Class of 2016 will be first to benefit from 'less stressful' points race
MAJOR changes in the Leaving Certificate and the college entry process are on the way for students entering fifth year in September 2014 as education chiefs move to take the heat out of the points race.
The first ever shake-up of the CAO system is designed to improve the quality of teaching and learning, while reducing the stress endured by Leaving Cert candidates chasing places on closely contested third-level courses.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has announced a series of interlinked measures on which work is being finalised with a view to phasing in the reform for students sitting the Leaving Cert in 2016.
Priority is being given to three areas:
• a significant reduction in CAO Level 8 (honours) courses from the current 946, leading to fewer and more broadly based programmes for first years.
• A cut in the current 14-point Leaving Certificate grading system – from A1 to NG (no grade).
• Removing predictability from exam papers.
Mr Quinn said there was still more work to do before final conclusions were reached on the issues, but he expected to see a full implementation plan before the end of the year.
He said major changes would not occur without due notice to schools, parents and students.
The dramatic rise in the number of CAO courses over the years has been a cause of concern.
The changes now agreed by university presidents – their academic councils also have to approve them – are intended not to reduce choice, but to simplify the CAO application process and to allow students to keep options open for longer.
Early over-specialisation confuses students making their CAO selections and leads to unnecessarily high points requirements for some degrees with limited places.
The healthcare professional programmes, such as medicine, will not be affected by this change, but further consideration will be given to whether some of these courses should be graduate-entry only.
Institutes of technology have also committed to review Level 8 programmes to ensure there is a mixed portfolio of courses with denominated and generic entry.
Another pillar in the reform plan is the reduction in the number of Leaving Cert grading bands from the current 14, which is the highest in the world for similar exams.
The 14-point scale was introduced in 1992 at the request of the universities and the CAO amid concerns about the increasing use of random selection for college places among students on similar point scores.
But while it served to introduce greater differentiation between applicants, it is blamed for putting undue pressure on students to achieve those extra five or 10 points, causing a reliance on "teaching to test" instead of in-depth learning and critical thinking.
The third commitment is to remove "problematic predictability" from the June exams, which is also blamed for "teaching to the test".
Predictability can arise for a number of reasons, including efforts by examiners to ensure that all topics on a syllabus feature on exam papers over time. So, students and teachers second-guess the exam, based on what has come up before.
A range of areas for work has been identified, such as the level of points to be awarded to each Leaving Cert grade and the use of additional tools to allocate places in higher education.
IBEC, the group that represents Irish businesses, said that if properly implemented, the proposals could improve teaching, shift the emphasis from rote learning and help students make more informed college subject choices.
Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), welcomed the moves and said "the willingness to explore alternatives will create a positive setting as schools seek to minimise pressures on students transferring to higher education".