Monday 16 September 2019

Evolutionary road: it's time to have your final say on the new Leaving Cert

Areas being explored include if there could be two exams - one at the end of fifth year and one at the end of sixth year, writes Katherine Donnelly

The first students at the new Galway Educate Together Secondary School, which opened this week. What sort of senior cycle will they experience? Photo: Ray Ryan
The first students at the new Galway Educate Together Secondary School, which opened this week. What sort of senior cycle will they experience? Photo: Ray Ryan
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

It may be widely decried as a necessary evil, but there is an attachment to the Leaving Cert that has seen consideration of how to improve it go on for almost three years.

The challenge has been to explore what to preserve, while also making it more attuned to the needs of 21st century students and the society and the world in which they live.

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The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) started the process with a look at senior cycle in other countries in order to stimulate debate about what might or might not work in Ireland.

It has been followed by a massive listening exercise. The past year has seen in-depth discussions with pupils, teachers and parents in 41 nationally representative schools to identify strengths, as well as what needs to change. The conversation was also opened up to other schools and education stakeholders through a series of national seminars.

The process has been unusual in its ground-up approach of involving school communities at the earliest stages. It is coming to a conclusion of sorts, but not before everyone has an opportunity to give their views on ideas that have emerged.

There will be no big-bang approach to reform. After the turmoil associated with the overhaul of junior cycle - still being embedded in schools and not without ongoing challenges - evolution rather than revolution is how the NCCA describes the road ahead.

Deputy Principal Louise Judge with Principal Sarah Molloy. Photo: Ray Ryan
Deputy Principal Louise Judge with Principal Sarah Molloy. Photo: Ray Ryan

But it has to start somewhere and that is the focus of a public consultation running until November 1. It is about deciding priorities in the context of a continuum of change.

By the end of the year, the NCCA will finalise its advice on priority areas, longer-term goals and a proposed timeline for the pace and scale of change, and despatch it to the Minister for Education.

The journey began with an examination of purpose of senior cycle. It has become dominated by the points race, but that doesn't serve the needs of all students and causes undue levels of stress. An over-emphasis on the traditional Leaving Cert, (Leaving Cert Established), was seen to be at the expense of nurturing the full range of skills and qualities sitting in a typical classroom. Is it fair to the student with a creative talent and/or one who wants to pursue a vocational route to a career through an apprenticeship? Everyone bought into the role of senior cycle in developing attributes and skills such as resilience and teamwork.

The second phase moved on to how to deliver an experience that works for every student, covering ground in six areas:

Knowledge, skills and qualities: alongside the essentials of subject knowledge and developing critical-thinking, how to better support students in building attributes such as resilience and empathy, and life skills such as financial management, navigating the world of work and relationships and sexuality;

 

Teaching and learning: ensuring that it ticks all the necessary boxes, including being appropriately challenging, addressing all learning needs and laying a foundation for lifelong learning;

 

Pathways and programmes: there is a definite mood for less ring-fencing around the Leaving Cert Established, the Leaving Cert Established with the LCVP vocational module option, the Leaving Cert Applied and Transition Year (TY), and their incorporation into a single curriculum with different pathways and combinations. Could it, for instance, spell the end of TY as we know it and see elements of it spread over a refashioned senior cycle?

 

Curriculum components: an appetite for combining full subjects with shorter modules, allowing for increased specialisation and greater flexibility in student choice emerged. Discussions covered workload and whether the number of full subjects to be studied for the traditional Leaving Cert should be reduced, with five being commonly mentioned as the preferred number;

 

Assessment: the June exams are not about to disappear, but there is support for a broadening of assessment with, for instance, more use of portfolios and orals and an increase in the weighting currently given to such components. Other ideas include exploring the potential benefits and drawbacks of having two exams in each subject, one at the end of fifth year, one at the end of sixth year.

 

Reporting: at the end of it all, what should the piece of paper that a student carries away with them from school state? It is suggested that it needs to go well beyond a list of exam grades and reflect the range of a pupil's learning experiences, knowledge, skills, qualities and achievements.

An NCCA document on the direction of the review to date, published on its website, is the basis for the final deliberations. A summary is being sent to all schools and stakeholders, such as teacher unions, school management bodies and employers' representatives ahead of this final round of consultation.

But it is open to any individual or organisation to participate in a number of different ways, including an online survey at ncca.ie/seniorcycle, while anyone who wants to make a written submission or attend a focus group can email seniorcycle@ncca.ie. Focus groups are already filling up.

There will also be a national conference in October.

NCCA Chief Executive John Hammond says: "Listening to the voices emerging from the review, it's clear that there are many things about the current senior cycle that are valued. But people also identified areas for growth and development, which we're now consulting further and in more detail on.

"It's important that all interested stakeholders and organisations take part in the consultation, so that as many people as possible are aware of and have a say in the way senior cycle evolves in the future."

Irish Independent

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