News Gerard O'Regan

Sunday 21 September 2014

The Leaving Cert is fair Ruairi – in that it's unfair to everybody

Gerard O'Regan

Published 24/04/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn

DEATH, taxes and the Leaving Cert. They are all part of the natural order of things in Ireland – realities of life that for good or ill sometimes haunt our days and which simply cannot be ignored.

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Ruairi Quinn, who seemed to harbour the defeated aura of a David Moyes this week, has been running the gauntlet at the annual teacher conferences. These Easter get-togethers have turned into a bit of a parody over the past years, and this year in particular seemed strangely out of sync with post-bailout Ireland. More thoughtful members will have winced at some of the antics of their classroom colleagues, which will have done little to woo public support for their primary concern – rates of pay.

Mr Quinn, now in the twilight of a long-running political career, asked for the education portfolio when this Government was formed. He has been beavering away on a plethora of issues, ranging from the teaching of religion, to the highly contentious issue of exam reform. His aspirations on this latter front are commendable – but how realistic are they by way of ensuring there will be no skulduggery when it comes to determining results?

There are plenty of areas in Irish life, where a nod and a wink, or dealing a card from the bottom of the deck, is part of the way of getting things done. But whatever criticisms can be made of the second-level state examinations – the Junior and Leaving Certs – they are pristine clean in that regard.

However, Mr Quinn's proposal that some Junior Cert exam grades should be by way of teacher assessment is obviously a cause for concern by those at the education coalface. It doesn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination, to see "concerned parents'' creating all sorts of problems. And what if that "concerned parent'' is well connected with the local powers-that-be? The pressure put on some teachers in this instance could be acute. Mr Quinn, like many others, has also often railed against the inequities of the Leaving Cert-based points system – the Beecher's Brook where so many stumble as they try to make the transition from second to third level.

He has now suggested changes in the grading system, which he argues will take some of the heat out of the annual points race. Unfortunately, his proposals will do nothing of the sort. As long as there is a human aspiration to land college courses deemed to be high in status and potential earning power, the Leaving Cert will remain a dogfight for all.

Whatever marking system is decided on, it will still have to determine who gets what in our colleges and universities. By definition, the exam must remain brutal and judgmental. Those who make the points cut-off get the course of their choice – those who fail to meet their target must make do with a next-best offer.

And any change in the grading system is unlikely to have an effect on Ireland's burgeoning Leaving Cert grinds industry. Here teachers collaborate with parents who have the requisite cash to try and nudge a student up the points scale.

In any case, Ireland is not unique in having an end-of-school exam which has an underlying ''make or break'' dimension to it. The French have their "Grandes Ecoles''. The battle to get into these ultra-elite third-level colleges is every bit as vicious as trying to land medicine in TCD.

However, as somebody once argued, the Leaving Cert is fair in that it is "unfair to everybody''. Money or position cannot be used to gain advantage in the actual exam process. The downside is that it remains a fairly arbitrary test of intelligence, upon which crucial, life-changing decisions are based. But nobody has come up with another system which is not open to corruption. Yet one good development in Irish education is that there is now nearly "a course for everybody,'' which allows countless students to progress even if it's on a less clearcut pathway.

Another hallmark of Mr Quinn's tenure is the battle to try and get us all to embrace maths, science, and technology, with greater fervour. Lots of international think-thanks warn that Ireland remains too far down the league table on this front. And for concerned students and parents, these are the disciplines which will underpin countless jobs and careers in the future.

For a multiplicity of reasons, it's unlikely we will ever become as maths savvy as Asian countries like Singapore. The reaction at the INTO conference to Mr Quinn's suggestion that national teachers should achieve honours level in the subject suggests we may still have some kind of cultural antipathy in this area.

Meanwhile, there are some straws in the wind which suggest that the Ruairi Quinn experiment in education may be coming to an end. As David Moyes discovered, once rumours of departure gather ground, they sometimes achieve a powerful momentum all of their own.

Irish Independent

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