Q&A: What would a Leaving Cert that rewards wider set of skills look like?

Minister wants senior cycle reforms that recognise more talents – but what does this mean?

This week Minister for Education Norma Foley said she wanted to see Leaving Cert reforms result in students being able to secure CAO points forrom a much wider variety of skills and talents.

So, what exactly might that look like?

While she didn’t elaborate, we know that students and school leaders feel the current Leaving Cert exams capture a very narrow range of intelligence.

Many say that, despite changes over recent years, there is still too much emphasis on teaching to the test and regurgitating information during marathon writing sessions over a three-week period in June.

School managers and employers have also said any reforms must emphasise the need for students to have “21st century” skills such as critical thinking, independent learning, communication/presentation and teamwork skills.

Q.What Leaving Cert reforms are being planned next?

Under reforms announced recently, students entering senior cycle in September 2023 will sit paper one in English and Irish at the end of fifth year.

In the longer term, 60 per cent of marks for all Leaving Cert subjects will be based on written exams and 40 per cent on additional assessment components such as project work, orals or practicals.

This is where the bigger change would happen as each subject is reviewed and reformed to ensure it encompasses a wider variety of students’ skillsets and talents.

Q. Could we see communication skills being recognised in the Leaving Cert across more subjects?

Norma Foley’s comments are widely seen as a reference to new skills which now form part of the junior cycle.

These changes were aimed at providing a much broader snapshot of students’ achievements and skills, rather than cramming three years of learning into a single high-stakes exam at the end of third year.

There is, for example, an emphasis on oral communication skills. Some classroom-based assessments, for example, include a presentation or performance which is graded by a teacher. There is also an emphasis on teamwork and project work. These types of approaches could form part of the senior cycle.

Q. Work experience is formally recognised in other jurisdictions. Could it happen here?

Many ideas in relation to a reformed Leaving Cert borrow from the existing Leaving Cert Applied (LCA).

For example, the LCA has a modular structure which allows students to earn credits for modules over the course of two years. Assessment includes assignments, tasks, interviews and oral examinations, in addition to written exams.

Work experience is also a significant portion of the course. These approaches may well be adopted under a reformed senior cycle.

Policy-makers say the aim is to create a “curriculum for all” which recognises a much wider range of students’ skills and achievements, rather than a heavy emphasis on end-of-school exams.

Q. What about further education and training – will that have a role in a reformed Leaving Cert?

Another option being considered involves giving senior cycle students the opportunity to complete foundation apprenticeships or modules of vocational courses in “off-site” settings such as local further education colleges.

These vocational pathways would have equal status with more traditional subjects and could be recognised for Leaving Cert points or entry into third level.

The idea is loosely modelled on a system in Scotland where senior cycle students have the option of completing courses part-time in local further education colleges and accredited work experience.

The current Leaving Cert has been criticised in many quarters for not offering enough vocational pathways for students.

Q. When will we see these changes implemented?

Unless your child is in one of the new pilot schools which will road test some changes it is likely to be at least 2028 or later before new and revised subjects begin to roll out across all schools.

In other words, if your son or daughter is currently at second level, chances are they’ll miss out on most of the changes. Today’s primary school pupils are more likely to see the full benefits.

Teachers say any changes in how we assess students will need to be recognised by the CAO system – otherwise, they will be diminished in value.

While the CAO system is operated by colleges, Ms Foley has said that Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris "is very intent on ensuring there will be a match between the CAO and what we achieve here at senior cycle".

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