Why we must change the 'horribly old-fashioned' Leaving Certificate


PRESIDENT'S LOG:The Leaving Cert and the CAO points system must be reformed as a matter of urgency, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

IT IS NEARLY 40 years since I completed my second-level education. Like most secondary students everywhere, I finished school with an exam; in my case it was the Abitur, which was first introduced in Prussia in the late 18th century and is the German equivalent of the Irish Leaving Certificate

Or is it? When I took the Abiturthe written exams took a variety of different forms. In French and English we had four hours to reproduce in writing a complex text read out to us by the examiner. In other papers we had to do a lengthy essay offering a critique of an issue put to us. In science we had to explain experiments performed in our presence and speculate on the use of the scientific methods involved.

I don’t recall in how many subjects we were examined, but it might have been seven or eight.

But that wasn’t all. Based on an assessment of the written exams, students could also be called to attend oral exams in any subjects where the examiners felt that this could clarify their grade. In my case, I was told to attend oral exams in physics and philosophy.

In these sessions I was called to an exam room where the chief examiner put an assignment to me, and I then had an hour to prepare my answer. After that I had to do an oral presentation to a panel of about eight examiners.

In philosophy, my task was to compare rationalism and empiricism, using the work of Descartes and one other philosopher of my choice.

In physics, I was asked to perform an experiment using an ionisation chamber and to explain both the result and its possible application. I was slightly distracted in this latter exam by an elderly examiner who got hiccups during my experiment until, just as it reached the most exciting point, he began to vomit.

The net result of all this was that when I went to university in Dublin a little later I was well equipped to handle the new learning methods. At the end of my first term as a law student the college department decided that they had to do something to acclimatise all these recent graduates of the Leaving Cert: they set a test based on answering about 100 factual questions about the Irish legal system, and the only efficient way of preparing for this was by learning a set of facts and figures by rote. My tutor said that unless something like this was done at the beginning of the degree programme the Leaving Cert-trained students would not appreciate that they were participating in anything educational at all; it was only later that they could be weaned off rote learning and encouraged to use critical evaluation.

So what am I suggesting here? Well, the Leaving Cert might imply by its name that it is a final step in a student’s formal education. But in reality it is a gateway to a higher education programme. And this being so, it needs to have a curriculum and learning methods that allow students to make the transition from school to college. But it does not do this. The curriculum is horribly old-fashioned, and it neglects the areas of knowledge most critical to our needs. Furthermore, the methods used to maximise high grades in the Leaving Cert are inappropriate for higher education. So, for example, grind schools preparing students for the Leaving Cert emphasise the efficiency of their courses and the utility of their course notes; they suggest that what is most likely to succeed is memorising the details of syllabus. And they are right, as that is the formula for success.

But once the student is at university, all of this is useless. All too often lecturers encounter students who have put aside all active learning and who need to be coaxed back into a state of curiosity. And then there is the disaster of the CAO points system, which pushes students into career choices unrelated to aptitude, but rather based on the relationship between their points and the points requirements of programmes: you’ve got 550 points, so you must be a doctor, lawyer or pharmacist. What total and destructive nonsense.

We have known for a generation or two that our education system is not what it should be. This is not the fault of the teachers: it is the fault of a society that knows something is wrong and cannot bring itself to correct it, because so many people have a stake (and worst of all, sometimes a social stake) in the status quo. But now we are at a crossroads. We need to persuade the world that Ireland is worthy of investment, or that it is a place where knowledge is valued and developed, and where learning is producing intelligent, creative and enterprising individuals. We are not recognised for any of this right now. We need to change, and the place to start is the Leaving Cert.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University