce new learning pathways such as apprenticeships and further education courses into a reformed senior cycle programme.

“The new junior cycle curriculum offers a template for enhanced flexibility in programme design that places the learner at the centre, including opportunities for short courses,” she said.

“This approach should be extended to senior cycle to ensure continued flexibility within the system and to support students of all abilities and talents.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent