Replace the Leaving with a lottery?


Sir, – While I’m generally of the view that one of the things we have got “most right” in Ireland is education, questioning the status of the Leaving Certificate is timely.

In discussing alternatives, the observations of the various experts in Joe Humphreys’s column are interesting and challenging (“The Leaving Cert is not fair. Why not just replace it with a lottery?”, Unthinkable, February 25th).

Shane Bergin of UCD asks us to consider that, if we are to accept that the process is fair, “are we to believe that middle-class children are smarter than those from working-class areas?” He asks this because the former group do better in our exam system.

It’s worth asking how heritable intelligence is, as we tend to give people great credit for what may in fact be merely the result of a genetic and/or environmental “lottery”.

Curiously, while in infancy the correlation between an individual’s and their parents’ IQ is relatively weak; it grows much stronger by the age of 18 or so, in a process known as the Wilson effect. By the time one is likely to sit the Leaving Certificate, there is about 80 per cent correlation between the IQs of parents and their children.

The question thus is perhaps less about “children” from different areas, but simply about people. However, it would seem an inevitable generalisation that, if your family lived in an affluent area rather than a more deprived one, your parents were more successful, and most probably “smarter” in some way, represented by “getting ahead”.

While one might credibly dispute this in a society with hereditary titles or an aristocratic tradition, it’s difficult to do so in a republic that is two or three generations old.

And, clearly, there will be a great many exceptions to the broad generalisation, with people of low and high abilities in all communities, and luck, illness, and discrimination influencing some outcomes.

Perhaps more challenging is to imagine the opposite scenario.

If it were the case that “smarter” children were exactly equally distributed through all communities, and we designed an exam that exactly ranked them by their level of ability, then we would simply be measuring an innate quality, like height or hair colour, for which the individual could claim no credit.

This is surely not in any sense “very fair”, as the article’s title defines as a goal?

In terms of international comparison, perhaps social mobility is the ultimate determinant of fairness of outcomes related to individual ability. Ireland performs well in this regard, rated 18th of 82 counties studied by the World Economic Forum.

It would be arguably a good thing if we could improve that. But the idea that altering our exam system will do so seems to place an even greater importance on the exam itself. – Yours, etc,



Co Cork.