Even decades after sitting the Leaving Cert, many of us still wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming that we are back in the exam hall. It's a rite of passage - three weeks in June that mark the end of school days. For two out of three school leavers, it also determines if they get a coveted place on a college course. The memory of it lingers because it feels like so much of your life and your future depends on it.
Education Minister Joe McHugh told the Dáil last week that cancelling the Leaving Cert exams and the move to predicted assessment was "one of the most difficult recommendations to Cabinet which a minister has ever had to make". But this option will allow students to move on to the next stage of their lives, he said.
On the same day that the decision was made not to make the exams compulsory this year, the Department of Education published advice from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) about the wellbeing and mental health of Leaving Cert students during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This advice makes stark reading for parents of any child who opts to sit the Leaving Cert rather than accept their predicted grades. The advice quotes a 2015 study by an arm of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing that Irish children tended to experience significantly higher levels of anxiety over schoolwork than other children in the group of developed countries.
The NEPS advice also points to a 2018 report via the same organisation that highlights the stress factors for Irish teenagers sitting state exams. A total of 44.8pc reported that they often or always felt they would never do as well as others in exams, 51.6pc worried about what would happen if they failed, and 43.1pc said they felt nervous and stressed when thinking about exams. "These figures indicate the pressures our young people face when doing exams fully supported by and attending their school," the report said.
It is precisely because of the stress that it places on students that many want the Leaving Cert scrapped and replaced by a new system based on continuous assessment.
Leaving Cert student Luke Casserly, national secretary of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union (ISSU), feels the exam is failing young people and needs to go.
Different system needed
A student at St Mel's College, Longford, the 19-year-old says now is the perfect time to change it. With a love of history, Casserly hopes to become a second-level teacher because he wants to instil his passion for history in another generation of students. However, he hopes the system in which he will be teaching will be different, and that he can help change it.
"We say we've the best education system in Europe. I use the word 'system' to describe it - students go through and are stamped at the end - but we don't look at the education we give them. What are we doing to their brains and their creativity?" he asks.
"It needs to be more focused on the individual student. I have no perfect solution in terms of what I'd do, but it needs to be discussed. The pressure it's putting on students is getting worse, as is society's obsession with it," he says.
A fellow student at St Mel's, Seán Carey, the ISSU's welfare officer, believes that it is time for a massive revamp of the Leaving Cert. He says while he is not 100pc sure of another global system that works perfectly, a system where your entire secondary schooling comes down to one set of exams is unfair.
"This year in particular has shown how archaic the system is. Other countries were able to switch to predictive grading quicker [as a result of the pandemic]. They had project work and class work, which is fairer on students," says Carey.
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Service, believes that the biggest advantage of the cancellation this summer's Leaving Cert is that students are being given a choice: predictive grade or sit the test at a later date. Having a choice means giving young people more control over their lives, he says.
Working with young people's mental health problems, Noctor says he would love to see the Leaving Cert assessment take place over two years with blocks of work that would accommodate different types of learning.
"What makes it so high-pressure is everything you have done in two years is determined in two hours. Every year the build-up gets worse," he says.
According to the ASTI, the biggest second level teachers' union, a recent review of senior cycle education pointed out the current regime's many strengths. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment's (NCCA) study published late last year highlighted high levels of societal trust, as well as high levels of confidence in the outcomes of the Leaving Cert examination across higher education, vocational education and training, and employers.
"The ASTI is particularly concerned that prior experience of curriculum change at junior cycle has created strong reservations among teachers," the union's assistant general secretary Moira Leydon says. "The issue of investment in education is critical: class sizes are large, many schools are overcrowded and lack adequate learning facilities, student support services such as guidance and counselling are completely inadequate to meet demand, and teachers' workload is causing widespread stress."
"RedC research commissioned by the Asti in 2018 demonstrated that the [teacher's] average working week was 40-plus hours. Until a coherent pre-change implementation plan is provided to address these and other issues, it is hard to see how teachers can feel confident about proposed changes at senior cycle," she adds.
Professor Anne Looney, a former NCCA chief executive, describes the Leaving Cert as a towering presence that casts a long shadow over the educational landscape. She says nowhere in the world does a set of examinations garner such massive public attention, which adds to the pressures on students.
Prof Looney, who is now dean of education at Dublin City University, says that one of the issues with the Leaving Cert is that it serves two distinct purposes: it provides students with a certificate of their second-level achievement and it acts as a way of sorting students transitioning into further and higher education. A number of reviews have looked at splitting up the two functions, but on balance it was decided to keep them together to avoid the creation of another exam for college entry which could increase pressure on students.
Prof Looney says while the move to a continuous assessment model may sound like a good idea, it could mean that there are stakes involved in everything students do in school.
"It may not diffuse the keg but it could scatter the gunpowder right through everything," she says.
While she says Covid-19 has driven a coach and four through Leaving Cert 2020, reform would not be as simple as saying we survived without it this year, so let's not bring it back.
"We're a long way off that," she says. "The issues are myriad and they're complex. Educationalists around the world are thinking about the impact of Covid-19. I think everyone will be paying a lot more attention to the wellbeing of students, teachers and parents. While the Leaving Cert will be back in 2021, we will be thinking more about its impact on wellbeing and that will accelerate reforms that are already in train."