The Irish Times view on the Leaving Cert: adapting to change

The exam is far from perfect, but it does have some real strengths – not least anonymity

This morning is one of anticipation, anxiety and hope in more than 120,000 homes across the State as those setting off to exam centres to take the first written paper in this year’s Leaving and Junior Certs go through the final preparations.

In a world of constant technological change, where the skills required in life and work are perceived to be so different from those which confronted the present generation of parents as school-leavers, it may seem strange that the Leaving Cert challenge which candidates will engage with this morning is fundamentally unchanged to that faced by their parents and grandparents since the exam was devised almost a century ago.

Over that time, the exam has moved from being one taken by an elite minority to one which caters for more than 90 per cent of school-leavers. Many would question whether it is still fit for purpose. A full review of the exam is currently underway under the auspices of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

Yet, for all its perceived failings to keep up with the rapidly changing world in which we now live, the Leaving Cert has profound strengths which we should not dismiss lightly. The societal benefits of educating the over 90 per cent of our school leavers in mathematics, English, Irish, a Continental language, plus three other subjects of their choice, is enormous, gifting Ireland with high levels of literacy and numeracy. It has facilitated Ireland's advancement over recent decades in educational and academic achievement and is cited by international firms as one of the main reasons for locating in Ireland.


The world outside the exam hall – not least the world of education – is riven with inequalities and unfair advantages

The challenges which those taking the Leaving Cert this morning will face in the world of academia, further education, apprenticeship and employment in the autumn and for the rest of their lives, will be many and varied. The Leaving Cert is hardly the be-all and end-all, but the skills acquired in meeting the challenge to reach their full potential in this exam will be hugely beneficial as they progress through life.

Students are required to present information in a logical and coherent manner. They must be mindful of spelling, presentation, time management, and focusing exclusively on the specific task outlined in the question. At higher level, they are required to display the skills of analysis and critical thinking. All these skills are eminently transferable to the modern world of work and further study they will progress onto, even if they forget much of the content contained in answering specific questions.

The most positive feature of the current Leaving Cert is its anonymity. The world outside the exam hall – not least the world of education – is riven with inequalities and unfair advantages. Inside, for a few hours at least, some of those inequalities fall away.