Thursday 18 July 2019

Points race does not always deliver the best results for our students

High points are not the only barometer of future success in a rigorous third-level course
High points are not the only barometer of future success in a rigorous third-level course
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

There are students from the class of 2015 out there who achieved 570, 580 or 590 points in the Leaving Certificate, and they are hugely disappointed with their CAO offer, or lack of it.

There is something wrong with a system that allows a student who delivered just about everything the Leaving Certificate examiners wanted, except perhaps a couple of part (c) answers across the entire spread of the June exams, to feel a failure. Why? Because, even though they are almost touching the tape of CAO 600 points maximum, they were five or 10 points short of what they need for their particular dream course.

The points race may not be quite the only show in town in terms of post-school progression but it is the main event. It is how most students measure themselves, and how the system measures them too.

The frenzied competition for Medicine, traditionally demanding the highest points of all, is a good example of the pressure that students endure in order to secure a place on a highly-prized degree programme.

New research from the Royal College of Surgeons shows that students who take an alternative route to medical school, perhaps via an Arts degree where about 350 CAO points would have been sufficient, not only do as well as the high pointers on the undergraduate programme, but, on average, perform slightly better - even those who come from a non-scientific background.

It is an illustration, for anyone who needs it, that high points are not the only barometer of future success in a rigorous third-level course. This study offers lessons that could be applied across the system. Graduate entry in Medicine has allowed an insight into the talent and the broader skill sets that will rise to the top outside the narrow lane of the points race.

A move to more general first-year programmes at undergraduate level, such as common engineering or science, allowing students to specialise a year or two down the road, when they have a better idea of where their particular aptitude lies, would have a similar effect. It is happening, but too slowly.

The system should be there to serve the needs of the students, not the colleges who try to outdo each other by rolling out family-titled courses, with a tiny number of places, hoping to impress high-achieving CAO applicants.

Many students, in turn, feel under pressure, from school and parents and the colleges, to garner as many points as they can and, once they set that target, they feel they cannot "waste" those points. The problem is that too many end up on a high-points course and wonder what they are doing there, while others, with more passion and aptitude for it, lost out because they missed a (c) part of a question in a single Leaving Cert exam.

Irish Independent

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