The Irish Times view on senior cycle education: could do better

The Leaving Cert should not be a crude filter for third level. Now, more than ever, we need broader reforms which equip young people with a more rounded education

A review by the OECD  found the senior cycle system is “too narrow and rigid” and its main focus seems to be acting as a filter for entry into higher education.

A review by the OECD found the senior cycle system is “too narrow and rigid” and its main focus seems to be acting as a filter for entry into higher education.

 

In an ideal world, the classroom would be a space for free inquiry which develops students’ creativity and problem-solving while building up their social and emotional capacity. In the run-up to the Leaving Cert, however, it can resemble a military training ground where students are drilled to produce perfect answers to potential questions based on marking schemes. The combination of a highly competitive points race and high stakes terminal exams means there is often pressure to teach children to the test rather than focus on a more rounded education.

The findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) review of senior cycle will chime with anyone who agrees it needs to change. It found the system is “too narrow and rigid” and its main focus seems to be acting as a filter for entry into higher education. It said it was “not clear how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert”. The points system, it added, was generating high levels of stress and anxiety among senior cycle students and their families.

The review is not all negative by any means. As the OECD report notes, Ireland is a high performing education system and students here are viewed as more achievement-motivated than many of their peers elsewhere. The system has high levels of trust and the Leaving Cert is embedded in our national culture. However, it questions whether the system is fit for purpose to match Ireland’s aspirations of delivering a learning experience to the highest international standards.

The cancellation of the Leaving Cert summer exams due to the pandemic, along with other challenges, highlighted how inflexible the current system is

Reforms aimed at addressing these issues have been talked about for decades. What is encouraging this time around is that the OECD’s findings broadly reflect that of education stakeholders consulted as part of a wide-ranging review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Its findings to date, based on consultations with students, teachers and parents, point towards a desire for change.

Most want the structure of senior cycle to be made more flexible, with exams spaced out and a much broader array of assessment methods such as projects, teamwork and portfolios. There is also an appetite to introduce work experience and life skills. However, as the OECD review notes, any reforms will have a limited chance of succeeding if the emphasis on a final set of written Leaving Cert exams and the CAO points system is not reviewed.

The cancellation of the Leaving Cert summer exams due to the pandemic, along with other challenges, highlighted how inflexible the current system is. It should not be a crude filter for third-level. Now, more than ever, we need broader reforms which equip our young people with a rounded education so they can reach their full potential and flourish in further or higher education or the rapidly-changing world of work.