Let politicians know that education matters

Breda O'Brien: Education will only become an election issue if voters choose to make it one

If I were to bet that education will not be a major electoral issue, my money would be completely safe.

Yet there are 371,455 pupils currently enrolled at second level alone. Their education should not just be a matter of concern for their parents and teachers but for third-level colleges, employers and society in general.  But unless there is major industrial action, it is very hard to stir up interest.

Take the ongoing reform of the Junior Cycle and the proposed reform of the Leaving Certificate. People have only the vaguest notions of what is happening at Junior Cycle, except perhaps that History as a subject has been rescued from relegation. Parents who have children at second level for the first time are often baffled by the plethora of new jargon, such as CBAs, SLARs and assessment tasks. CBAs are classroom-based assessments, SLAR meetings are subject learning and assessment meetings for teachers, and assessment tasks are student reflections on a CBA that count for 10% in the final Junior Cycle subject mark.

To say that Junior Cycle reform is controversial among education professionals is like saying that Trump occasionally tweets

The new Junior Cycle is being introduced over a number of years and the final subjects to be reformed will only be examined for the first time in 2022. And yet, reform of the Leaving Cert is already in the first stages.


Leaving Cert reform is overdue. However, the only thing worse than delayed reform is the wrong kind of reform, which has the potential to warp the system for a decade or more. It is crucial that teachers are at the heart of this consultation and that lessons are learnt from the implementation of Junior Cycle reform.

To say that Junior Cycle reform is controversial among education professionals is like saying that Trump occasionally tweets.

In fact, the general feeling among teachers was summed up perfectly in a Secret Teacher column in this newspaper. The anonymous writer wrote that the new Junior Cycle "was not delivered as a finished product; it resembled an Ikea-style flatpack, but with no accompanying instructions".

The quote captures the sense of frustration felt by wave after wave of teachers as the various subjects come to their turn for reform. The sense of floundering around in a fog is palpable and while there are unquestionably positive aspects, some of the reforms make little sense.

Take the classroom-based assessments, some of which are very valuable. The students complete a number of tasks that vary from subject to subject but they then complete a pro-forma booklet. It is this standardised booklet alone that counts as ten per cent of the total mark for the Junior Cycle.

But in modern foreign languages, the pro-forma booklet is completed in the "language of schooling" - English or Irish to you and me. This is inexplicable. The students are to reflect on what they have learnt of a foreign language but do so in English or Irish.

It may be beginning to become clear why there is nervousness about the proposed reform of the Leaving Cert.  The Junior Cycle flatpack is only half-assembled and there has been no serious research about whether the planned desk turned out to be a fine, sturdy piece of furniture fit for purpose, or has only three legs.

Aine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education at UCC, has supported the call for the Leaving Cert to come 'fully built and entirely for purpose.' Education was subject to severe cutbacks that have long, lingering effects. The OECD ranks Ireland as last out of 35 countries for investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.  Junior Cycle reform was under-funded and the same is likely to be true of the Leaving Cert.

The only sane thing to do is to slow down and carefully research and plan Leaving Cert reform. Some reforms could be immediate. The additional points given to students who achieve a certain grade in Higher level Maths has an enormous distorting effect. Either abolish the additional points or reward other subjects if the student is seeking a course where particular subjects are central or would be advantageous.

This election offers an important opportunity to show politicians who are begging for your vote that education in a wider sense matters to voters, too

Despite all the focus being on the traditional Leaving Cert, two other strands exist: the Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) and the Leaving Cert Vocational Programme (LCVP).

There is a strong case to be made for developing these alternatives so they provide robust, credible pathways to careers. Similarly, some progress has been made regarding apprenticeships. So much more could be done.

The key thing to avoid is that other potentially valuable avenues to education like LCA, LCVP and apprenticeships become just another reinforcement of social stratification, with the elite schools preparing people for university and those in disadvantaged areas being steered towards the alternatives. Education is even more important when poverty has stacked the odds against a child.

Voters’ opinions matter to politicians, particularly at election time. One of the reasons History was rescued from second-class status was because politicians were buttonholed by non-activists on the streets demanding to know what was going on. This election offers an important opportunity to show politicians who are begging for your vote that education in a wider sense matters to voters, too.