Leaving Cert review to focus on easing ‘points race’ pressure

Ireland has the highest proportion of school-leavers in EU who go to third level

The Leaving Cert has often been criticised for being too exam-focused and failing to engage less academic students

The Leaving Cert has often been criticised for being too exam-focused and failing to engage less academic students

 

A major review of the Leaving Cert which gets under way on Tuesday is to examine ways of easing the “points race” and better preparing students for alternatives to university such as apprenticeships.

Ireland currently has the highest proportion of school-leavers in the EU who progress to third level. By contrast, far fewer students here follow more vocational routes.

The Leaving Cert has often been criticised for being too exam-focused and failing to engage less academic students. Policy-makers are now examining trends in “upper secondary” education systems across countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Ontario in Canada which have more popular pathways into vocational routes such as apprenticeships.

Most of these countries have moved away from a single final exam, and have a much greater focus on classroom-based assessments which are marked by teachers at the end of each school term.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which hosts a major conference at Croke Park on Tuesday, says all options are on the table in shaping a senior cycle which meets the needs of all students.

The next step will involve a review of senior cycle involving dozens of schools and a series of national conferences. However, given the consultative nature of the Irish education system it is likely to take several years before any reforms reach the classroom.

All learners

“The review offers everybody an opportunity to generate a shared vision for senior cycle, and a strong base from which the NCCA can shape a curriculum that genuinely meets the needs of all learners for years to come,” said council chief executive John Hammond.

“We look forward to embarking on a review of senior cycle with a network of 40 schools and a series of national seminars. This approach to how we undertake review will place schools at the centre of discussions about the kinds of developments needed at senior cycle.”

The focus of policy-makers has to date been on reforming the junior cycle, where there is now a much greater focus on a broader range of skills and more class-based assessments. It took about 20 years for these proposals to be rolled out in the classroom, due, in part, to opposition from teachers’ unions.

However, Mr Hammond said there was no reason why senior cycle reforms should take so long, and said the key focus was likely to be the gradual roll-out of any changes.

While the Leaving Cert has been the subject of criticism for being outdated, he said key subjects have been revised and developed over recent years.

“I don’t think it is the case that the Leaving Cert is a static entity – it is a developing programme...27 out of 37 Leaving Cert subjects now have a second assessment experience, such as a project or practical...people forget, for example, that oral Irish is worth 40 per cent.

Dispositions and talents

“However, most people believe that the Leaving Cert as a programme of study isn’t entirely suited to every student’s set of dispositions and talents, and there is no doubt that there is a group of students who don’t do as well out of the Leaving Cert as others do in terms of overall results and educational experiences...A major focus of this review will need to be on how senior cycle can be diversified further to cater to these students.”

While teachers’ unions played a key role in resisting and watering down junior cycle reforms, Mr Hammond said the forthcoming review would focus on building the case for changes among all stakeholders.

“We’d like to pay a fair amount of attention to not only the ‘what’ of what should happen and should change, but also the ‘how’ of how we build a shared vision and understand what the senior cycle education experience should be like.”