IN the ongoing debate about the Health Professions Admissions Test (HPAT) we need to remember that our education system must innovate if students are to meet the challenges of higher education first and then the complex world of work. Above all we must emphasise the capacity for critical thinking and problem solving.
The Leaving Certificate has served, and continues to serve, our students and society well. But it has limitations. Rather than head down the tortuous path of radical reform that some propose, we could, as in the case of medical education, deploy its strengths along with other assessment processes such as the HPAT.
Recent commentary on the HPAT shows a surprising unwillingness to contemplate any other form of assessment of achievement other than the Leaving Certificate.
A little perspective is called for. At the beginning of this decade, there was growing alarm about the continuing rise in the points required to enter certain third-level courses, notably medicine. Would only those who could attain six As in their Leaving Certificate be able to become doctors? And would these make "good" doctors? "Something Must Be Done!" was the general cry.
So something was done. A comprehensive study on medical education was carried out, led by Dr Pat Fottrell. Interested parties were invited to make submissions and options were canvassed and explored. The report, 'Medical Education in Ireland: A New Direction -- Report of the Working Group on Undergraduate Medical Education and Training', was published in 2006.
While there is often cynicism about official reports being left on the shelf, in this case the Government, the Minister for Education and Science, the Higher Education Authority and universities set about implementing its recommendations with vigour, and significant additional resources. This included increasing the number of places in undergraduate medicine and introducing a new graduate medical education programme.
A new system was also put in place for entry to undergraduate medical courses, used for the first time this year but well flagged in advance. All students who were intending to apply for medical courses knew that, in addition to sitting the Leaving Cert, they would have to take the HPAT.
This test, designed to recognise aptitude for a particular course, measures creativity, flexibility and initiative. The results of the HPAT are combined with those of the Leaving Certificate to determine the students most capable of meeting the high academic standards required and most likely to be effective as doctors.
The Leaving Cert is a major achievement for any student and, as an examination process, one of its great strengths lies in its transparent fairness. But it's not perfect and there are concerns, in particular, about the extent to which students can learn to do the test and are assisted to do so by fee paying grind schools. A related concern is that there is too much scope for rote learning.
THE approach taken by the HPAT, combined with the Leaving Cert, provides an additional means of predicting the aptitude of a student for a particular programme. It operates in a number of other countries as part of the selection process for higher education. Unlike an interview process, it is transparently objective.
Of course, there are winners and losers. The winners are those people who, often for reasons connected with their family's lack of resources, would make fine doctors but fail to overcome an assessment system weighted in favour of their better-off peers. Secondary winners will be patients who will be less likely to meet the doctor or consultant who does not have the social skills so important in a caring profession.
Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older tried and trusted models of assessment.
Tom Boland is Chief Executive, Higher Education Authority