More options after a testing time

Leaving Certificate

 

If you were starting with a clean slate today you wouldn’t invent the Leaving Certificate. A frantic written test against the clock is a poor representation of six years of learning. Reform has been talked about for decades but parents, teachers and other grown ups see integrity in the current, high-stakes set up, even while acknowledging it can be cruel to children and deleterious to a rounded education.

In the latest tweak to the system – and that’s all it is – the number of grading bands is being reduced from 14 to eight from June 2017. This measure, announced last April, realigns the exam grades with those which pertained prior to 1992, when the fractional marks of A1, A2, etc were introduced.

That said, the thrust of the reform – aimed at re-establishing the Leaving Cert as a qualification in its own right and not merely a method of calculating college entry points – is welcome. The trickier problem with the Leaving Cert is changing, or at least varying, the method of assessment.

An independent study of the exam by researchers at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast has warned against the use of “old-fashioned” materials and calls for greater emphasis on assessing “higher order thinking skills”. But the recent dispute over junior cycle reform shows just how difficult it would be to implement this recommendation. Until there is a significant shift towards school-based assessment, the default position will remain teaching to the test.

The dispute also taught us something about how educational policy is formulated. In a speech to the Institute of Guidance Counsellors earlier this year, the abbot of Glenstal Abbey Mark Patrick Hederman said “education should be child centred” but when it comes to negotiations “the child is the very last item in the pecking order”. The comments were prescient as there was little evidence of children’s voices being heard in the talks between teacher unions and the Department of Education and Skills. Instead, a deal was hammered out above the heads of other education stakeholders.

For those sitting the Leaving Cert this year, there is no point wishing things were different. All that remains is to do one’s best under the current testing regime, and remember – as any good guidance counsellor will say – there are future study and career options for everyone. In fact, there are more options than ever before due to the greater scope today for studying at third-level institutions in the EU.

In the meantime, the class of 2015 deserve support and praise, as do their parents, guardians and teachers for managing the endurance test. Because, at heart, the Leaving Cert is not about passing or failing, it is a measure of how much has been achieved.

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