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Katherine Donnelly: '21st-century children deserve a 21st-century education'



(Stock picture)

(Stock picture)

(Stock picture)

The question is not whether Leaving Cert reform is urgently needed, but how and when can it be achieved?

There should be no surprise at the findings published today by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD).

It is not the first report to highlight the undue stresses felt by students sitting the Leaving Cert, and a need and demand for reform.

There was a landmark study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in the past decade as well as many other surveys.

The ESRI told us how sixth years lose sleep as pressure piles down on them when they realise their future is hanging on a single set of exams over a couple of weeks in June; how the rote learning it encourages is not equipping them for life beyond school; and how, beyond measuring the skill to memorise and regurgitate information, the exam is not a fair assessment of a student's abilities.

The same themes, and demands for change, surfaced again recently in the first phase of consultation with students, parents and teachers in the review of senior cycle currently under way by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

So, not for the first time, pretty much everyone agrees there must be a better way, but the Irish education system has shown itself notoriously slow to embrace reform, if at all.

Reform can mean a lot of things, including new subjects, such as computer science, which can happen easily enough, once the necessary teaching resources are put in. More fundamental reform requires new approaches to assessment, because assessment is the tail that wags the teaching and learning dog. As long as the system relies on terminal exams, teachers and students will use rote learning to prepare for them.

This is one of the obstacles to change, as the lengthy dispute over a junior cycle reform attests.

The first serious attempt at modernising second-level education in Ireland in recent decades came with plans to replace the Junior Cert. It was a tortuous path, marked by teacher strikes, which has ended up with a burdensome combination of two assessment systems because teachers would not embrace grading their own students for a State exam. The argument was that Ireland is too small a country for that.

The NAPD research among principals and teachers shows no let up in resistance on that front. Nor do most parents fancy any such proposal being part of a new-style Leaving Cert, but students show more trust in their teachers, being evenly divided on the point.

Reform can also mean practical assessments in more subjects. This ticks several boxes: they test the understanding and application of knowledge in a real way, they are spaced out during the year and redress the balance somewhat for students who do better in a practical than a written exam.

Indeed, the NAPD report has called for more practicals, but a recent trial of Leaving Cert science practicals exposed an education system woefully under-resourced to take them on. So, the idea has been abandoned.

This year's Leaving Cert class is the first where all have been born in the 21st century. They, and those coming after them, will be working up to 2070, and beyond, and deserve a 21st century education system.

Irish Independent