We must have a hybrid Leaving Cert this year

Arguments for return to exam-based model flawed and unfair to students

To be told the hybrid Leaving Cert option which eased stress last year is out of the question is shocking.

To be told the hybrid Leaving Cert option which eased stress last year is out of the question is shocking.

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The current arguments by the Department of Education and the teacher unions that this year we should return to the traditional examination-based Leaving Cert are deeply flawed. They rest on two false assumptions – that this was a normal school year and that, second, only the traditional Leaving Cert is fair and equitable. Neither of these is true.

As anyone regularly dealing with schools this year is aware, this was far from a normal year. In the first place there was, for large parts of the year, a very high number of absences among teachers due both to illness and the close contact rules. Substitutes were hard to find. Therefore, it follows that while some pupils got close to the normal level of teaching in their subjects, the situation varied hugely. This, of course, clearly disadvantages certain pupils while also further widening the huge gap between those who rely totally on teaching in their schools and those who can afford grinds. Similarly, there was a high level of absence among pupils and such absent pupils were very dependent on their schools’ willingness and ability to provide online learning support. Again, those with a good knowledge of schools are all too aware that this is a very mixed situation varying from the excellent to the very poor. This, of course, applies not just across schools but from teacher to teacher within schools. Again this adds further to the glaring disparities which already exist between students who have good IT access and equipment and those who do not, and between those who have suitable and conducive learning spaces in the home and those who do not.

Methods to manipulate results are employed each year to maintain the ‘normal’ bell curve of distribution of grades

Such a year has clearly not been normal and has added greatly to the usual strain suffered by young people in Leaving Cert year. To be told now that the hybrid option which eased such stress last year is out of the question and that the best that can be done is to scurry back to the past with perhaps a bit of last-minute tinkering around with the examination papers is shocking. Moreover, it flies directly in the face of the widespread theorising about the importance of “student voice”. All very well except when it involves consulting student opinion on anything of real significance.

This determination to quickly restore the status quo is based on a second fallacy, namely, that the Leaving Cert of the past was fair and equitable, represents a level playing field and that teacher-led, school-based assessment cannot be conducted objectively. To take the first claim first, one glance at the imbalance between schools of vastly differing resources providing entry into higher education through the Leaving Cert surely exposes this for the charade that it is. We are told the examination system is fair because all students take the same exams which are blind-marked by highly trained teachers – presumably the same ones who can’t be trusted to do school-based assessment. This argument could only possibly be true if those entering for these common exams came with roughly similar advantages but of course nothing could be further from the truth. There is surely no need here to rehearse once again the litany of deep social and educational inequalities which permeate society but which we carefully ignore in this debate. Moreover, even the argument that the examination itself is fair and equitable is deeply flawed. Various methods to manipulate results are employed each year during the post-examination marking phase in order to maintain the “normal” bell curve of distribution of grades. The purpose is to retain the status quo at all costs.

The argument that well-trained professional teachers are incapable of conducting realistic assessments of their own pupils is untrue and indeed offensive. School-based teacher-led assessment is a feature of most school systems and is indeed in use here in the Junior Cert and the post-Leaving Cert sector, and is the basis for much assessment in higher education. This, of course, is normally based on evidence in the form of specific assignments set and marked by teachers and then internally cross-moderated and externally monitored. Guessing that this crisis was not going to go away in the short term, and that anyway it was the correct thing to do, I used these pages many months ago to urge the Government to prepare a workable system of school-based assessment which would take into account teacher evaluation of students but moderated by supporting evidence. This was never done, as to even admit of and prepare such a system, might be seen to undermine the Leaving Cert, the Holy Writ of official Ireland.

The argument that well-trained professional teachers are incapable of conducting realistic assessments of their own pupils is untrue and indeed offensive

We are now told that since there is no supporting evidence, in the form of the Junior Cert results for this year’s Leaving Certs, we would be unable to conduct the standardisation of teacher assessments (something we would not need to do anyway if we trusted the professionalism of teachers). Therefore, we cannot possibly have hybrid grades this year. This is entirely due to official incompetence and lack of foresight to prepare for this always-likely eventuality. If it means that we will now have to rely entirely on teacher-calculated grades with no supporting evidence, the department and Minister have no one to blame but themselves.

The anti-hybrid Leaving Cert arguments are, largely, a sleight of hand and I do not believe they will fly. This year’s student cohort deserves the same set of options as those of last year and I suspect that the weight of student and political opinion will force another ignominious backdown.

Dr Gerry McNamara is professor of educational evaluation in the school of policy and practice at DCU Institute of Education

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