Students, parents and teachers will have been interested to note the recent publication of a report, 'Supporting a Better Transition from Second-Level to Higher Education: Key Directions and Next Steps'.
The report, which was prepared by key stakeholders, developed out of the work of a 2011 joint NCCA/HEA conference, for which a comprehensive background paper had been prepared by Dr Aine Hyland. The Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn gave his commitment to progress on the three principal areas identified in the report.
To (1) reduce the number of level 8 degree programmes in higher education and make them more broadly-based; to (2) reduce the number of grading bands (A1, A2, B1, B2 etc); and (3) to address problematic predictability in the Leaving Certificate exams.
The proposed reduction in the number of level 8 degree programmes will find support amongst many guidance counsellors, who have argued for a long time against the proliferation of overly specific entry routes to courses.
It was clear that more specific course codes at entry often actually resulted in less choice for students starting courses.
The reduction in entry routes does not involve any reduction in the actual number of first-year places, but allows the entrants more flexibility in their first-year choices within a given programme.
The second commitment, the plan to reduce the numbers of Leaving Certificate grades is interesting.
Until 1992, there were only seven points to the scale in Leaving Certificate results (A, B, C, D, E, F and NG). However, at the request of the higher education institutions, this was expanded to 14 different grades (A1, A2, B1, B2, B3, etc) in order to improve the means "by which the Leaving Certificate exam could be used as a mechanism to determine entry to higher education and to reduce the level of random selection".
Random selection is the process whereby places are allocated by lottery to applicants tying on the same cut-off point. It is an unpopular way to lose a place.
However, the commitment to reduce the number of grades signals that the purpose of the Leaving Certificate as the formal end of second-level examination is as important as its use as a selection tool for higher education.
The third issue, problematic exam predictability, has been defined as an exam in which the nature of the examination paper can be sufficiently accurately predicted to mean either that the examination is not testing the full range of content expected, or that it is not assessing the assessment objectives as defined in the syllabus.
The changes agreed will be implemented on a phased basis for fifth year students who commence the Leaving Certificate cycle in 2014.