William Quinlan, St. Josephs College, Borrisoleigh, Thurles, Co. Tipperary -Winner
Pádraig Pearse had a keen passion for education, having established a secondary school in Dublin called St. Enda’s. Pearse lambasted the education system of the day as a “murder machine” because it did not seek to inspire or motivate students but only left them downtrodden and disheartened. Pearse envisaged an Ireland where students learned to explore their passions and interests. Unfortunately, although Pearse’s proclamation hangs aloft in most schools in Ireland, his vision for education is still dismissed by the country he fought to liberate.
Saorstát Éireann was established in 1922, and three years later, the Leaving Certificate was born. The Leaving Cert since has been focused on a set of exams spanning a fortnight. Donnchadh O’Malley opened second-level education to the masses in the 1960’s. This was a revolution of opportunity for the majority of people who would have been unable to pay private fees. Unfortunately, the chance to modernise and diversify our second-level system was missed. The chance to develop a modern system with different streams for different interests was missed , and all the youth of Ireland were funnelled into a ubiquitous linear academic process.
To be frank, the Leaving Certificate is riddled with flaws and failings. The idea of basing the educational future of our youth on a set of exams held over two sultry weeks in June is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Even the staunchest antiquarians could not support the idea that this outdated system is worth preserving.
The opportunities afforded to our peers in France, Germany and Spain highlight the inadequacies of Irish education. The French have Le Bac; they can choose to pick a Science, Technology or General based stream with further subdivisions and options therein. This provides choices to pursue a more technical or a more science-based path through education for those who want it. The Germans have three different types of secondary schools which allows students to specialise in their interests, either vocational, academic or a mixture of both. The Spanish have a much wider range of subjects on offer including Philosophy. We squash our artistic, scientific, academic and technical students all into the one system. In Ireland, we force everybody through the same narrow path. Fifth years rarely get to study the full combination of subjects they request as subjects end up clashing with one another. Students end up studying in-depth subjects that they have no passion for, simply because the range of choices provided are quite narrow. The damage caused by the Leaving Cert extends far beyond the points race. This is a system that squeezes many Travellers out of education by this rigid conformity of assessment.
But one of the greatest butcheries of all has been to the Irish language. Many adults have a bitter resentment towards the Irish language. Peig Sayers has been ingrained in the national psyche even though she has not been on the Leaving Cert course since 1997. To have Irish as a mandatory subject is a noble policy, if only it were supported by a proper curriculum and learning infrastructure. Successive governments have neither abolished Irish as a mandatory subject or created a modern and effective method of teaching. It does a grave disservice to those who do not have a flair for languages and also does a disservice to those with a genuine interest in Irish. Those who love the language are equally forced to participate in the charade of rote-learning, instead of spending their time studying the grammatical and dialectal intricacies of the Irish tongue.
The curriculum for English only breeds resentment for literature and poetry. What is the goal of studying Shakespeare if not to spark an interest in his renowned dramatical works? It appears to me that this country believes the goal should be to establish who can scribble five A4 pages of generic emotional jargon in forty minutes. This cumbersome curriculum smothers any passion for the works of Shakespeare, Synge or Bishop.
The Leaving Cert Vocational Programme (LCVP) simply does not offer the same opportunities as a separate Vocational, Craft or Technical Stream through the Leaving Certificate would. LCVP is offered as a class in addition to other subjects, but this does not constitute anything except excess work on top of students’ seven academic subjects. The lack of continuous assessment leads to an illogical emphasis on end of year exams. The lack of emphasis on mental or physical wellbeing in the Leaving Certificate enforces unhealthy habits that often stick for life. There are many students who feel forced to quit their sports teams during secondary school. All these factors contribute to the results of a study in The Lancet scientific journal revealing that Ireland is the one of the most overweight countries in Europe.
School was never supposed to be an easy affair, but it is not supposed to be obdurately retrogressive either. There are plans to modernise the Leaving Certificate, but they lack serious ambition. The introduction of Computer Science as a subject will definitely be a step forward. Ireland needs to wake up, every other Western European nation has a more developed and more nuanced education system than us.
Some say that the Calculate Grades fiasco proved that our current exam system might actually be the fairest system there is. Politicians happily frolicked with this idea as it made their highly damaging policies seem like a stroke of genius. Although of course I agree that the calculated grades were a failure, this does not necessarily vindicate the Leaving Cert. Any argument that the Leaving Cert is modern or fair simply does not stand up to much scrutiny. The international examples clearly demonstrate that Ireland has failed to innovate at the same pace as other countries, or even at any pace at all. It is blatantly obvious to me that the current Leaving Certificate is woefully inadequate and ought to be replaced with a more flexible, comprehensive and skill-orientated system. Unfortunately, it appears that the ‘murder machine’ will carry on for some time to come.
