NCCA report expected to outline a new future for state exams, but everyone wants something a little different
On Friday a rite of passage changed forever when the college application system was enhanced.
The CAO system will be more inclusive now, offering students greater choice. It is no longer just a portal for those looking to get into an IT or university, it will also give students apprenticeship and further education options, such as post-Leaving Cert courses.
It represents the most dramatic alteration of the college entry system for decades and more changes are coming to the final school year.
Sitting in Education Minister Norma Foley’s in-tray recently was a review of the Leaving Cert carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Officials hope the review will be published before the end of the year.
Carried out over four years, the study of the senior cycle looked at fifth and sixth year and how students are assessed.
The contents of the report have not been disclosed, but it is understood to have examined a move to have less focus on terminal exams at the end of sixth year.
Last week NCCA director Barry Slattery told a Joint Managerial Body (JMB, the organisation responsible for representing the interests of voluntary secondary schools) conference the feedback from teachers, students and parents suggests “the ultimate purpose of senior cycle is that it should enable and support students to reach their full potential”.
Some, including Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, do not feel the Leaving Cert does this in its current guise.
Speaking at the JMB conference Ms Foley offered a further insight into the NCCA report, saying the Government is committed to exploring more continuous assessment, critical thinking and promoting problem-solving skills.
The NCCA’s work started in 2016 but emergency changes to the past two Leaving Certs, with the use of calculated or accredited grades, has enforced ideas that significant evolution is possible.
Students are among those who want to see the most dramatic alterations to the Leaving Cert. Buoyed by the easing of pressure and stress that came with the accredited grades process, they are keen to push for a model of continuous assessment.
Irish Second-level Students Union (ISSU) president Emer Neville argues assessment methods need to be better at accommodating and rewarding the skills of students. She believes two years of work and study coming to a crescendo in the middle of June creates an “undue stress”. A focus on exams also tests skills that are irrelevant in modern Ireland, she added.
Some of the ISSU’s arguments focus on the Leaving Cert being established a century ago and needing to adapt for a modern world. This is most obvious in its proposals for modernising Irish.
She said students want to learn how to use the language daily, and this can be encouraged with changes to the curriculum and how the subject is assessed. She said Irish could be broken into two subjects: one would teach the language; a second, optional subject, would teach and assess literature for students with a grá or special interest in Irish.
Equity is also an issue students want addressed. They raise concerns that the Leaving Cert acting as a college entry system uses a narrow set of skills to assess students. “My sister sat the Leaving Cert in 2019 and 2020. I sat it in 2021, so we have seen all three models of the exams in my house and I can say with full confidence the 2021 model is the best. It allows students to perform well on the day and allows you to have a back-up that reflects you as a student,” she said.
School leaders agree students need to be at the centre of any reform. They believe the best time to strike is now, off the back of a pandemic that saw dramatic change introduced and accommodated quickly.
“Never waste a good crisis,” has been the message from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. Its new director, Paul Crone, said they are in favour of a skills-based model.
This means less rote learning aligned with some continuous assessment, more project work, some exams and some oral or practical components depending on what is best for each subject. But protecting student-teacher relationships is key. He believes it is important teachers remain educators first, assessors second.
“The key point is we don’t want to over assess. Then we run the risk of damaging teaching and learning — and school becomes about the assessment. It can’t be just about that.”
Many considering what reform will look like fear teachers could be a potential tripping point, especially given the resistance among some to grade their own pupils. TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said it is important to remember the Leaving Cert is highly regarded internationally, largely because of the State Examinations Commission’s ability to protect the integrity of exams.
“The Leaving Cert is a respected brand. It is accepted virtually anywhere. You go to Leeds University and they don’t recognise some of the councils less than 50km away who are setting the A-levels but they will recognise the Leaving Cert.
“We want the harp on the results. That has to be on it and we want someone above us because otherwise the basic relationship between the teacher and the student, which is highly regarded in Ireland, changes.”
The TUI argues continuous assessment would increase stress where important exams recur regularly. It supports a more formative assessment model and running increased second component assessments, such as project work. Mr Gillespie is keen to stress that all but 14 of the 41 Leaving Cert subjects already include such examination.
The ASTI believes teachers need to be convinced of a rationale for change. The union has called for issues such as investment in education, teacher supply shortages, learning inequality and access to technology to be addressed.
“We are deeply concerned about the work we do and the education we provide,” ASTI president Eamon Dennehy said.
“We want it to work well and be fair. What we have at present has many attributes. Is it perfect? No, of course not, but let’s examine it first, do some scientific research and then act on it.”
Ultimately the Leaving Cert usually amounts to getting students ready for what comes after school.
Employers’ group Ibec believes the system needs to be brought into the 21st century. It said Ireland’s future needs “an inclusive education system that focuses on formative learning, with multiple assessment modes, progression paths and with a high value on experiential learning”.
Third-level bodies also want change. The Irish Universities Association (IUA) wants Leaving Cert results brought forward to June so college places can be offered earlier in the summer. Students support this because it will allow more time to prepare for college life and source accommodation.
IUA director of learning, teaching and academic affairs Lewis Purser said colleges also want a more stable set of results, unlike the ones fraught with inflation for the past two years, and students who are familiar with a greater range of assessments.
“The school system can’t do everything, but it is so important in shaping the future for our young people that it should be doing a bit more and it can do more,” Mr Purser added.
“As we emerge from Covid, now is the time to be brave and ambitious because our young people deserve it.”