Teachers give cautious welcome for Leaving Cert reforms

Overhaul of senior cycle is long overdue but the devil will be in the details

There has been a cautious welcome from teachers for the senior cycle reform announced this week by the Minister Norma Foley. The devil, as always, will be in the detail. Educators are angry but by now resigned to the fact that significant announcements will always be communicated first to the media, leaving principals, deputy principals and teachers scrambling to find out the details.

It would seem to be common courtesy that those charged with implementing wide-ranging reforms would be told in advance, but no. A leak might deprive the Minister of a showcase moment, and that takes second place to communicating with educators.

Some of us wonder if it is also a ploy to make any legitimate reservations about change look like grousing.

Senior cycle reform is universally acknowledged to be overdue. The Leaving Cert generates levels of stress that have a significant impact on vulnerable students. Nonetheless, there are strengths to the current system. Ongoing reform has meant that its reputation for mere rote learning is undeserved.

In the Irish Journal of Education last year, Patricia McGrath used Bloom’s Taxonomy to analyse exam papers from nine popular higher level Leaving Cert subjects. She categorised the exam questions according to whether they demanded higher order thinking. English, history, economics and business were found to contain the most demanding questions, with only 1 per cent, 0 per cent, 8 per cent and 8 per cent of lower-order questions respectively.

Some of the science subjects demanded less higher order thinking, with biology and chemistry containing 54 per cent and 47 per cent of lower-order questions that rely more heavily on memorisation. Even then around half the questions demanded higher-order thinking skills and would you want a scientist who lacks wide-ranging knowledge of his or her discipline anyway?

Course work

There is also no longer a heavy reliance on a terminal examination. The CEO of the State Examinations Commission, Andrea Feeney, spoke at a JMB conference last November. She stated that there are 41 Leaving Cert subjects, of which only 14 do not have significant elements of assessment other than exams such as orals, portfolios and course work.

There are already subjects where 50per cent to 60per cent of the final mark is determined in this way, so the 40 per cent alternative assessment mark is in no way groundbreaking.

What is different is the proposal that teachers assess their students. As an emergency pandemic measure, teachers agreed to assess for calculated and accredited grades. It did not go well. It changed the relationship students have with their teachers. Currently teachers operate a coaching model, encouraging students to build on their strengths. There is a reason why sports coaches are not encouraged to be referees in major matches when their own team is playing.

As a teacher I know that teacher-assessed grades led to students mistakenly regarding them as a de facto form of continuous assessment. Every ordinary homework assignment suddenly became high stakes to the students (not the teachers) as the students nervously believed everything would have an impact on their final grade. Stress levels rocketed.

Students, formerly enthusiastic proponents of continuous assessment, became completely disenchanted with the idea.

While the proposed reformed senior cycle is not a continuous assessment model, teachers assessing their own students’ work is going to be contentious for both students and teachers.

Fifth year

Another major change is that the current third-years (and second-years who do not have a transition year) will be sitting half of their English and Irish exams at the end of fifth year. (Incidentally, by making transition year mandatory every student and not just a privileged few will have the opportunity to mature and learn in a different way. But where will the needed classrooms and additional teachers come from?)

From having a son who did staggered A Level exams I think there is merit in splitting up the final examinations in Irish and English. At the moment the two English exams are more a test of endurance than anything else.

It will be challenging to create a non-examination assessment in English that is worth 40 per cent and it will inevitably lead to reconfiguration of the whole specification. (We are no longer allowed to call them syllabi because that is not student-centred enough.) It is vital not to lose the emphasis on writing well and engaging deeply with texts.

The new Leaving Cert subjects of drama, film and theatre studies, and climate action and sustainable development are also exciting, but what of subjects like computer science that were introduced relatively recently? They are still being bedded down due to the disruptive effect of the pandemic. What qualifications will be required to teach these subjects? What will they displace in an already overcrowded timetable?

The announcement of reform when teachers are exhausted from two of the most difficult academic years ever experienced is undoubtedly unfortunate but teachers will engage fully in doing what is best for students.

But the third-level colleges have only tinkered at reforming higher education access, happy to allow the distortion that points cause, which is at the root of so many problems with the Leaving Cert.

No truly meaningful reform will be possible until the stranglehold that the CAO and the points system have on Irish education is addressed.