The Points System

 

The consultative paper published yesterday by the commission which is examining the points system, provides some fascinating insights from the chalk-face of education and beyond it. On the basis of the commission's research, a majority of students are unhappy with the arbitrary and uneven nature of the system; over 75 per cent would like to see a greater emphasis on some form of continuous assessment. Many appear to believe that the Leaving Certificate, as currently constituted, gives little or no rewards for personal qualities or special talents. The commission's paper is designed to assist debate on the points system in advance of five public hearings, scheduled for later this year at locations across the State. The report confirms the very low participation rates among the disadvantaged and by mature students in third-level education. At this stage, the commission, chaired by Dr Aine Hyland, professor of education at University College Cork, does not make any recommendations, but the quality of its research, detailed in the consultative paper, gives good grounds for optimism that it will produce a perceptive and comprehensive analysis when its report is published next year.

In truth, the Government's decision to establish the commission last year was long overdue. A generation has passed since a points system to determine access to universities and colleges was introduced in 1976. The points system has not been without its benefits; it has brought greater fairness and a certain transparency to an intensely competitive area. It also provides a system which is not susceptible to political interference or any kind of political lobbying. Only those students who gain the requisite points will gain access to particular courses; there are no short-cuts.

The points system has not been an unqualified success. It tends to be something of a blunt instrument. Inevitably, its impact on individual students can be harsh and uneven. It can unjustly reward some students and disadvantage others. The intensity of the points race can also see 17 or 18-year-old students forgoing the need for a more rounded education - and even the need for stronger personal development - in the pursuit of points at all costs. There are also wider questions involved in the commission's deliberations. It must decide whether the common good of society at this particular stage of our economic and social development, is best served by a Leaving Certificate which is essentially a university entrance exam.

The wider question of what to do with the points system is a complex one. The case may be strong but the task of providing a level playing-field for all students - through, for example, a continuous assessment and/or some kind of interview system - is not easy. The points system is brutal, harsh, and often unfair. But is there a better alternative?