Reform of points system is not radical, but it is progressive
We constantly hear calls for 'radical reform' of the Leaving Certificate and the points system. But radical reform is not what is required. There are many aspects of the Leaving Certificate and our points system that are excellent and meet the best international standards. Yet we must acknowledge that there are also problems.
However, these problems will not be addressed by 'radical reform'; such reforms can just as easily make things worse rather than better. We need considered, researched, integrated, planned and carefully implemented changes to the Leaving Certificate, the points system, and the structure of courses in higher education if we are truly to improve the lot of students.
The subtle but very significant changes in how the Leaving Certificate is graded and how those new grades are to be converted into points for entry to higher education are most welcome, and represent a very important step in a long journey of careful change and reform.
The new Leaving Certificate grade bands announced yesterday by Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan (moving from 14 grades, A1, A2, B1, B2, B3 and so on to 8 grades, 1 to 8) will apply from 2017 and will reduce pressure on students while still encouraging them to achieve their full potential.
The current, very narrow bands (a unique system internationally) leave most students just a few percentage points away from the next higher grade.
Where this higher grade is associated with extra points for university entry, it places huge pressure on students to get a few extra marks and thus more points. A student who gets a B2, rather than celebrating their achievement, starts to worry about getting B1.
If every mark matters, and a few marks can make an enormous difference to a student's future, is it any surprise many respond by learning from the marking scheme, setting aside their natural interest and enthusiasm for a subject to learn by rote?
When the new grade bands are introduced, the majority of students will fall in the middle of the band, and will recognise that their grade is fair recognition of their academic achievement. They are more likely to adopt a natural learning style, to be more innovative and creative in their approach to the assessment, and to distribute their effort more evenly across the curriculum and different subjects. The new grading system requires a new common points scale, and we have used this opportunity to refine the system. The new points scale, which will also apply from 2017, is designed to be fair, to recognise achievement, to encourage students to take subjects at higher level and to minimise random selection.
The new scale will award points for a H7 grade, which is awarded for a percentage mark of 30-40pc on the higher level paper. While marks less than 40pc have, in the past, been considered a 'fail' we no longer think this way. A student who gets 37pc has achieved something, less perhaps than a student who scores 43pc or 83pc, but something nonetheless.
The decision to award points for a H7 is not 'rewarding failure' or 'dumbing down'. In truth, the current system of a sharp cut-off for those who achieve a grade of under 40pc in higher level subjects is quite brutal.
Why should a student who achieves 43pc in a higher paper get over 40 points, while another student who achieves 37pc is awarded no points? Furthermore, our research shows that a H7 represents a similar level of academic achievement as an O3, so it is fair and appropriate that they should be awarded the same points, and that is what has been decided, with H7 and O3 both being awarded 37 points in the new system.
A second important aspect of the new scale is that the points awarded for each grade have been chosen very carefully to minimise random selection. The current points scale goes up in fixed steps of five points, so that the total points scores are all multiples of five. This means a large number of students get the same points score, so that for some courses the last students admitted are picked at random from amongst those on the same points level.
The new system has uneven increments (100 points for a H1, 88 for a H2, 77 for a H3 and so on). This means that any points score between 0 and 625 is possible, with far fewer students on the same score and much less random selection. Meanwhile, the stress on Leaving Certificate students is compounded by intense pressure to choose the 'right' CAO course before they even step onto a college campus, often forcing students to specialise before they've had an opportunity to sample the curriculum.
At Maynooth University we are introducing a new curriculum model which features greatly increased flexibility, giving students the ability to specialise immediately or explore options in first year and specialise later. A number of universities have adopted or intend to adopt similar models, and these changes are also very positive for students
Ireland has a very strong reputation internationally for our education system and the quality of our students.
However, we must constantly improve and innovate to ensure we continue to enhance the environment for students. While there is still much work to do in addressing issues around the points system, yesterday's announcement was an important and progressive step.
Professor Philip Nolan is President of Maynooth University and chair of the Irish Universities Association Task Group on reform of the points system