The Exams Begin


This morning marks the beginning of the Leaving and Junior Certificate exams. For Leaving Cert students, the two-year cycle has been difficult. Last year, they had to cope with the impact of the ASTI school closures; this year the school environment was unsettled by the dispute over supervision payments.

Today, students must sit their English exams while the attention of most people is firmly fixed on events in the World Cup. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for students. Coping with the exams is difficult enough. Sitting amid a mood of national euphoria must be exasperating.

But it is not all gloom for the Class of 2002. The good news is that the college entry points for most courses should drop sharply as the numbers sitting the exam reach their lowest point in a decade. With just 56,000 doing the exam this year - compared to 68,000 eight years ago - the demand for places in most arts/humanities and science/technology courses should decline. The high-points courses like law and medicine will retain their prestige but most students should be able to secure their first or second choice.

The continuing failure of science subjects - specifically physics and chemistry - to attract interest among Leaving Cert students will disappoint policymakers. This year, only 9,000 are taking physics and just 6,500 are taking chemistry. As has been pointed out by the recent Task Force on the Physical Sciences, these trends have serious implications for the national economy.

To its credit, the Department of Education is now investigating why science subjects are marked more severely than others in the Leaving Certificate. The alarming variation in marking is one of the reasons why students are shunning science subjects. But other initiatives are required if the crisis in science is to be addressed. The most immediate priority is to introduce practical work at Leaving Cert level. The Government might also consider new ways of attracting science graduates to the teaching profession. The crisis in science will not go away. The new Minister for Education must give it immediate priority.