John Walshe: 'Leaving Cert reform can't come fast enough to prepare our young for brave new world'
The weather may not be great today but the overall outlook is bright for the 60,000 students starting their Leaving Cert exams.
They have a greater range of opportunities available to them than ever before. There are more places in higher education, further education and training, with an expanding range of apprenticeships and new 'earn and learn' models of combining work and study. If they cannot reach their career goal directly, there is an alternative route no matter how they fare in that well-established rite of passage that is the Leaving Certificate.
Who would have thought a few years ago that you could become an apprentice in areas such as insurance, logistics, biopharma and auctioneering, as well as in the traditional building trades? The fact that some newer apprenticeships now lead to degrees is eroding the boundaries between further and higher education. It's also going some way towards rebalancing our obsession with university degrees. And not before time.
Employment across an extraordinary range of economic activity is at an all-time high with more than 2.3 million people at work. The unemployment rate is a third of what it was when many parents of today's Leaving Cert students left education.
Granted Brexit looms like a dark cloud on the immediate horizon, but most of those starting their Leaving will be back studying or training in the autumn. By the time they qualify in a few years' time, the worst of whatever economic storm we may face should be over. Worrying about it now is pointless.
There is no shortage of other advice for students about pacing themselves for what is an exam marathon, not a sprint, about the inevitable stress, especially on the first day of the test, about proper diet, sleeping and exercise.
A number of changes have been made to the running of the exams to make them more 'human'. Education Minister Joe McHugh has decided that Leaving Cert students who suffer a bereavement of a close relative during the exam will be able to defer their papers for up to three days, with alternative papers taken in July.
For years the State Examinations Commission and the Department of Education resisted the idea partly because of the "floodgates" argument but also because of concern about the logistics of organising alternative sittings and getting the exam papers marked in time. But they were overruled by the current minister who responded to the hardship faced last year by Rhona Butler, who did her Leaving as her mother was dying of cancer. Her mother died on June 13 and Rhona, from Co Tipperary, had to sit a business exam the next day. Her moving and brave story on the 'Ryan Tubridy Show' prompted the minister to act compassionately to prevent others facing the same plight.
However, the generous decision is already prompting calls for similar arrangements for those who are stricken ill suddenly and end up in hospital during the exams. It happens every year.
Inevitably the exams season prompts discussion about whether or not the Leaving Cert is fit for purpose. Performance in English and maths in the Leaving as well as the overall points gained are still pretty good predictors of how well or badly a student will do if they go to college.
But the Leaving is criticised for its over-reliance on a single terminal written exam concentrated into a few short weeks. The influence of the CAO and points system is also seen as too dominant on what is taught in secondary schools.
The view is expressed that the Leaving is out of sync with reforms at Junior Cert level. The new generation of 'digital natives' is doing things in a different way. Technological change is affecting the way we live, socialise and work, and the education system has to prepare our young people for that brave new world.
As the OECD pointed out in its position paper on Education and Skills 2030 last year: "Schools are facing increasing demands to prepare students for rapid economic, environmental and social changes, for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that have not yet been anticipated. Education can equip learners with the agency, the competencies and the sense of purpose to shape their own lives and contribute to those of others. Children entering school in 2018 will be young adults in 2030. So, change is imminent."
Imminent might be overstating it in the Irish educational context where change comes exceedingly slowly. It took years, endless rows with the ASTI and countless hours of discussions to get limited changes at Junior Certificate level.
The Junior Cert was preceded by two separate exams - the Intermediate and the Group. A report on the Inter Cert Exam was published in 1975 and was usually referred to as the ICE report. But that's where the proposed improvements ended up for decades - on ice. For the sake of future generations of students, reform of the Leaving Cert cannot wait that long.