Kate Owens, COLÁISTE IOGNÁID, SEA ROAD, GALWAY -Runner Up
Talk to any adult, and they will describe the Leaving Cert as one of the most stressful events in their lives. Stressful because much of our futures will be determined by this singular event. In my grandparents' time, the Leaving Cert was the mark of a true academic. For my parents, the bar was raised to include the Leaving Cert and a third level degree. Education then and now opened doors to well-paying jobs and the Leaving Cert was the key.
The Leaving Cert remains key but now only comprises the first digit to education’s combination lock. The world has continued to turn, and the Ireland into which we will emerge will not be one of agricultural or manufacturing. The jobs for which we will compete shall be knowledge based and global by design, and many of the time-honoured professions such as lawyers, accountants, engineers and even doctors shall, because of technology, be significantly fewer in number or outsourced to the other side of the world.
Students today face the certain knowledge that a good Leaving Cert must be followed by a good third level degree, a Masters and increasingly, a PhD. The Leaving Cert is simply the first of several, increasingly higher, hurdles which we will have to overcome.
Caoimhín De Bara noted that the Leaving Cert stands accused of causing too much stress but more importantly failing to develop critical thinking. He notes that the dilution of the Leaving Cert through subjective assessment may erode its integrity and anonymity, thereby diminishing the meritocracy which should be central when allocating limited places in third-level education.
I trust that all of us would advocate for a meritocracy.
The Leaving Cert is a closed book exam best suited to those with a good memory, those who can recall and recite by rote learned pieces and transcribe them quickly onto paper in the allotted time. It is a blunt instrument, but whatever its failings, it is clinically if not literally blind to an individual's background and determined solely by performance on the day. The student sits alone in the cauldron of the exam hall. It is equally fair in that it is equally unforgiving to all.
All systems are imperfect, and there are, for a lucky few, inherent benefits deriving from parental income and background. This is arguably at its most potent when competing for that first digit in the combination lock. A little seed money on laptops, grinds and tutors will deliver a premium for third level applicants. Keelan Beirne notes that the role of parental income in the next generation’s education, and thus income, compounds over time. But rather than begrudge those who can invest in their children's education, we should strive to give all of our students that initial foothold, that chance to achieve at the highest levels of higher education possible, through the provision of universal third-level education.
Simultaneously, we need to redesign the Leaving Cert using the Framework for 21st Century Skills and look to, learn from and apply key elements of the International Baccalaureate (IB) syllabus. Dr Aoibheann Ni Shuilleabhain describes the Leaving Cert as being rooted in the industrial age. I believe that the IB points towards the future: a future in which Ireland inhabits a knowledge-based, globally-integrated world, where access to information is available to all using a five-second Google search, but a future in which progress is attained through our cognitive ability to analyse, interpret, develop, communicate and build on this information innovatively.
As the world grows ever more deluged with information of questionable quality, information literacy, critical thinking, making connections between ideas and across disciplines is essential. Unlike the Leaving Cert, life and lifelong learning are not closed book exams.
The IB is a two-year programme taught in over 140 countries. Students take six subjects, gain proficiency in a second language, complete 150 hours of community service, undergoing continuous oral and written assessments by external and internal examiners before submitting a final 4,000 word original research paper. The IB syllabus offers the broad, international, interdisciplinary and academically rigorous programme with an emphasis on inquisitive, critical thinking which is necessary in a modern knowledge economy.
Thomas Friedman notes that interdisciplinary combinations of design, technology, mathematics and art produce true breakthrough innovation. Generations of students will fail to make the grade in the global economy if we don’t change our syllabus to teach students how to think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad and become proficient in a second language.
Whatever format the Leaving Cert takes, it shall bring with it pressure and stress. I refute any suggestion that the ‘snowflake generation’ is less suited than previous generations to handle the stresses of the Leaving Cert. I note however that much of the stress is caused by an insufficient number of third-level places and that this stress would be voided through the provision of universal third-level education.
Universal third-level education is not a zero sum game of winners and losers. Demand for third-level places will rise by necessity in a knowledge-based, global economy. Lifelong learning, the ability to leap across disciplines and ongoing research and innovation will determine our future success. We need to increase the number and quality of third-level places available so that as many students as possible get the chance to succeed at the highest levels of education possible.
