In My Opinion: Eighteen years on it's time we critically reappraised the Leaving Cert Applied
As a member of the original development team for the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) I feel the time has come for critical reappraisal. While the Industrial Policy Review (1992) recommended the introduction of a German-style dual system, this was rejected, and the LCA joined the Leaving Certificate (LC) 'family' as a discrete 'ring-fenced' programme in 1995.
It was predicated on the belief that senior students should experience a broad and balanced education rather than specialist vocational training.
Although it drew heavily on existing 'school to work' programmes, the nature of their inspection reports would suggest that the Department of Education and Skills saw it as just another academic programme.
There is plenty of evidence that students enjoy LCA. However, initial fears regarding parity of esteem have proved well-founded within the prevailing 'academic' culture. Calls for positive discrimination in favour of LCA graduates have been ignored and professional development support for LCA teachers has been scaled down.
A lot has changed since the LCA was designed and introduced. The school leaving age has increased to 16 and curriculum breadth and balance at junior cycle is being redefined in terms of statements of learning and key skills.
School retention rates have increased from 80pc to 88pc and progression rates to higher education have grown from 45pc (1995) to 65pc (2010). Almost two-thirds of LCA graduates are now progressing to further education and training (FET).
So, what began as a 'school to work' programme has become a 'school to college' programme with almost 40pc remaining in FET 18 months after LCA completion. Just 13pc of LCA graduates found full-time employment in 2008, generally in low-skilled occupations, while 20pc were unemployed/seeking employment 18 months later.
Despite increasing school retention rates, LCA participation levels fell by 13pc in 2013 when only 5pc of final year students completed the programme. While this fall-off may be partly due to cut-backs, the dramatic changes in the educational environment since LCA's introduction are of significant relevance.
The system responds with alacrity when Ireland's PISA ranking falls or when business interests call for higher standards in maths, science or languages.
The public perception of the LCA and the growing tendency for its graduates to remain in FET rather than progress to working life are ignored.
The vast majority of LCA students come from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, with schools increasingly directing students with behavioural difficulties, special needs and/or learning difficulties towards the programme.
The most radical response would require students to opt for either a general academic or vocational training track, at 16 or earlier. Alternatively we could adopt UK and Australian practices of allowing students to choose elements from both academic and vocational tracks.
Both options should address parity of esteem. Ten years ago the NCCA review decided to leave the ring-fence in place around LCA. Are its current graduates happy with the status quo?
Dr Jim Gleeson Professor of Identity and Curriculum, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane and Adjunct faculty member University of Limerick