The case to better align students with college courses is compelling


ANALYSIS: IT IS no exaggeration to say the Hyland Report is one of the most significant education reports in two decades.

Criticism of the Leaving Cert and the points system has become familiar on the education landscape. The Hyland Report for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is the first official attempt to tease out a solution since the Points Commission report in 1999.

To the surprise of many, that report recommended no change in CAO points. But former UCC vice-president Prof Áine Hyland, a member of the commission, says in the new report the case for change is now compelling.

The pressure for change is coming from educationalists, university heads, employers, the political class and from Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn.

Quinn is not the first minister to be scathing in his assessment of the Leaving Cert examination. Two of his predecessors, Batt O’Keeffe and Noel Dempsey, were equally critical. Even former taoiseach Bertie Ahern joined in: writing in The Irish Timesin June 2006, he backed fundamental reform.

The Leaving Cert is unloved principally for three reasons: it tests a very narrow range of skills; it retains an old-fashioned emphasis on rote learning; and it works to drive students away from maths and sciences, key areas for our future.

While others have pointed to the flaws of the exams, Quinn is the first to set in train a radical reform programme. In truth, he has little choice, given the slump in Ireland’s OECD ranking in literacy and numeracy, and growing pressure from the business class.

Last December, Quinn, then in opposition, said the results were a “shocking indication of how our education system fails to perform at the most basic levels” and “a black mark” for the Irish education system.

There are other pressures bearing down on the system. There is pressure to fill the skills gap in science and technology. There is pressure to raise our game in relation to language proficiency, in which Irish school-leavers are ranked close to the bottom of European tables.

There is also pressure to deliver a better kind of graduate to the workplace, with more flexibility, stronger analytical skills and a greater capacity for innovation.

That said, there are thousands of hugely talented school-leavers and graduates. Last year, an EU study showered praise on the skills base of Irish graduates. But are they doing well because of the Leaving Cert or despite it?

Quinn sees reform of the Leaving Cert moving in step with a recasting of the Junior Cert and changes to the points system.

While everyone appears to have an opinion about exam reform, proposals for reform of the CAO system have been less forthcoming. That is hardly surprising, as the CAO system, established in 1977, has a brutal efficiency. Moreover, it has widespread public trust and confidence.

But, as Hyland concludes, the points system now has a hugely negative impact on second-level education. Students on a points treadmill opt for “easier” subjects and not those that might better suit their skills set or the wider societal needs.

Her solution is to introduce a new system in which the skills set of the student and their chosen college course would be aligned much more closely.

Under this system, students with strong Leaving Cert results in languages, for example, might get preferential access to third-level language courses. Such a system could work well in the universities, where student demand exceeds supply. But what about other third-level colleges, already struggling to fill places?

Any new lottery-style system would also require changes to the minimum entry requirement for courses.A lottery-style system would have to ensure students had sufficient academic ability for their chosen courses. It might also need safeguards to ensure it did not discriminate against high achievers.

A lottery system for college admission was also backed by former DCU president Ferdinand von Prondzynski in an Irish Timesarticle earlier this year.

He wrote: “This system is crazy. It makes young people study subjects for all the wrong reasons, and it has asset-stripped subjects that should be national priorities. It encourages students with fairly mediocre academic credentials to study hugely complex subjects, and it pushes extremely bright students into subjects where their levels of intelligence will not necessarily be needed.”