There is a better way to ensure all students have a fair shot at third level

Leaving Cert has grown into an entrance exam to higher education and perceived opportunities in adult life

Research shows that students from more affluent backgrounds continue to do better in the Leaving Certificate and consequently are more likely to go to college and indeed, dominate the ‘high points’ courses. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Research shows that students from more affluent backgrounds continue to do better in the Leaving Certificate and consequently are more likely to go to college and indeed, dominate the ‘high points’ courses. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

There is no other country in the world where the final exam at second level dominates public discourse as much as in Ireland. Newspapers analyse why a certain poet did or did not appear on a particular paper while talk radio can guarantee to get listeners going by mentioning any possible changes.

The Leaving Certificate has effectively grown into the entrance exam to higher education and to perceived opportunities in adult life. Asked about how a student performed in the exam, the answer is more likely to be expressed in the number of points acquired rather than the actual results.

This year, for the first time since 1925, tens of thousands of learners have not had to attempt to regurgitate information in a format that has changed little in almost a century.

While used as the determinant of entry to our universities, institutes and colleges, it has been criticised for decades as being inadequate to prepare students for third level and for life. The 1967 Commission on Higher Education expressed concern about it as a mechanism for college entry and pointed out that that this lack of preparedness was probably responsible for a high rate of failure in first year. The 1999 Points Commission warned of the negative impact on students’ personal development.

The evidence also continues to show that students from more affluent backgrounds continue to do better in the Leaving Certificate and consequently are more likely to go to college and indeed, dominate the “high points” courses.

Disadvantaged backgrounds

A report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) last year found that, for example, 36 per cent of the medical student enrolment came from “affluent” backgrounds and just 3.5 per cent from “disadvantaged” backgrounds (and those figures did not include Trinity College).

The HEA has also observed that of students who achieve Leaving Certificate points in the 500 - 600 range (top marks), 28 per cent are from affluent backgrounds compared to just four per cent from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This contrasts with the figures for those scoring below 200 points – 22 per cent are from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to 7 per cent classified as affluent. Someone from an affluent background can expect a mean Leaving Cert score of 446 points in comparison to a mean of 368 points coming a disadvantaged position – a 78-point difference. (About one in seven of the population generally can be classified as “affluent” and a similar portion as “disadvantaged”).

Students from fee-paying schools account for three in every 10 Irish undergraduates at UCD and Trinity while the proportion of students from DEIS (“disadvantaged”) schools is at 8 per cent in Trinity and 6 per cent in UCD. The Institutes of Technology, by contrast, have a much more representative profile of the population at large.

The decision to replace the Leaving Certificate this year with predictive grading is perhaps the least worst option in the circumstances. The health and safety of students and staff must be paramount. But it has given rise to many other concerns, particularly as we have never tried this before.

The Department of Education guidelines make reference to a process of standardisation which will mean that school results will be “examined and adjusted at a national level to ensure comparability across different schools and that a common national standard is applied.”

The guidelines continue: “...the school sourced data will be combined with historical data through a process called standardisation in order to generate the calculated grade for the students in the subject”.

This is the “bell curve” that will be crucial in determining the final result that schools and students receive. If “historical data” such as that cited above is used, then there is a real risk that students with real ability but who happened to attend schools with traditionally lower Leaving Cert results could lose out.

Evidence

In Texas, in 1997, the then governor, George W Bush, signed into law what is commonly referred to as the “top 10 per cent rule”. This provides that the top 10 per cent of every high school graduating class is guaranteed a place in a state-funded university. So, no matter how “disadvantaged” your school, if you are in the top decile, you will be offered a college place. The evidence has suggested that students admitted under this rule have performed at least as well as the general student body (this is also true here of students admitted under specific programmes such as Hear and Dare). It has also resulted in a more racially and socially diverse student body.

In Ireland, it is the higher education institutions that determine the admission criteria for their courses. To allay concerns that the predictive marking bell curve may discriminate against those from disadvantaged schools, why not be innovative and guarantee a particular number of places to each school? This would be a particular challenge to the universities but would be a clear recognition of the need for a more diverse student intake. In the long run, would it not be better for society if we have more doctors, lawyers and those in business who come from less affluent backgrounds?

For a long time, we have allowed a bonus of up to 10 per cent for students who sat their exams through Irish. This was in part an acknowledgment of the lack of resources available to those studying in the first national language. We have also awarded bonus points for higher level maths to incentivise students to study that subject. To recognise the success of students studying in schools that do not have the advantages of those that are fee paying, we should consider making similar allowances.

We also need to stress that while the “predictive grades” Leaving Certificate is one route of entry to third level, that there are others, and additionally, there have never been as many opportunities in further education and training.

Whatever happens, every student this year, given what they are going through and no matter their background, deserves an educational system response that is understanding and generous. They have to continue to be at the centre of all decision making.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator from Wexford