Leaving Cert reform should focus on ‘real world’ skills

How does the exam tell an employer what they need to know about a new worker?

 Leaving Cert students at Belvedere College, Dublin. File photograph. Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Leaving Cert students at Belvedere College, Dublin. File photograph. Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

 

Learning purely by rote is not an effective method of cultivating an intellectually curious mind or, indeed, society; it is simply a way to pass an exam.

How, then, does the Leaving Certificate accurately tell a university or an employer what they need to know about a new student or worker?

We all acknowledge that there are some brilliant young people who are simply incapable of performing in exams or feel unengaged by a curriculum that emphasises memorising facts over creativity. Likewise, there are plenty of less capable pupils who are able to cram, keep cool and score highly. If we accept that this is the case, then we need to move the Leaving Cert in a new direction.

We need to take it down a path that focuses on nurturing valuable real-world skills, such as critical thinking and group work, in modern subjects examined by a mixture of continuous assessment and written and oral test.

These changes must begin at Junior Certificate level.

Recently a number of high-profile figures have suggested that the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma be made more available to Irish secondary pupils. There is a great deal we can learn from it. The internationally recognised IB encourages varied project work and individual research assessed by interviews, essays and written exams.

Pupils must study “the theory of knowledge”, or the philosophy of how we know what we know, and perform and study “creativity, activity and service”, a course designed to encourage pupils in other fields, such as community service and debating. They must also write an extended essay on a subject of their choice.

A reformed Leaving Cert with a teaching and learning methodology like this needs to be complemented by a curriculum of relevant subjects required by the global economy.

An updated information technology (IT course) is essential, as is a new computer science course with a focus on programming; modern languages such as Mandarin are vital for international business; and modules for public speaking and personal finance will build confidence and expertise.

Limited places

Long-term Leaving Cert reform is also dependent on university reform. For students, one of the most distressing parts of the CAO process is the overabundance of university courses, many of which are needlessly specialised, have limited places and carry high points.

A sixth-year pupil will struggle to make a meaningful distinction between molecular biology, pharmacology and biomedical science.

Yet many colleges are still rushing to create these small and technical courses to enhance their prestige, but for students it is confusing and leads to rampant points’ inflation.

We need to move in the opposite direction, towards fewer generalised courses that teach the necessary fundamentals of a subject before encouraging deeper specialisation.

This emulates the American system that allows students to study modules from across the academic spectrum and discover their preferences.

Educational reform is being taken seriously by all stakeholders. While the changes we need will not happen overnight, we are progressing: the introduction of new subjects such as politics, the Project Maths initiative and coding modules for Junior Cert pupils show a schooling system that is responsive to change.

As the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) has proposed, one further simple but effective reform to ease the stress faced by students would be to release the Leaving Cert results and college offers on the same day.

It would require a bit of tweaking of the current system, but it’s not an impossible task. It would give greater certainty for students and ensure their anxiety is not prolonged over a number of days from the release of results to the allocation of college places several days later.

Further education

It is also important to bear in mind those students who have just received their results: Leaving Cert reform will be the thing furthest from their minds.

What’s important to remember is that there are many routes and options open to those who may not have obtained the results they hoped for. These include having exam scripts reviewed which could lead to a grade increase.

Repeating the Leaving Cert is another option. With experience of one under your belt, students will be much better prepared for the next one and know exactly what to study and how to approach your revision. If repeating is not an option, there are lots of other further education routes including PLCs, colleges of further education or apprenticeships. If none of those appeals, then going straight into the world of work might be for you.

For students who may learn better by doing, it is the chance to pursue an area which really interests them. They can then build a successful career or even run their own business. For every student, Leaving Cert results are not the end of the journey but the start of an even more exciting one.

Clive Byrne is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)

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