None of it is fair and we must fix it before another ghost Leaving Cert next year

Decision in favour of calculated grades left department with an impossible task

The calculated grades system left private schools focused on delivering high results feeling discriminated against, though the department insists the process was blind. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The calculated grades system left private schools focused on delivering high results feeling discriminated against, though the department insists the process was blind. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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It was never going to please everyone. The political decision to abandon the Leaving Cert exam in favour of calculated grades left the Department of Education with an impossible task: to assign accurate grades to students who didn’t sit exams which never happened in courses they hadn’t completed. Not just any exams, either – exams that are effectively a supersized test of memory and anxiety management, rather than a measure of six years’ worth of the steady accretion of knowledge, intelligence and reasoning.

What was it to do? Any solution it came up with was going to be crude and less than universally popular, especially once the offers came out, and the reality dawned that 4.4 per cent grade inflation into a 7 per cent increase in CAO points does not go.

Inevitably, some parents are furious. They wanted their children’s schools profiled – or their children profiled according to the school they attended

In the circumstances, the department seems to have decided it had a stark choice: disadvantage high-achieving students in lower-achieving schools, or disadvantage students in high-achieving schools. It could take the past performance of schools into account, along with teachers’ own assessments, giving all students in schools with a strong track record of access to third level a head start. Or it could flatten the curve for everyone and narrow the gap between high-achieving and lower-achieving schools.

Ultimately, the choice to bin school profiling led to less accurate, but arguably more equitable, results. The idea that a group of students who were already comparatively privileged by accident of birth, postcode or parental income would be further rewarded simply for having spent six years in the company of others similarly fortunate sorts, was never going to fly. It may be the entire USP behind the private school system, but we’re not accustomed to having it laid out quite so baldly.

The United Kingdom, being a society more comfortable with notions of elitism and entitlement than ours, gave it a whirl. Its A-level standardisation process disadvantaged bright students in schools with a poor academic track record, and gave a boost to those in high-scoring, fee-paying ones. The results of this experiment in reverse social mobility were entirely, disastrously, predictable. Universities said they were going to have “the poshest cohorts ever”.

Minister for Education Norma Foley watched on from here, and wisely decided to abandon the doomed, repugnant idea of school profiling. But the discussion around it – the murmurings of legal action by private school parents – lifted the curtain on the inequities inherent in our supposedly fair education system.

Inevitably, some parents are furious. They wanted their children’s schools profiled – or their children profiled according to the school they attended. Isn’t that precisely why they forsake foreign holidays and dinners out, so they can pay for school fees and trips to the Gaeltacht and grinds, and claim their place among “the poshest cohort ever”? This week, we were reminded that some of those who send their children to a fee-paying school are not just after points or an education, but cachet; that much whispered about “edge”.

The eye-rolling over middle class entitlement detracted from the real issues with this year’s non-exam. No algorithm was ever going to be able to reflect the abilities, intelligence, hard work and talent of an entire cohort of students. Nobody could expect it to. Once school profiling was out of the picture, the solution the department came up with was a sledgehammer formula which squashed the curve of students’ achievements. It took teachers’ grades and estimated class rankings into account. It took a class’s Junior Cert performance into account. It raised many students up to a level they could never have achieved if they’d actually sat the exams. It downgraded 17 per cent of teachers’ marks. And it abandoned the gap year class of 2019 entirely – the 20,000 students who deferred applying to the CAO this year.

If it’s conceivable that teachers in private schools might have succumbed to pressure to inflate students’ grades this year, it’s virtually certain that, if they are faced with the appalling vista of another ghost Leaving Cert next year, every teacher in the country will do it

It left private schools focused on delivering high results feeling discriminated against, though the department insists the process was blind. Yet the Institute of Education in Dublin claimed that nearly all of its 800 pupils – 96 per cent – had a grade reduced. Its students suffered an average drop of 30 points. Meanwhile, CAO points across the board have gone up by 7 per cent, despite a scramble to create almost 5,000 places. And, after a tough year, it left the class of 2020’s achievements forever besmirched by the words “grade inflation”.

None of it is fair. Even in a good year, the Leaving Cert isn’t a fair assessment of a student’s worth or abilities. And this isn’t a good year. But there is still a way to salvage it. Students need to be offered full transparency on the process and a right of appeal: not just of the way the grade was calculated, but on the marks themselves. That process must happen over a short window, so students who are still disappointed can sit the Leaving Cert in November, and then get on with their lives. Beyond that, we need to look on this as an opportunity to shake up a dysfunctional education system altogether – one that is too enslaved to accidents of birth and parental income; one that puts far too much weight on rote learning and three fraught weeks in June.

Above all, we need to make sure that this never happens again. Because if it’s conceivable that teachers in private schools might have succumbed to pressure to inflate students’ grades this year, it’s virtually certain that, if they are faced with the appalling vista of another ghost Leaving Cert next year, every teacher in the country will do it. They now know that it doesn’t really matter what they say, because their marks will be adjusted upwards or downwards, according to what the algorithm decides.

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