Once more unto the breach


Tomorrow will prove a memorable day for almost 117,000 students as they face into State examinations for the Leaving Cert, the Leaving Cert Applied and the Junior Cert. It is a rite of passage that marks an entry from childhood into adolescence for the Junior Cert students and an exit from adolescence into adulthood for the Leaving students.

These arduous examinations, particularly the Leaving, are also a uniquely Irish experience. Leaving Cert students will tackle a battery of examinations that will continue for 2½ weeks and collectively will probably rank as the most difficult they are ever likely to experience. US students face nothing like it with their system which is marked by continuous assessment and class ranking rather than terminal examination.

And while the UK student also takes terminal examinations, the experience is much different given the Leaving student must deal with six to eight subjects while the A-level student handles three or four. While the A-level studies delve deeper into a subject, the Leaving requires the student to spread their scholastic efforts over a wider range of subjects, yet at a reasonable depth.

If it is a trying time for students so too is it for parents as they worry about how well prepared their children are and how punishing a task that lies before them. No doubt memories of their own experiences will come flooding back as they watch their children head off tomorrow to face the first hurdle, the English paper.

Year after year the question arises whether there is a better way to assess a student’s capacities, a method less demanding and for some students, less traumatic. Certainly it is a challenge and many would argue the Leaving is a flawed system that needs replacement. There has been criticism of the perturbations caused by the introduction of bonus points for passing honours maths, and the advantages it offers those students who can cope with honours when it comes time to tally points.

Clearly, tinkering with an already difficult system may cause unexpected downstream difficulties, and so perhaps a root-and-branch change is required . Yet what ready alternative presents itself? Teachers’ unions have balked at the idea of continual assessment where they are asked to judge a student’s performance. And arguably the Leaving curriculum would leave a student with a broader academic experience than would the more restricted A-level approach. It may be a flawed and difficult system, but it is a system we understand. It has become a part of secondary school and it has given us a tough but transparent way to allocate placement in higher education. To the thousands of students who tomorrow will file into exam halls feeling much the same as the gladiators of old entering the arena we say best of luck, we salute you.