Clive Byrne: 'Secondary education needs to be about more than fateful August day'
Nothing singularly grabs the national attention quite like the day of the Leaving Cert results. It is a shared experience embedded in the national psyche; most people in Ireland have some memory of it, whether their own personal experience, their children's, or their grandchildren's.
But what the newspapers tend not to capture is an examination in flux. Looking firstly at this year's Leaving Cert, we can see a couple of trends that have emerged in recent years, such as a resurgence in students taking higher-level subjects, particularly core subjects like maths.
A record 33pc of all students sat higher-level maths, double what it was in 2011. This was coupled with an increase in those opting for Stem subjects.
Of course, there is no doubt that the change to the CAO points system has supported the surge toward higher-level core subjects.
In 2017, candidates were awarded CAO points for a mark between 30pc-39pc on a higher-level paper when, previously, a mark below 40pc was regarded as a fail. The decision to change the points system de-risked opting for higher-level subjects.
While some might say this change has "dumbed down" these subjects, it's not a view I subscribe to. Rather, it has encouraged students to challenge and push themselves to take higher-level papers, whereas before their fear of failure might have caused them to militate towards the "safer" option of an ordinary-level paper.
Results day should also give us an opportunity to "cast a cold eye" (as Yeats put it) on the exam itself, its impact, and its continued relevance to modern Ireland and our societal and economic needs.
Indeed, scratch the surface a little below the photos of elated teenagers and proud parents, and the call for Leaving Cert reform is never that far beneath.
Before assessing the merits or necessity of future reforms of the exam, it's worth acknowledging those that have already been introduced in recent years, small though they are.
In addition to changes to how points are allocated to higher-level maths students, there have been some efforts to move towards awarding a proportion of overall marks based on project work in subjects such as history, geography, home economics, technology, and design and communications graphics.
This is a good start, but improvement is needed in many areas, including a subject that has already been targeted: maths. Almost 11pc of students studying ordinary-level maths in 2019 failed to achieve a pass mark of 40pc.
Failure to pass maths creates problems in accessing many third-level courses that have no need or requirement for maths ability, but for which it is an entry requirement.
We cannot allow a gulf to develop between the increasing numbers of students taking higher-level maths and the increasing numbers who take ordinary level, fail and miss out on opportunities for higher education.
There are other issues. More than 5,000 students who sit the Junior Cert do not progress to the Leaving Cert. While some will graduate to apprenticeships (which is very positive), some will leave education altogether. Are we satisfied that our education system up to that point has given them the life skills they need to live and work independently?
The extent to which girls are now outperforming boys is also an issue. While it makes for interesting headlines, it belies a longer-term problem the more the gap grows. It is one that we must address.
Since 2016, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA) has been undertaking a phased review, as distinct from a reform process, of senior cycle secondary education. This will inform whether reforms are needed and how best to pursue them.
The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals believes reforms are needed, a view that is echoed in the Interim Report of the NCCA. Many of the key themes that emerge from its consultation process with schools are not new, but they are striking in that they are consistent and familiar.
A predominant view is that the senior cycle must be more than "a selection function for entry to third-level education". Due to the nature of our college entry points system, it is a fair criticism.
A new senior cycle must be broader, encompassing skills such as critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, collaborative learning, creativity and innovation, digital technologies, and research skills to name but a few. Critically, it must also empower students with the social, personal and health skills they will use and develop the rest of their lives.
Secondary education is about more than one fateful day in August. As decision-makers mull the Leaving Cert's longer-term fate, one thing is clear: we need a senior cycle that imparts knowledge and skills for life, not just for a college place.
Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals.