The Irish Times view on the class of 2021: passing the resilience test

For a generation often branded as entitled and self-centred, Leaving Cert students have shown remarkable strength

Leaving cert students start their first exam  at Sutton Park School, Sutton, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Leaving cert students start their first exam at Sutton Park School, Sutton, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

This week has marked the start of a Leaving Cert like no other. Tens of thousands of students began their written exams; others have opted for accredited grades based on their teachers’ estimates; the vast majority have chosen a combination of both. The flexibility afforded to the class of 2021 is for good reason – they spent almost six months learning remotely due to extended school closures linked to the Covid-19 pandemic in what has been a difficult and unprecedented year.

Many found it difficult to motivate themselves to learn on a small screen, isolated from their teachers and classmates, against a backdrop of huge uncertainty; others had to learn in homes without quiet study areas or access to digital devices or proper broadband.

However, these students have emerged on the other side and are ready to progress to the next chapter of their lives. For a generation often branded as entitled and self-centred, young people have shown remarkable resilience. They have also played a courageous role during the course of the pandemic. Public health restrictions deprived students of the normal rites of passage such as graduations, tours, debs, sports matches, school concerts and plays. Yet they have responded with kindness and empathy by making sacrifices for the greater good. These are qualities which will stand them in good stead.

Any students unfortunate enough to be affected by Covid-19 over the coming weeks have been instructed to stay away from exams for public health reasons. Principals say they are confident that bonds of trust and friendship mean that no student will knowingly put others at risk. That all students have the safety net of accredited grades is another incentive in this regard.

Although students have learned valuable lessons over the past year or so, there are also important lessons for policymakers. The experiment with last year’s calculated grades system was a success, even if some students felt hard done by. For decades there has been talk of reforming an outdated, high-stakes exam associated with rote learning and devising a modern alternative which would also boost the chances of students from disadvantaged schools. The revised model, while not perfect, substantially delivered on these fronts.

If this year’s approach goes according to plan, it would be short-sighted to cast it aside and return to normal.

Teachers’ unions are opposed to accredited grades and insist their co-operation is on an exceptional basis. However, we know it is possible to devise an alternative form of assessment, with public support, which can allow students to flourish. We have a rare opportunity to raise our game and address known shortcomings: it would be a fitting way to honour students who have raised theirs.