Sunday 17 November 2019

It's time to grade the Leaving Cert as 'could do better'

Hannah Dillion and Sarah O’Neill celebrate in the sunshine after receiving their Leaving Cert results at St Mary’s College, Arklow, Co Wicklow.
Hannah Dillion and Sarah O’Neill celebrate in the sunshine after receiving their Leaving Cert results at St Mary’s College, Arklow, Co Wicklow.

Clive Byrne

From an educator's perspective, this year's Leaving Certificate has in general been encouraging, particularly in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and foreign language learning.

There has been a rise in the number of students sitting Higher Level Physics and Chemistry (up by 19pc and 12pc respectively on 2013) and those sitting Higher Level foreign languages, namely French, German and Spanish. These trends indicate that the increasing focus in recent years to adapt the curriculum to match our globalised, IT-centric economy is slowly starting to see results.

As Ireland looks to establish itself on the global stage as a tech power, a supply of computer scientists, physicists, statisticians, engineers and analysts will be crucial, not only to satisfy multinational companies' voracious appetite for talent, but also to grow and nurture our indigenous businesses.

With the economy showing signs of improvement, there's an opportunity to address the STEM failure rates that still exist by investing more in resources such as school laboratories and related equipment - which can undoubtedly contribute to overall success. The new Project Maths curriculum also helps to improve practical numeracy skills applicable to other subjects.

Modern European languages - French, German and Spanish -saw a slight increase in those sitting the Higher Level papers. Progress still needs to be made to rejuvenate interest in these subjects, however.

Like STEM, knowledge of a major foreign language is incredibly valuable, especially for those keen to pursue a career at a multinational company or in the public sector. As the internet shrinks the globe further, doing business with Paris, Berlin or Madrid will become even more commonplace for Irish businesses.

The Leaving Cert is won or lost on the basis of points and the fluctuations of the amount required to gain entry into college. What does one tell the student who works hard to earn 400 points after years of study, only to miss out on their desired course by a mere 10 or 20 points, or even more perversely, the student who earns 540 points, but needs 545? The focus is wrong.

Indeed, it's not news that students often choose Leaving Cert subjects because they seem "easier" or have more predictable questions, thereby increasing their chances of an A, B or C grade and upping their tally of points. This isn't a fulfilling way to learn or be educated.

Leaving Cert anxiety is so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that it even influences some parents in their choice of primary school and their children's extracurricular activities.

Obviously, there is a matter of supply and demand to take into account. There simply aren't enough classrooms, lecturers, libraries or colleges to facilitate everyone becoming a doctor or a lawyer; and as a mechanism to fill places, the CAO is still very efficient.

But, intuitively, we need to reconsider the value of assessing a cumulative 14 years of primary and secondary education with a series of overlong examinations crammed into a stressful fortnight. An exceptional student can still falter and panic in the final moment.

There are signs of hope, with potential changes to the Leaving Cert grading structure, college entry with expanded or generic courses, and the possibility of considering a student's portfolio of achievement and involvement while in secondary school.

Indeed, continuous assessment and extracurricular activity are important indicators of ability and should be promoted. In addition, offering a wider range of subjects beyond the core and humanities, like computer science and politics, has its merits. There is certainly progress being made towards these goals, but it's important that the issue is not left to lie and we maintain a progressive momentum.

A word for those whose Leaving Cert results haven't turned out exactly as hoped - there are other ways to further education beyond the traditional CAO route. Amongst the many options available, there are the numerous post-secondary institutions that provide specialist year-long courses with work experience (Level 5 and Level 6, often called "PLC" courses) as stepping stones into college, or standalone qualifications in themselves.

And while some may find it difficult to accept, especially with pressure from parents, peers and teachers or even the media, many Irish young people go straight into the world of work after the Leaving Cert and have successful careers, perhaps returning to education as a mature student.

It's important that in the pursuit of a better education system, we highlight where the Leaving Cert succeeds, and where it needs to be adapted to meet a changing society.

For now, though, students, parents and teachers can breathe a collective sigh of relief - it's all over until next year.

Clive Byrne is the Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

Irish Independent

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