Sunday 25 August 2019

John Walshe: 'College race is leaving issue of apprenticeships at back of field'


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John Walshe

The race for college place begins earlier than ever this year. Both the Leaving Cert results and the CAO Round One offers for college places are being released within three days of each other compared with a gap of six days in the past.

Things are being fast-tracked because the High Court last year ruled that students should be able to take up a college place immediately if they successfully appeal their Leaving Cert grades.

This year the appeals will issue in mid-September, three weeks earlier than before.

However, compressing the timescale between results and points is sending the message that the only game in town for school leavers is higher education. It is fuelling the view that the points system is hijacking the whole Leaving Cert process.

The changes suit 47,624 of this year's Leaving Cert students who had applied to the CAO.

But what about the one-in-five students who sat the same exam in June and don't want to go to college next month?

We are talking about 11,000 students who, for various reasons, have not applied to the CAO for a place at college.

Many of them don't want to go to college and feel underwhelmed and underserved by a second level school system that is so dominated by the issue of transferring to higher education.

The magnetic power of the CAO in the lives of second level students and the overwhelming focus of schools on third level entry was captured in a little-noticed review of guidance and counselling published some months ago by the Department of Education and Skills.

Indecon consultants carried out a survey of guidance counsellors as part of it and the result are revealing.

The top two most common questions asked by students were: What grades they need to get on to a particular course and what points did they need?

The least common question related to apprenticeships. This, as Indecon notes, highlights the challenges in ensuring that all career options are being considered.

The result, according to one expert, is "guidance counsellors are effectively being turned into recruitment officers for higher education".

A number of people spoke frankly about their growing concerns to the Irish Independent but asked not be named. This is understandable as they are all, in one way or another, connected to the third level system which they are criticising for "colonising" second level education.

"You can only admire the machinery of recruitment which the third level has developed in recent years. From Junior Cycle on, students' lives in second level are punctuated by multiple connections with the third level," said one.

"This begins with subject choice for the Leaving Cert.

"It unfolds in multiple school visits from third level admission offices; in Open Days on third level campuses and in the big event of January 31 - which is really the first chance to apply for the course of one's choice rather than the last chance.

"Guidance counsellors in schools throughout the country marshal all their energy and resources towards the CAO application date."

Another said second level education was being "subverted" as a result of what's now called the "massification" of higher education.

"The country needs a lot of skilled graduates but some of us are beginning to wonder if we are producing too many," said one prominent academic.

It was claimed the near alignment of Leaving Cert results with CAO offers undermined Education Minister Joe McHugh's talking up other options such as post-Leaving Certificate courses and apprenticeships. Solas is doing a great job promoting smart choices outside of the CAO but faces a tough challenge convincing parents.

Ironically, as college admission officers were meeting in Galway last Saturday to divvy out this year's CAO offers, 17 young skilled tradespeople were having a training session in the Emmaus Centre in Co Dublin to prepare for the Worldskills Competition in Russia next week.

The vast majority have their Leaving Cert but chose apprenticeships rather than the CAO route.

The backwash effect of the points system on teaching and learning in second level was also highlighted in a study by the ESRI as part of the current discussions on reforming the senior cycle initiated by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

"The fact that the senior cycle is used for third level entry through the CAO points system results in a stranglehold on the education of our students," a teacher in a co-educational school is quoted as saying.

Uncoupling the link between the Leaving Cert and college entry is not a runner, but the NCCA is doing valuable work in exploring ways to make the senior cycle a more rounded experience for all young people, whether or not they aspire to college.

It is reviewing, with schools, how to provide students with opportunities to develop resilience, self-respect, self reliance and confidence, compassion, empathy, responsibility, self-management, teamwork, curiosity and a love of learning.

In all the hype this month, one group which has been failed by the school system will go largely unnoticed. They are the ones who drop out and, if they are lucky, get a place on a Youthreach programme.

There has been a huge increase in Youthreach in the numbers presenting multiple emotional, psychological and mental health problems as a recently published ESRI study showed.

But the report got little or no attention - which speaks volumes about society's priorities.

Irish Independent

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