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‘It’s completely broken’: Secondary students say Leaving Cert change is needed now

More than half of senior cycle pupils say Leaving does not reflect work they put in, Oireachtas committee told

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Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

"We cannot go back to what the Leaving Certificate used to be," Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union, told TDs and Senators. Stock image

"We cannot go back to what the Leaving Certificate used to be," Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union, told TDs and Senators. Stock image

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Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

Second-level students do not want to return to the traditional Leaving Cert, the Oireachtas Education Committee heard today.

They describe the assessment system as “completely broken” and say “we can no longer continue to put plasters on it”.

Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), expressed their views at the latest in a series of committee hearings on Leaving Cert reform.

The committee is exploring the issue ahead of the publication of a National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) report on Leaving Cert reform, currently being considered by Education Minister Norma Foley.

Work on the report started in 2016, and it will set out options for phased changes to senior cycle, including broadening the study options better to prepare students for a range of post-school pathways – and not just a CAO application – and changes to assessment.

But the reform debate has taken on a new dimension after two years of atypical Leaving Certs, forced by the pandemic, that saw the use of teachers’ estimated marks to assess school-leavers.

In an opening statement to the committee, Ms Neville said the Leaving Cert was almost a century old and those who sat the first exam would struggle to see the difference today.

She said an ISSU survey of senior-cycle students found that 52pc felt the Leaving Cert did not accurately reflect their work over fifth and sixth year.

Ms Neville, who sat the Leaving Cert this year, told the committee that the ISSU believed the voices and experiences of students must be at the heart of the reform.

“After two years of not carrying out the ‘traditional’ Leaving Certificate exam, students’ voices are clear: we cannot go back to what the Leaving Certificate used to be. Change is needed now,” she said.

She said assessment methods needed to change in order to accommodate more diverse skills of students, and to alleviate the stress that is created by a high-pressure exam schedule at the end of two years of education.

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Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

Emer Neville, president of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Photo: Arthur Carron

Ms Neville said the June exam period at the end of senior cycle, was “an unduly stressful experience” and the skills it requires were “unfit for purpose”.

She gave examples of “fast handwriting under intense pressure, or the ability to regurgitate facts in a timed environment, and perseverance through intense mental strain over a period of two weeks”.

Ms Neville added: “These are hardly skills relevant in the modern world, and (the Leaving Cert) is an unfair manner of demonstrating two years’ worth of learning achievements”.

Ms Neville called for the exams to be spaced out, “and even have separate examination periods, in order to reduce undue pressure on students’ health and wellbeing while being examined for their learning achievements”.

The ISSU also wants greater diversity in assessment methods, other than terminal exams, saying there was a need to “capture and reward students’ diverse learning abilities, and not just their memory”.

She told the committee that the current exam structure particularly favoured students with access to private tutoring services over students who do not, whose families cannot afford such supports, which is not fair.

The ISSU is seeking an overhaul to the CAO points system as well as a greater focus on other routes to post-school qualifications.

She told the committee that students should be able to gain CAO points through a variety of assessment opportunities and extracurricular activities – and not only terminal exams.

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Norma Foley

Norma Foley

Norma Foley

In relation to extra-curricular activities Ms Neville said opportunities to take part in such additional activities are available in an equitable manner to all students who may wish to take part in them.

The ISSU is calling for an increase in higher education places as well as for greater attention to be paid to post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses, apprenticeship programmes and other forms of further and higher education.

Supporting calls for change to the Leaving Cert, Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Clare Austick, asked how many students didn’t view college as an option because they didn’t see themselves fit into the box of our education system?

"How many went into the exams thinking that possible failure was the end of a journey rather than the opening of new routes and potentialities beyond college entry?” she said.

The NCCA report on Leaving Cert reform addresses the use of different forms of assessment other than the June exams – such as continuous assessment, but one likely issue in the discussions on change will be whether teachers should play a role in assessing their own students.

They did so in 2020 and 2021, only because of the exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic.

Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie told the committee his organisation’s members were “fundamentally opposed to assessing their own students” for state certification, as in the Leaving Cert.

He said external assessment, by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), must be retained.

He said change to assessment models must be based on sound educational principles rather than the weathervane of popularity.

Mr Gillespie said moving to a continuous assessment model for State certification purposes, would be counterproductive.

“It would increase – not reduce – stress for students and teachers, inevitably lead to over-assessment, compromise objective standards and undermine public trust,” he said.

“Furthermore, it would fundamentally and negatively change the pupil-teacher relationship, possibly removing the emphasis on the supportive aspect of the relationship.”

Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) president Eamon Dennehy said the NCCA’s review of senior cycle had identified three major problems: the timing of the assessment; the range of assessment types; and the balance of marks awarded to written and practical components.

Mr Dennehy said it had not identified as problematic the externally assessed nature of the assessment process.

What was deeply problematic was the fact the Leaving Certificate examination was the sole pathway for school-leavers to higher education, he said.


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