Reform of Leaving Cert high on Minister's agenda


ANALYSIS:The report on the transition from second to third level should herald long-overdue changes to the Leaving Cert and the college entry system, writes SEAN FLYNN

HE MAY have made rash and embarrassing pre-election pledges on college fees but otherwise Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has made a strong impression in Marlborough Street.

Quinn has brought a reforming zeal and a critical eye to the Department of Education. The traditional role of a minister for education – to act as a kind of cheerleader for our “world class” system has been put to one side. Instead, Quinn has been asking awkward and searching questions about the quality of our education system .

This was brought into sharp focus in the most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report when this State recorded the sharpest decline in literacy among developed nations and delivered mediocre results in numeracy and science.

Changes to the Leaving Cert is the big-ticket item on the Quinn reform agenda. The exam dominates the education landscape but remains unloved by educationalists and by employers. University presidents say students, weaned on rote learning in the Leaving Cert, struggle to cope with the pressures of independent learning at third level.

Increasingly employers have joined the chorus of criticism, arguing that Leaving Cert students are deficient in key areas like critical thinking, flexibility and innovative capacity.

In his first weeks in office Quinn responded to these criticism by asking the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to convene a UCD conference bringing together all the key players at second and third level. Quinn emphasised that he was “no educationalist”. It was up to those at the chalk face to come up with solutions.

In advance of the UCD conference , Quinn commissioned former UCC vice-president Prof Áine Hyland to write an overview of the issues. It was an inspired move. With impressive clarity, the Hyland report set out defects in the Leaving Cert and college entry system. Many students, she said, enter higher education without adequate coping skills, including literacy and numeracy. This was scarcely surprising since the Leaving Cert rewards rote learning and does not reward problem solving, critical thinking or self-directed learning.

The Hyland analysis has shaped the document on transition from school to college from the NCCA and the HEA, published yesterday. The report carries substantial clout. As Quinn said yesterday, it represents the first joint effort by second and third level to address the issues.

The new document echoes many of the criticisms made in the Hyland report. It notes how teachers are “teaching to the test” while students memorise pre-packaged answers to gain maximum points. It indicates that while the Leaving Cert curriculum has many virtues these are crushed by focus on the exam alone. “If the problem is not with the curriculum then it must lie with assessment, the tail that wags the curriculum dog,” it concludes.

The report has called on the the State Examination Commission (SEC) to address predictability in the Leaving Certificate. It also makes proposals designed to alleviate the points race pressure. These include a reduction from 14 to eight in the number of Leaving Cert grades and a possible move to graduate-only entry for healthcare and other professions.

Encouragingly, the report is also critical of the third-level colleges, arguing that the unnecessary duplication of courses is putting students under more pressure to achieve points. It wants colleges to reduce the number of highly specialised courses in first year and it says students need much more information before making critical third-level choices.

It also argues for a broader-based introductory year at third level where students would have the breathing space needed to make more mature decisions about their college choices.

There is nothing new or especially radical in any of these proposals; they are sensible and pragmatic. The kind of changes recommended at third level – more information for students and less duplication of courses can be made speedily and with little fuss.

Sorting out the Leaving Cert may be more problematic.

What happens when the SEC confirms the high level of predictability in the exam, as it surely must? With pressure bearing down from students and parents how can we expect teachers to stop “teaching to the test?”

The hope is that the new Junior Cert – scheduled to be rolled out from 2017 will lay the ground for radical change at Leaving Cert level.

The new Junior Cert will lay a commendable stress on independent learning and critical thinking.

Crucially, it will also incorporate a high level of school-based assessment which will, in turn, place less emphasis on the one terminal exam.

There is a template here that could work for the Leaving Cert.

Change will not come quickly. But Quinn has set in motion reforms which will change an exam, unchanged in many respects since the 1930s.

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