Teachers in Irish second-level schools know their students and are highly skilled at helping them to acquire the skills of higher order thinking: problem solving, information processing, and independent learning, alongside interpersonal skills and personal resilience, which are vitally important in successfully making the transition to adult life.
What they sometimes don’t fully know is how to support students in achieving these goals while at the same time assisting them in securing an optimum CAO points score.
The curriculum at primary level and, in the past few years, at the Junior Cycle at second level, has been transformed from one where the central focus was on course content, to a skills based one. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is currently reviewing the Leaving Cert in the light of the reforms now bedding in at Junior Cycle level.
A newly published ESRI report on the views of students, parents, and teachers, on how reforms should be progressed at Leaving Cert level clearly outlines the contradictions inherent in the dilemma faced by teachers outlined above.
The senior cycle in Irish schools has huge strengths. Transition Year is transformative in the lives of students, in that it hugely increases their life skills. Those who question its usefulness do so from the perspective of it being a distraction from the acquisition of CAO points.
Irish young people up to the age of 18 study on average seven subjects in their Leaving Cert, including Irish, English, Maths and a continental language, alongside three other subjects of their choice. This is a far broader education than is available to students in other education systems, such as Northern Ireland and the UK, where those who progress to A levels select a maximum of four. There are more Irish students studying German at Leaving Cert level that in the whole of the UK.
The problem with the Leaving Cert is that it is the instrument used by higher education in Ireland to determine who secures the sought-after places in high-status courses with limited numbers of State funded places. Every country has its own way of determining who wins this ruthless battle for advancement. In the UK it is a combination of terminal exam and personal statement plus interview. In the United States it is one's SAT score, which has a liberating effect on the High School system but creates a multi-billion dollar SAT grinds industry.
We should continue to explore ways to improve the Leaving Cert, conscious that its strengths far outweigh its many weaknesses. The anonymous written terminal exam, in which all students sit in front of a blank answer book, and make their best effort on the day, writing for up to three hours, is outdated and brutal, but it is fair.