Recalling his teaching days Roddy Doyle spoke this week of the contrast between the spontaneity and thirst for learning of children in national schools, and the deadening, uncritical groupthink to which they succumb, particularly teenage boys, after their experience of second level, the Leaving and points race. Little wonder, he suggested, “the country was now f****ed”. And the obsessive press coverage fed such pressures like nowhere else. Spontaneity, creativity, and rebellion, are squeezed out of our children.
And perhaps our national passivity in the face of the economic crisis can indeed be laid, at least in part, at the door of the exam system. The idea that there is just one acceptable, correct answer to problems. That teacher knows best. No marks for rocking the boat.
Doyle’s speech to the Media Futures conference echoes a recent interview by Mark Patrick Hederman, abbot and former principal of Glenstal Abbey. “The truth is that everyone wants to get a job,” he said. “And there’s only one gig in town when it comes to that, and that’s the Leaving Certificate ...We’re still running a system which was invented in the 19th century – a factory model, and that’s the way it is. So unless we recognise that every single person is different and therefore requires a different kind of education, not this ‘one system fits all’, then they’re not educated.”
Both prognoses suggest radical reforms of the curriculum and points system will be needed. But Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has at least proposed a small step in the right direction of making the transition from school to university less of a bare-knuckle fight. By reducing the number of entry streams, but not places, to the 900 honours degree courses at forty-five institutions, he is hoping to reduce points competition, stress, and rote teaching, as well as the too-early specialisation of students. He has also promised a review of Leaving Cert grading bands and an external analysis of the predictability of content on Leaving Cert papers. A welcome first step.