Leaving Cert system favours wealthier students, study finds
Academics criticise emphasis on rote learning and say those with access to grinds have advantage
The study indicated that skills such as remembering and understanding were prioritised above evaluation and creativity, which were found to be largely absent from the examination papers in many subjects. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The Leaving Certificate programme places problem solving, critical thinking and creativity secondary to rote learning and recall, a new five-year research study has found.
The study indicated that skills such as remembering and understanding were prioritised above evaluation and creativity, which were found to be largely absent from the examination papers in many subjects.
The research, carried out by Dr Denise Burns from the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection at DCU’s Institute of Education, and completed at Trinity College Dublin, challenges the effectiveness of the Leaving Certificate assessment to foster creativity and intellectual stimulation among students.
The study found that the current system favours wealthier students with access to grind-based schools that use a rote learning approach, perpetuating socio-economic divisions in academic achievement and access to third-level education.
In interviews with students, Dr Burns found they enjoyed the opportunities for creativity presented by English, Music and Art.
“They enjoyed when they could be creative for example in English Paper 1 when they are given instruction to write an essay. They expressed anxiety when they had to learn off and retain a huge body of text, which is a requirement for biology or geography.
“Some students had maybe 30 prepared essays and they had formed an essay pool and shared these between them. There’s nothing wrong with it but the problem is it’s so dominant, that they are not getting enough opportunity to develop other skills,” she said.
Her study questions whether the current assessment recognises the key development stage for those aged from 16-19, a crucial juncture for intellectual growth.
It found that analysis and creativity were almost completely absent except in Art, English and Music. Subjects such as Biology, Agricultural Science and some of the Stem subjects leaned heavily towards memory recall skills.
Heavy focus on the recall of “factual” knowledge in Biology (73 per cent) raised questions about the appropriateness of the subject as a basis for pursuing third-level programmes in life sciences which focus on the scientific methods, she found.
“There is no test of laboratory skills in Leaving Cert Biology. It doesn’t lend itself to much scientific method. Chemistry and Physics are only written papers too, but at least there are questions about the scientific process,” she said.
Dr Burns has written an article based on her findings for the Irish Educational Studies journal to be published next month.