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The Leaving Cert revamp

Open book exams and a focus on student well-being are talking points as a review of the senior cycle begins, writes Katherine Donnelly


(Stock image)

(Stock image)

(Stock image)

Pupils starting in second-level schools next September will have a considerably different journey through junior cycle than all who have gone before them.

New approaches to teaching, learning and assessment will be in place for most subjects. The first-year class of 2019 will experience the changes right across the curriculum.

By the time they finish third year, these 16-year-olds will have done two classroom-based assessments for each subject, spent less time on State exams and, hopefully, will be showing the benefits of the new joined-up student wellbeing programme. A more holistic approach to education has also seen the replacement of the traditional certificate with a profile of achievement that includes recognition of participation in extra curricular activities.

So what then for the classes of 2021, 2022 and beyond when they enter senior cycle?

As things stand, they will study a Leaving Cert programme where the clock has not moved forward as it has in junior cycle; a system driven by a focus on terminal exams and the accrual of 'points' for college entry.

Research has shown that its 'one size fits all' approach doesn't, in fact, 'fit' many students, that it encourages rote learning rather than critical thinking skills and creates unnecessary stress.

But, with junior cycle reforms now being embedded, a review of senior cycle has started. Yesterday, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals' (NAPD) annual education symposium posed the timely question: "What changes should we consider at senior cycle and what do we want our well-educated 18-year-olds to look like?"

Assessment models will be a big talking point in the review: should there be more continuous assessment, perhaps along the lines of what is happening in junior cycle?

Broader forms of assessment are seen as important to recognise skills other than an ability to memorise, although, at the Oireachtas Education Committee last week, teacher unions warned against an assessment-heavy regime. If there are to be more assessment modes, should teachers grade their own students? Teachers say no.

NAPD director Clive Byrne says that if the junior cycle changes were even partially adopted in senior cycle it could be possible to design an individual curriculum catering for the differing needs and abilities of each student, to include whole-year and short-course modules.

"There will still be a Leaving Certificate but it won't be so high stakes because a revised curriculum could be assessed using open book exams, projects, extended essays and also involve wider levels of assessment for character, credits for attendance and punctuality, behaviour and cooperation, participation in extra-curricular activities with an ability to reward creativity and innovation."

Notwithstanding complaints about the current system and stresses associated with the 'points race', its familiarity has been a comfort to many parents, although a recent survey by the National Parents Council Primary found strong support for change. Byrne concedes that parents may need to be convinced "that the world won't end if a student can study a subject and not take an exam in it, that there can be valid modes of assessment other than the terminal exam and school-based assessment of a pupil's progress can be as equally valid as a State exam".

The debate will take account of factors not on the agenda before. Among the speakers at the symposium was the Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon, whose office wasn't around for any previous Leaving Cert rethink. For him, student well-being must be central.

Muldoon says that, in years gone by, a well-educated school leaver might have been described as someone with good manners, good academic results - as opposed to a vocational bent - who attended a well-known school and entered a profession.

"What I am looking for now in a well-educated young person is someone who is well-rounded, with positive mental health, positive self esteem, and who is emotionally aware. And with all of that, educated to follow their own routes."

He says there is a need to move away from valuing the students who get 600 points, to the exclusion of others: "Almost 65pc of students get less than 400 points, and we don't promote them."

The Ombudsman wants to see the advancements made in wellbeing at junior cycle followed through to fifth and sixth year and for students to have access to a counsellor or therapist, independent of what is available in schools through the guidance/counselling service.

On assessment, Muldoon would like measurements of things like self-esteem, with feedback to students to help them deal with any issues, "so that they are confident about where their results will lead them, whether as a mechanic or a brain surgeon".

Another speaker was Teaching Council Director Tomás O'Ruairc. For him, what will be important in shaping the new experience will be teaching and learning styles, and drawing lessons from Junior Cycle reforms, as well as the many examples of innovation that individual teachers bring to the classroom, celebrated in events such as the council's annual Féilte showcase. "We are doing it already; if we can acknowledge that and bring it into senior cycle," he says.

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