Leaving Cert grade inflation of recent years is triggering anorexia, depression, suicidal thoughts and school refusal among students, Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon said today.
“Five years ago, grade inflation meant nothing and now it is causing children to be depressed,” he said.
The use of calculated/accredited grades in the 2020 and 2021 Leaving Certs led to significant grade inflation and it is also being built into this year’s results so that candidates are not at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for college courses.
Dr Muldoon was speaking about the added stresses Leaving Cert students have suffered during the pandemic, as he called for urgent reform of senior cycle.
The Ombudsman supported the idea of a hybrid Leaving Cert this year – an option favoured by 68pc of students in an Irish Second Level Students’ Union (ISSU) survey - but said he understood the decision to return to an exams-only model.
He said the ISSU was “hugely impressive” in the critical thinking it had brought to providing evidence to support a hybrid model, and then in saying they understood the reason why it was not happening.
The Ombudsman was addressing a National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) symposium on changes needed to senior cycle, ahead of the imminent publication of a blueprint for reform.
He said the reform “has to be student led” and must be implemented within three years, and not over an extended time period.
Education Minister Norma Foley is due to publish the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) report and how she proposes to move forward with its advice, within weeks.
The report focusses on changes to the curriculum, less reliance on traditional exams and more on continuous assessment and supporting students to pursue post-school pathways other than the CAO.
NAPD president Rachel O’Connor said the Leaving Cert was 100-years-old and with all the change is the past century “we are still sending students into the exam gallows in June”.
The level of student stress associated with senior cycle and the drive for CAO points was a recurrent theme at the symposium.
Ms O’Connor said second-level education was determined by “two extremely suffocating factors” – the Leaving Cert terminal exams and the entry process to third-level.
As a result, overly anxious students returned to rote learning and set aside the skills and value-based education they had enjoyed for the previous three or four years, she said.
“We also get high dropout rates at third level due to ‘points elitism’ rather than students being appropriately placed,” she added.
Ms O’Connor said rather than a State exam system relying largely on students’ ability to recall information on a given time and date in June, assessment should take place during the two years of senior cycle and not at the end of it.
Dr Anne Looney, executive dean at the Dublin City University (DCU) Institute of Education, said that the Leaving Cert/CAO was embedded in Irish culture and what was needed was a culture change and suggested several ways this might happen.
She referred to students achieving maximum points and still not getting their course choice and said a possible way around that was to introduce subject specific scores and alternative entry mechanisms for a number of high points courses.
Dr Looney also spoke about subjects where 20pc of marks were awarded for coursework, such as a project, as a way of broadening assessment and allowing students to display skills that would not come through in a written exam.
But she said that 20pc was not enough to change the overall rank order: “It only starts making a difference at 25pc.”
In further talking points, she suggested breaking post-primary education into three cycles, covering five or six years, with the final one or two years focussed on preparation for what comes next, and developing stronger pathways from further education to higher education.
Professor Selina McCoy of the Economic and Social Research Institute said the Leaving Cert workload and focus on rote learning in order to maximise points also maximised student stress.
She said lower performing students ended up with a negative academic self-image.
It all contributed to a growing normalisation of the grinds culture with about half of students now taking grinds, she added.