Leaving Cert pressure causing stress and ‘burnout’ among pupils

Students tell official review that senior cycle is crushing their creativity

On the question of how the system could be changed, many students said they should have fewer subjects and greater subject choice that suited their abilities. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

On the question of how the system could be changed, many students said they should have fewer subjects and greater subject choice that suited their abilities. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The pressure of the Leaving Cert is causing stress, burnout and mental health problems among students, according to an official review of senior cycle education in secondary schools.

The findings are contained in an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report based on consultations by the State’s advisory body on the school curriculum with students, teachers and parents across more than 40 post-primary schools.

Students interviewed expressed frustration and concern about the squeeze on their time during the senior cycle when they were trying to complete homework, study, take part in sport and do part-time work.

Others said it had “crushed their creativity” because the exams rewarded rote learning and suited those who could “ learn and regurgitate things on a page”.

Sleep disruption

Many said they were forced to give up sport, while some complained of sleep disruption and not having time to meet friends.

The report’s findings will inform the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) review of senior cycle education.

The first cycle of process has looked at teacher, parent and student perspectives on the purpose of senior cycle.

Among teachers, the main themes to emerge were how time pressure was leading to rote learning, “teaching to the test” and a negative impact on student motivation and stress levels.

This time pressure, coupled with the high stakes nature of the exams, was seen as fuelling “teaching to the test” as teachers aimed to ensure that students were prepared for the exam.

Rote learning

Staff in girls’ schools were more likely to emphasise the effects of the current system on rote learning, most likely reflecting the greater prevalence of exam-related stress found among girls.

“The large number of students who undertake grinds in multiple subjects is giving rise to ‘burnout’ and mental health problems,” one teacher said.

“The need for such grinds stems from fear of underachieving on the day and a pressure from friends to do more and more. What a student does in school is never seen as enough.”

On the question of how the system could be changed, many students said they should have fewer subjects and greater subject choice that suited their abilities.

Irish was the subject most often mentioned during the discussion of whether any subjects should be compulsory. They also supported a change from the high-stakes model of exams to broader forms of assessment, in line with junior cycle reforms.

Positives

Career guidance was viewed both as a positive and as a challenge in the system. Many suggested more support may be needed and routes other than higher education should be given greater emphasis.

Despite the challenges of the current system, students and teachers found there were also positives.

The objective, fair and highly regarded nature of the exam system was mentioned, as was the high quality of teaching staff, mature relationships with teachers and motivational teachers.

Transition year, in particular, was a source of positive comment such as work experience opportunities and links with the local community and businesses.

Pathways

The review of the senior cycle is due to continue in the coming year when schools reflect on the extent to which the system provides pathways for further learning such as higher education, further education and apprenticeships.

There will be further national seminars and an overview report making suggestions drawn from findings to date will be made.

Students, teachers and parents are being invited to join the conversation on the future of the Leaving Cert by visiting the NCCA’s website or by emailing (seniorcycle@ncca.ie).