In 1999, the Points Commission concluded that the points system, despite its flaws, should be retained on the basis that it considered it the fairest and most transparent way to allocate scarce university places. While this may well have been the most reasonable conclusion at the time, 11 years on there is growing evidence that the points system now needs to be radically revisited.
It should firstly be pointed out that the points system is a creation of the higher education sector. Its negative impact, however, is almost entirely borne by the second level. This impact is apparent in multiple ways.
The ESRI/NCCA Longitudinal Study, in which researchers accompanied a cohort of second-level students through their second- level education, draws attention, over a series of reports, to many of the shortcomings and problems of second-level education in Ireland.
These include the way in which about a quarter of the student body becomes disengaged and disenchanted as early as their second year in second level; the reluctance of teachers -- and also of their students -- to experiment with new pedagogical innovations in examination classes; the increasing emphasis on 'teacher talk' and teaching to the test in the run-up to the Leaving Certificate; and growing stress levels amongst the students in their Leaving Cert year. Other studies point to the particular challenges working-class boys face in second level and the persistent relationship between socio-economic background and Leaving Certificate outcomes.
It is arguable that many of these problems have at their root the fact that second level is bookended by the high stakes Leaving Cert exam. The significance of the examination is derived almost entirely from the way in which it is utilised by the higher education system to manage third-level entry.
There has always been a tendency within Irish education for the agenda of the earlier sector to be set for it by the succeeding one. We know, for instance, that in primary school from about fourth class onwards, the focus tends to shift from the current needs of the child to their entry requirements for second level. In second level, the Junior Certificate examination largely mirrors the Leaving Cert and is approached principally as a preparation for it -- a low-status dry run.
And at senior cycle, with the exception of transition year, the agenda becomes more and more one of preparing students for a competitive entrance examination to higher education. It is here that the points system looms largest in the consciousness and preoccupations of teachers and students alike, with the focus on getting them into third level rather than on their capacity to handle it on getting there.
Apart from its impact at second level, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the system is no longer fit for purpose at third level either. There is a palpable concern in higher education regarding the capabilities and dispositions of students entering it straight from second level. The manner in which the points system rewards rote learning, instrumental learning and memorisation while simultaneously discouraging exploration, self-directed learning and critical thinking means that even relatively high achieving second-level students can struggle on entering third level.
At a broader societal level, there is, of course, also the issue of the relationship between points attained in the Leaving Cert and socio-economic background. It is clear that over the years the better-off have become particularly adept in securing the requisite points for higher-education entry. In terms of Dublin's postal districts, for instance, school-leavers from each of Dublin 14, 6 and 18 are individually nearly eight times more likely to enter third-level education than those from Dublin 10. Young people from poorer backgrounds and poorer areas can entertain few hopes of breaking into the professions and even fewer hopes of breaking into the high-earning and high-status ones such as medicine and law.
For all of these reasons, there is an increasingly persuasive argument emerging for decoupling third-level entry from Leaving Cert performance. It is only if this is done that second level will be free to create a learning environment and learning experience for its students that is appropriate to their specific developmental needs and which engages and rewards their enthusiasm, intelligence, capabilities and creativity.
Decoupling would, of course, still leave us with the task of finding a higher-education entry mechanism which is fair and transparent. This could take a number of forms. A relatively small reform would involve each discipline area in third level setting a number of essential qualifying criteria for entry and then allocating places through a lottery amongst all qualifying applicants. While this would continue to rely on Leaving Cert results, it would remove the race element from the process.
A number of higher education institutions currently require portfolios in addition to minimal qualification requirements and/or points scored for entry to some courses in areas such as art, design or architecture. The use of portfolios allows students with specific aptitudes to demonstrate such aptitudes in ways that are not always possible in terminal examinations like the Leaving Cert. Their use could be greatly extended in allocating higher education places.
Some institutions in countries such as Finland use standardised testing in higher- education entrance examinations, though largely not on a competitive basis. While this has some merit, there is always the problem that the better-off will secure customised private training in undertaking such tests where places are awarded on a competitive basis -- a concern one might also have regarding aptitude tests currently used for entry into medicine in Ireland.
Whatever approach or combination of approaches is ultimately favoured, there will always be the nagging suspicion that third-level entrants in Ireland are just too young and therefore too limited in their life experience to fully appreciate and engage in third-level education. Mature students, many of whom may have had limited success in early life education, are generally amongst the most successful in their subject areas when they return to higher education. Their life experience, maturity, clarity about their goals and singular motivation all emerge as critical factors in their success. These are precisely the qualities which students who enter straight from second level frequently lack.
Over many years of working in higher education, I am increasingly convinced that the student who has spent a number of years after second level in the world of work, volunteering or some other form of useful activity will perform better in higher education than the student who enters straight from school.
Much of the debate in higher education in recent years has focused on issues of fees, rationalisation and standards. There has been an inadequate focus on the issue of entry and how the current system has such an over-arching impact in so many facets of second- and third-level education. It is time to red-think the points system.
Professor Tom Collins is chair of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and was recently appointed President of the National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM) on an interim basis.