Why teachers shouldn’t have to grade their own pupils

Fintan O'Toole: ‘52 per cent of the youngest teachers are in temporary jobs. And how do you get a permanent job? By marking your students as hard as they deserve or by ensuring that your charges are all stellar performers?’

Teachers are right to resist the idea that they should grade their own pupils for State exams. Not for educational reasons – for corruption reasons.

If Ireland were a different kind of place, there would be no argument. Continuous assessment is a much better way to learn than staking everything on set-piece exams. Teachers who know their own students are in a much better position to evaluate their development.

But Ireland isn’t a different kind of place. It’s a place where corners are cut, where subtle and not so subtle pressures are applied, where connections matter, where rules are made to be bent. And that makes it a place where you can’t trust a system in which these things are possible.


Let me be clear – I hate the current exam system. I hated it when I was going through it and I hated the fact that 30 years later my kids were still going through it. It is brutal and mechanical and depersonalising. It devalues many of the things young people in a republic should value: creativity, co-operation, intuition.


But it has one shining virtue. It may get an E on many of the deeper goals of education but it gets an A-plus on fairness. The depersonalisation that is the nasty side of the system is also its saving grace: it’s not about who you are.

It is as close to being incorruptible as anything gets in Ireland. It is marked blind: the examiner has no idea whether the examinee is rich or poor, male or female, one of us or one of them.

At the point when her paper is opened, the kid from Darndale is in the same position as the kid from Douglas. The bank director’s daughter from Foxrock is on the same level as the Brazilian immigrant’s son from Gort.

This happens so rarely in Irish life that we should think very carefully before we scrap any of the few occasions on which it does. Let me be clear about something else too – I don’t care about the Junior Cert. If it was up to me, I’d abolish it and have the first four years of secondary school free for learning without the pressure of teaching to an exam.

But that’s not what the Government has decided to do. It wants to keep the Junior Cert as a State exam, a statement about a young person’s development that supposedly means exactly the same thing in every corner of Ireland. And that just won’t happen if the marking of the exam is intimate, local and personal.

We need to acknowledge one of those very Irish things that everybody knows but nobody says. It is that the more open the exam system has become, the more open to corruption it is. By corruption here I don’t mean bribery or big-ticket ethical violations. I mean the plain old fact that a good proportion of the projects submitted for State exams are the work of the mammies of Ireland. Where projects are already part of the exam system, they are supposed to be all the pupil’s very own work. Sometimes they are. Some pupils and their families and their teachers are ruthless and scrupulous.

Sweet, caring, and corrupt

And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, the kid is floundering or distracted or just can’t be arsed. It’s Mammy or Daddy or maybe the teacher who panic and get the thing done. And while this is very sweet and caring it’s also corrupt.

It disadvantages those who have played by the rules and skews the system in favour of those whose parents have the cultural and educational resources to be able to help them in this way. But everybody pretends this is not happening – itself a mark of how normal it has become.

Having teachers mark their own pupils will make this existing tendency much worse. This is partly because Irish teachers are increasingly insecure and vulnerable. The “reforms” to the Junior Cert are coming side by side with the systematic casualisation of the education workforce.

Twenty seven per cent of secondary teachers are on temporary contracts, often with part-time hours and no job security. For the youngest teachers, the situation is much worse – a majority (52 per cent) of those under 30 are in temporary jobs.

And how do you get a permanent job? By marking your students as hard as they deserve or by ensuring that your charges are all stellar performers?

Level of saintliness

No, I’m not saying that teachers are easily corrupted. But I am saying that the level of saintliness we seem to be expecting from young, insecure professionals in a situation where honesty will harm their already fragile careers does not accord with anything we know about how Ireland works. Behind the “reform” of the exam system, there’s a picture of a fantasy island, where no one scratches backs, no one knows everyone’s seed, breed and generation and no one gets a thrill out of saying (or hearing) “I fixed that for you”. It’s an island of stern righteousness and rigorous standards, where heads don’t nod and eyes don’t wink.

The suggestion that we live in such a place fails that simplest of exams, the reality test.