The battle for college places has become a real survival of the fittest test. But as children return to school this week, it's crucial they keep it all in perspective. SUE LEONARD reports
There are three words that spell fear for sixth year students; words that, as August progresses, get bandied around with increasing intensity. And those words are, 'The Points Race'.
Teachers use it to frighten their charges into study mode; parents add fuel, when they repeat the words, in a panic, because they so desperately want the best for their kids; and the media, picking up on the terror, mix it into a heady, heated cocktail.
This year, though, the tide seems to be turning. Around 51,000 sixth years sat the dreaded Leaving Cert, a decrease from 70,000 a decade ago. Meanwhile, college places have increased. Consequently, some commentators say, the points race no longer exists.
In a couple of days a new crop of teens will enter sixth year. On their first day back their schools will warn them that this year, they must study as never before.
Is it time, though, to lessen the hype, and to treat the Leaving Certificate as just one step in the life of a teenager? Eleanor Petrie, of the National Parents Council Post Primary, thinks that it is.
"The Leaving Certificate should be treated as the culmination of school, and not as an entry exam for CAO. But that will be extremely difficult to do, especially as there will still be pressure at the top of the market," she says, pointing out that it is still as hard as ever to get into courses like medicine.
Petrie blames the media for fanning the hype, but most of all she blames parents for not understanding that the points for a course are dictated by how popular it is, and not by how brainy you have to be to do it.
"Parents need to see that the world is not as it was when they left school 20 or 30 years ago. Then, the most important thing was to go in for one of the professions, because that would secure your life," she says. "But there are courses out there that will make your child a lot happier."
Some sixth years are told they should 'give up' on other interests in order to focus exclusively on their exams.
"Some schools will tell the pupils to keep their head down and keep working, but others encourage the pupils to keep on games and music. They will, in fact, fight against parents who try to stop their children," Petrie says.
"We should definitely take the pressure off. There will be more places now, and we need to work with these young people to find out what courses they want to take. We need to know what their aptitudes are and what they will actually enjoy doing. Students need to identify the course they want, and then to aim for it. We need more laidback careers advice, and more laidback parents."
Greg Dalton, a job coach with QI etc, which helps many sixth years plan their future, feels the year should be all about sensible study. "And that first week back should be about drawing up a study plan. Students should study for two hours every evening, but use that time to go over the class work. They should allocate 20 minutes per subject, and not try and dedicate two hours to a subject they hate."
It is important, he feels, to work out how a student learns. Some, for example, will learn best if they record their notes on a Dictaphone. But, says Dalton, they should keep the pressure constant.
'When you start to panic you can't work . . . '
*For Katie Doherty the pressure of sixth year was almost intolerable. And it wasn't helped by the huge hype.
"The hype makes it all a lot harder because you start to panic," says the 18-year-old from Blackrock, Co Dublin. "And when you start to panic, you can't actually work. There's hype in the general atmosphere, particularly in school. People are going, 'You have to study', and it's friends as well as teachers.
"It's the small things that build up. Things like your little brother screaming that he wants to use the computer when you are studying. Things like teachers telling you that you did really badly in a test, or finding out you have a spot test that you haven't studied for. If you get a D you really start to panic."
Katie is a kickboxing fanatic. In fifth year she exercised four or five times a week, but everyone urged her to give it up for the year. "My parents told me to; so did my friends who had given up everything. They said, 'How will you do well when you spend three hours on kickboxing?'
"But I kept it up because it makes me relaxed and happy. I literally punch out my tension and I feel so much better. I think everyone needs an outlet, even if that is reading a paper, or a book once a week."
Ironically, the actual exams were an anti-climax. "In your mind they are the biggest thing. They're the final moment of school. But I went through it feeling detached.
"I was scared; after maths I was crying and distraught, but after they were all over I felt stupid. There were all these blank hours when I would have been studying. Watching TV for two hours felt like a waste of time, because I'd felt so guilty watching it for the past year."
The worst hype, Katie felt, was coming up to the results and the CAO offers. "Those felt like the life-changing experiences I'd expected the exams to be," she says. "I was terrified about failing maths. My boyfriend, who is 21, made me promise not to look at Tuesday's papers or listen to the news; he knew from experience that it builds up the panic.
"But I still managed to hear that one in nine failed maths. I thought, 'That's four people in my class, and if I fail maths I'm finished' - the panic just spirals. I went to my school - Loreto in Foxrock - at nine, even though the results weren't given out until ten.
"I went in, got them, and came out screaming and ecstatic. I didn't get the 550 to study psychology and sociology in Trinity, but that was only a dream. I passed maths and I got 100 more than I needed to study at Galway. I was chuffed and thrilled. And I can't wait to start there.
"I'm happy because of all the hard work I put in. I went out at weekends, but I studied for five to six hours a day. If I hadn't done well I would have thought, 'Well, am I stupid?'"
Katie's sister, Becky, is about to enter fifth year. What would Katie's advice be to her? "Work steadily and listen in class. If you listen it will mean something when you go over it later. Otherwise you are teaching yourself and that is particularly difficult."
'We were told to live like monks . . . '
*Jamie Dean from Churchtown, Co Dublin found results day a huge anti-climax.
"It is really, really over-hyped," he says. "I got back from Cyprus, where I'd been with friends a couple of days before. We went down to St Killian's German School and got our results.
"And after about an hour, it was, 'Well, that's it. It's all done.' It had been built up so much in the past couple of years, and suddenly, it was all over."
Jamie is happy with his results. He was aiming for 400 points but got 350, enough to study sound engineering at Dun Laoghaire. "I got through all my subjects so I am really, really happy."
The pressure, for Jamie, came from his parents and the school. "But more from the teachers," he says. "'Live like a monk' were the actual words!"
Jamie got a great deal of support from his parents, as well as pressure. He also saw Greg Dalton, who helped him draw up a study plan. And he did work hard, giving up hockey for the year.
"I gave it up from last October, and I've got a bit of a beer belly now! But I don't regret any of that. I'm really happy with the way things turned out, and I think it was necessary. Maybe the hype is necessary to show what an important exam the Leaving Certificate is."