I put it to you that changes to the Leaving Cert syllabus are essential to develop the cognitive and analytical abilities needed for the ‘jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have yet to be invented’ in order to solve the seemingly impossible problems of tomorrow. We must seize this opportunity to redefine the Leaving Cert’s purpose to target the ambition of lifelong learning in a society committed to providing universal third level education for all. Only then will we maximise the size and untapped potential of Ireland’s talent pool for generations to come.
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Oscar Murphy, Sandford Park School, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 -Runner Up
The topic of the Leaving Cert has been a prominent one in the public mind since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. With the exams last year being cancelled and the risk that this year’s exams might face a similar fate, many argue that it is time to rethink the entire concept of the Leaving Cert. Proponents and opponents of the system have been at each other's necks online and in the papers. However, the problem with the normal critiques is that while each of them certainly has a degree of truth, opponents of the Leaving Cert are far quicker to point to problems than to offer viable solutions.
The education system in Ireland undoubtedly leaves a lot to be desired. In my opinion, one fact that illustrates this very well is that we teach all of our students Irish for 13 years, and yet the language is hanging on by a thread and the vast majority of people in the country cannot speak it. So, from the outset, let me say that I do of course agree that there are some things that should be improved about the system. However, I would maintain that we would be better served by changing the curricula than overhauling the entire exam process.
Despite its faults, the Leaving Cert is a highly functional exam. Students are offered a range of subjects and are assessed in them in what is an internationally highly respected, if grueling, set of exams. Every 6th year student in the country sits down at the same time on the same day in front of a blank sheet of paper, each being given the same chance to prove themselves more worthy of the college place they seek than their peers. The anonymity in the marking process is a cornerstone in the trust that the public, the universities and foreign countries place in it. There can be no discrimination on the basis of gender, race, socioeconomic background or the biases of any teacher or examiner. As a result of this, universities can easily look at the results of their applicants and have faith that students honestly earned the points they received and therefore deserve a place in that university.
When it comes to the criticism of the Leaving Cert, most of it is perfectly valid, but those who criticise rarely put forward solutions that would actually fix the problems they identified. For example, take one of Professor Ní Shuilleabain’s objections. She rightly pointed out that there is a wealth gap in student achievement in the Leaving Cert, something which is a common complaint levelled against it. Unfortunately, a case is rarely put forward to prove that another system (say, continuous assessment) would have any influence at all on that gap. Those who can afford grinds will still avail of them, regardless of the method of assessment we use. Changing the Leaving Cert itself is unlikely to improve the situation at all in that regard. But there are other steps we can take to fix the problem.
According to the Educational Research Centre, under the current Leaving Cert system, between 2007 and 2016, levels of academic achievement in Deis schools ‘improved significantly’ by comparison to non-Deis schools. The report highlighted that there remained a significant gap, but according to UNICEF in October 2018, ‘Ireland ranks 2nd of 41 wealthy nations in reducing educational inequality between children’, despite this gap that remains. In the same report, UNICEF made a number of recommendations as to how Ireland could continue to reduce educational inequality, including the provision of homework clubs, better monitoring of attendance and fully rolling back the funding cuts introduced in 2011. The report did not suggest that the Leaving Cert exams were a barrier to closing the gap, or that overhauling the system would help achieve that aim.
In terms of the other accusations against the Leaving Cert, many can be quickly refuted. Professor Ní Shuilleabhain pointed out that there is a gender imbalance in physics classes, which is certainly an issue, but one which would be more easily addressed by making schools encourage more girls to take physics or hiring more female physics teachers. There is no reason to think that changing the exam would encourage more girls to take the subject.
The accusation that the Leaving Cert is too stressful is generally followed by the claim that continuous assessment would be easier on students and might even be a better reflection of their abilities. But one need look no further than the woeful attempt to introduce such a system at Junior Cycle level in recent years to see that this is not a workable solution. The plan reduce stress and expand continuous assessment quickly fell apart when it became clear that teachers did not want to grade their own students. The Junior Cycle did not reduce any of the pressure associated with the exams and created new pressures throughout second and third year as students complete pointless classroom-based assessments, as most pupils in those years will attest. This issue of teachers grading their students also came to light last year with the predicted grades fiasco which resulted in massive grade inflation. The reality is that any attempt to introduce continuous assessment at Leaving Cert level would be vehemently opposed by the teachers’ unions. To try to do so now, after the joint catastrophes of the Junior Cycle and predicted grades, would be nothing short of insanity and would seriously undermine confidence in the integrity of the exam.
At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is clear. To suggest that the Leaving Certificate is a perfect assessment of students, one would have to live under a rock. However, to suggest that it is egregiously more unfair than other systems around that world, that no moderate reform can solve the issues it faces, or that continuous assessment is a simple solution would be misleading in the extreme.