Students' health at risk from points race
The points race has turned the Leaving Certificate year into a nightmare for students.
Thousands of sixth-year pupils are suffering high levels of stress and many lose sleep worrying about the exam and their chances of getting into college.
In-depth research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), published exclusively in the Irish Independent today, shows that punishing study regimes and grinds are the order of the day, at the expense of the welfare and personal development of the nation's children.
And the research has found that girls are suffering more than boys.
The findings raise serious questions about pressure imposed on students by the points system and whether the link between the Leaving Certificate and college entry should be weakened.
The research was carried out by the ESRI for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which advises the Government on education matters.
It is part of a longer-term study tracking the experience of students at second level, which has already prompted plans for a major overhaul of the Junior Certificate.
The latest findings show that students are paying a very high price, in terms of their welfare and broader education, because of the focus on points for college entry.
NCCA chair Professor Tom Collins, interim president of National University of Ireland Maynooth, today calls for a rethink of the points system.
He says many of the shortcomings of second-level education are rooted in the fact that the system is "bookended by the high-stakes Leaving Certificate exam".
According to Prof Collins, "there is an increasingly persuasive argument emerging for decoupling third-level entry from Leaving Certificate performance.
"It is only if this is done that the second level will be free to create a learning environment and learning experience for its students that is appropriate to their specific developmental needs and which engages and rewards their enthusiasm, intelligence, capabilities and creativity."
The key ESRI findings show that more than half of female students are stressed out in sixth year and up to four in 10 are losing sleep because of worry.
By comparison, about a third of boys feel under constant strain in their Leaving Cert year and about two in 10 lose sleep.
There is a link between student stress levels and the amount of time spent studying. Girls study harder than boys throughout school but this becomes even more stark in the Leaving Cert year.
In sixth year, girls are more likely than boys to put in four or more hours a day at their books after school, whereas boys tend to study for one hour a day or less.
Students report a squeeze on time for sport and leisure.
Thousands of sixth-year pupils are driven by the view that they are merely learning for the test and they have to do well in the exam.
For many, the final year at school has become nothing more than cramming for an exam which they see as offering their only chance of going to college and opening a gateway to their future life.
Teachers feel under pressure to "teach to the test" and prepare students for an exam that determines entry to third level, at the expense of broader skills and values that they should learn at second level.
By February of sixth year, almost half of students are taking grinds to improve their chances of gaining points, and they value grinds for their very tight focus on getting through the Leaving Cert.
The ESRI research on the experience of sixth-year students is the latest in a series tracking the same group of about 900 pupils, in 12 case-study schools, since they entered second level.
It is the most comprehensive piece of research ever on the student experience at second-level and has already prompted policy changes, including proposals for an overhaul of the Junior Cert.
The research, which started in 2002, examines trends in the educational experiences of students over time, helping to identify those who thrive and those most at risk of school disengagement or early school leaving.
It also facilitates analysis of the extent to which initial post-primary experiences can predict the outcomes for students.
The group of students involved are also being tracked by the ESRI into third-level education and working life.