Leaving Cert's core issues still not confronted


Students have too much material to learn and the system is distorted by obsession with points

IT’S A long time since I sat my Leaving Cert, though not as long as a cousin of mine seemed to think recently. He expressed surprise that there had been school buses when I attended secondary school. There were. Honestly.

However, working as a second-level teacher means experiencing an annual version of Groundhog Day, as you accompany students experiencing this torturous rite of passage we call the Leaving Cert. I got a bit closer than usual this year, though, when I acted as scribe for just one exam paper for a student who had a distressing incident immediately before her exams.

By the end of the exam, I was exhausted. How anyone manages seven or eight subjects is beyond me.

It left me with an even stronger impression that the Leaving Cert qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

In fact, given that writing down what someone else is dictating is a great deal easier than trying to formulate an answer yourself, my admiration for Leaving Cert students has grown even more.

All the attention this year may be on whether the bonus points for maths was an ill-thought out measure, but the core problems that afflict the Leaving Cert have not been addressed.

There have been worthwhile innovations in recent years, but students have too much material to learn, and the whole system is distorted by the obsession with points.

There is consternation when an expected topic does not come up, such as the failure of Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney to appear on this year’s English paper, because, however unwisely, students begin to gamble on certain questions because they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work.

They also begin to resort to rote memorisation of material they do not truly understand. On the other hand, while memorisation without understanding is at best a short-term strategy, the ability to memorise effectively what you have understood is still vital in achieving mastery of a subject.

The inevitable nature of human memory decay has been studied for decades, and techniques for preventing memory erosion are well-documented. For example, spaced repetition is vital; that is, revisiting material at specified intervals.

It is often assumed that good memory skills are not really necessary in the age of the internet. That is nonsense. You cannot Google expertise. Without a personal memory bank of key aspects of any subject, you cannot see patterns or make creative links. Yet building up this kind of personal memory bank takes time and patient teaching. Having too much material to study in the first place militates against achieving mastery.

The ability to think critically, to analyse, to judge the quality of information being given and to find reliable sources are all vital skills today. Sure, you can introduce modules on critical thinking, but the process works best when it happens organically as part of a subject.

Students also need to be able to reflect on how to learn. In a world that extols multitasking, the ability to focus on one topic becomes more and more difficult. Students often spend inordinate amounts of time studying, but very ineffectively, such as spending hours reading and rereading the same material.

Some students will really struggle with finding effective ways to study, and some will not grasp it unless someone sits down with them one-to-one.

Enter the guidance counsellor. Except, due to Government cutbacks, there will not be dedicated guidance counsellors in many schools this September. So those vital 40 minutes that may help someone to finally conquer how to study much more effectively will not happen for many students.

Teachers resent being forced to “teach to the exam”, but that is what happens when courses are too long and classes are too large.

But reform of any kind – particularly reform allowing students to really learn at greater depth – begins to look unlikely in an era where cuts, including cuts to special needs provision for the most vulnerable students, make regular headlines.

There is another central problem. When I started teaching, it was a permanent and pensionable job. That is a joke for many young teachers.

The public glaze over when teachers start talking about “hours” and “contracts of indefinite duration”, but the bottom line is that it is more and more difficult to get a permanent position. Yet lack of consistency and continuity is not good for students, and neither is having demoralised teachers.

Evelyn O’Connor is a young teacher working in Claremorris who runs a wonderful website, leavingcertenglish.net, which I use myself and recommend to students.

She won Teacher of the Year in a competition organised by ABC Bookshop, out of 500 nominations. Yet she has only “hours” next academic year, and since she is only four years teaching there, if a teacher who can teach her subjects is redeployed to her school, she will lose even those the following year.

Her school wants to keep her and her students do too, but a full-time permanent job is a wistful dream. Evelyn is unusual in that she has spoken out passionately.

Other young teachers are desperately keeping their heads down, fearful of endangering even what they have.

Teaching is a great profession. But I fear the combination of a punishing system and wide-ranging cuts will drain the life out it, and it is our students who will suffer as a result.

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