Leaving Cert urgently needs to be reformed
Sparse on critical thinking and philosophy, the flawed exams serve students poorly
‘When you’re repeatedly told a fortnight in June will determine the rest of your life, it’s no wonder you spend much of your school life in perpetual anxiety.’
We come to it again, that rite of passage for tens of thousands of young Irish men and women: the Leaving Cert. As if it were running to an annual schedule, early June’s balmy weather signals two weeks of last-minute cramming, late nights, early rises and frayed nerves.
For decades, teachers, parents and students have debated the merits of these examinations and the curriculum that supports them. As a set of tests designed for factual recall, they are hard to fault. But there’s a reason grown adults still have dreams (or nightmares) about resitting their Leaving Cert. Revising for exams is gruelling at the best of times, but when you’re repeatedly told that a fortnight in June will determine the rest of your life, it’s no wonder young people spend much of their school life in perpetual anxiety.
Few teachers disagree that a school curriculum that hinges on terminal exams is flawed. Even some of the most brilliant, creative minds can falter under test conditions. All of us know people who did poorly in or even failed certain Leaving Cert exams, but are otherwise extremely intelligent.
On the other hand, a system that depends entirely on rote learning can be easily gamed. Learn the facts, know the marking scheme and you can quite comfortably achieve high points even if you’re academically disinclined.
Many students pick their Leaving Cert subjects solely on the perception that some are “easier” than others, thus providing a safety net of guaranteed points.
This is a highly pragmatic, albeit cynical, strategy. After all, what use is a six-year secondary education if it only serves as a springboard to third level? Without teaching young people the fundamentals of knowledge, critical thinking and philosophy, the Leaving Cert provides very little grounding for lifelong success in the real world.
These aren’t abstract gripes. College lecturers continuously complain that Irish students lack the study and thinking skills required of them at third level, especially in scientific and mathematical subjects. Further education asks a lot more of people than the Leaving Cert, like original thought, innovation, argumentation, and an ability to read between the lines and understand context.
Indeed, because of their deficits in these areas, many fresh-faced undergraduates who otherwise excelled within the boundaries of the secondary system receive a nasty shock when their first college assignments receive middling marks.
There is a growing appetite for reform of the Irish education system and, thankfully, a growing desire to sate it, which has accelerated in recent years.
The junior cycle and the Junior Cert have already undergone extensive changes. Younger students are now assessed continuously over the course of the junior cycle, learning important skills like coding and digital media literacy in shorter, term-length modules.
Familiarity is not a reason for the Leaving Cert to continue in its current flawed format
Last year, senior cycle students had some of the pressure of the points race alleviated when the ABC123 grading system was replaced with a simpler 1-8 scale. In 2019, computer science will be examined as a Leaving Cert subject for the first time, an essential subject considering Ireland’s growing influence as a global tech hub. The new politics and society course will be examined for the first time this year.
These are big strides forward, but we must do more to address the problems at the very core of the senior cycle. Critics, myself among them, have long argued for more continuous assessment, including practical and presentation work – much of which is the norm in Europe – spread out over the two years. Continuous assessment, aside from reducing stress, gauges a wider spectrum of knowledge over a longer period of time, rather than the two- or three-hour snapshot terminal exams provide.
Taught with textbooks
We also need to ensure subjects remain up to date. Technology changes regularly, so the Leaving Cert computer science course must change with it. Likewise, existing courses must make use of digital and online platforms as much as possible. History and French do not only need to be taught with textbooks.
On a practical level, the biggest issue is resourcing. Offering students a new course is no good if there are no teachers with the necessary skills to teach them. Teacher learning in these new fields needs to be prioritised and fast-tracked. Their knowledge must also be spread out across the country so that every student, not just those in the cities, can enjoy equal access to an enriched curriculum.
While the Leaving Cert has its critics, many of them justified, it’s also familiar having been in use since 1924. That’s 94 years and multiple generations who have become accustomed to how it operates and works. But familiarity is not a reason for it to continue in its current flawed format.
Change is coming. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has now begun to review the exam with an eye to reform. Whatever the final approach adopted, it has to be supported by those to whom it matters most for it to succeed – students, parents, teachers and colleges. Making these groups, through extensive engagement and consultation and a long lead-in time, comfortable with all changes to the Leaving Cert is essential.
Reformers must now start that process by making a strong case to schools, students and the Government that change is needed and is the right way forward. The campaign starts here.
Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals