Why should the Leaving Cert have to be ‘brutal but fair’?

Digital natives have to handwrite thousands of words as if their futures depended on it

The cancellation of last summer’s exam exposed the main weakness in the current system. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The cancellation of last summer’s exam exposed the main weakness in the current system. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


It’s time to rethink the Leaving Certificate. The cancellation of last summer’s exam and the debacle over calculated grades exposed the main weakness in the current system – an over-reliance on a written final exam, and the under-use of other complementary forms of assessment.

Collectively we seem to believe we cannot have major exam reform because the Leaving Cert and its first cousin, the points system, are so deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche that public confidence would be lost if we change things too much.

Last year we realised, however, the limitations of the view that the exam devil we know is better than the alternative options we don’t. Too often we describe the present arrangement as “brutal but fair” to fend off demands for change. But now we have seen that there is another way to conduct assessment, and we can no longer hide behind such a notion; why should assessment have to be brutal? And by whose analysis is it fair?

Yes, we now make some more use of practicals as well as orals and aural tests. But they are still only bit parts to the main written drama that has been staged every June since 1925 – until last summer when we discovered there is another way. Do we really want to go back to a situation where digital natives – whose normal mode of communication is online – are forced to write by hand thousands of words, most often learned by rote, as if their futures depended on it? They probably write more, entirely by hand, in those three weeks in June than they will ever write by hand again in their entire lives.

Writing out by rote is not a useless skill, but it belongs to a former time. A reliance on it predisposes to a particular kind of learning to achieve exam success, and it advantages students who are taught how to do the exam, or “taught to the test”. Some schools are excellent at teaching to the test, but let’s ask who benefits from continuing this approach to learning in our world today? Hardly society overall.

We know there are different types of intelligence, thanks to the pioneering work done by Howard Gardner nearly 40 years ago. The type of intelligence Irish society chooses to measure by the Leaving Cert is a choice of one among many. High points overall do not necessarily mean an intelligence-type suited to the course. And presumably many students achieve the overall points for a place in a course and careers that they do not have an aptitutde for. By implication, students with a true aptitude or motivation for a course do not get a place on it.

It has never been more important that we choose new assessment methods that both leads students into courses that suit their aptitudes and intelligences, and encourages the forms of learning that will benefit students and society. The current consultation process being carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment shows there is demand for change among students, parents and teachers.

We need assessment spaced over the two years of the senior cycle which should involve teachers assessing elements of their own students’ work for exam purposes. The use of IT has to be a big part of the discussion.

It may not be time yet to fully de-couple the Leaving from college entry but it is possible to have a more flexible system which would allow for more tailoring of specific university courses to assessments and achievements, supplemented by SAT-type tests (the aptitude test used in the US) or some variations of Hpat, the aptitude test used for access to medical degrees. A one-size exam system can no longer fit all.

Trinity College Dublin has trialled a pilot scheme aimed at looking for an alternative way of selecting students for university. For example, our prizes on admission (entrance exhibitions, as we call them) are now allocated based on the relatitve performance in the student’s secondary school rather than simply the absolute points achieved. This year the number of schools with a student awarded increased to 455 schools across all 32 counties in Ireland, whereas previously about 250 schools had students awarded the prize.

It’s time for a fresh look at all of these interrelated issues while putting equity, access and fairness to the fore. This might be done by the Oireachtas education committee and at the forthcoming Citizens’ Assembly for education which has been promised by the Government. We owe it to our students to give them a strong voice in what changes are made.

Patrick Prendergast is the current provost of Trinity College Dublin and an engineer