Is the Leaving Cert fit for purpose?

I came across a tweet yesterday in which an Irish academic based in England suggested that the Leaving Cert was “not fit for purpose”. That raises the question as to what the purpose of the Leaving actually is. In the past, a good Leaving Cert meant you could go to college or go straight to the workplace (in the banks, for example), or become a trainee in any number of professions.

These days, though, the Leaving Cert is largely an entry exam for higher and further education and this is unlikely to change soon despite the periodic talk about apprenticeships.  Is it fit for purpose as an entry exam? Well, we do know that high CAO points are associated with low non-progression rates although less well correlated with grades but that might be too much to expect given how much change students experience during the transition from secondary school to third level.

Against that background many academics still complain that incoming students lack key skills required to thrive at third level. However, I’m not aware of any data to suggest that this apparent lack of skills is leading to high failure rates or, indeed, a dumbing down of the curriculum. So, if students lack third level skills on entry, we must be doing a good job of developing those skills in our students. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek here.)

What this means is that the Leaving Cert is a decent signalling device – if you do well in the Leaving it signals that you have a work ethic, the intelligence and an ability to perform under pressure, all vital attributes if you are to succeed at third level.

That’s not to say that the Leaving does not need to be modified to include more diverse ways of assessment. But should the Leaving Cert be transformed?

We can be sure of one thing: if the Leaving is transformed it will be transformed in the same way that the Junior Cert has been transformed into the Junior Cycle. That process was driven by constructivist ideologues who believe that the job of education is to teach “skills”, who believe that process is more important that content, and who have a particular fondness for inquiry based approaches to learning.  Many teachers and lecturers, me included, have serious reservations about this approach.

We need to be clear about one aspect of the Junior Cycle and it is this: it’s an experiment. We have no idea if it will prepare students for the Senior Cycle with many people believing that it won’t. If we turn the Senior Cycle into a more advanced version of the Junior Cycle, these two cycles might be well-aligned but we will have no idea if a constructivist Senior Cycle will have any value as a signal for performance at third level.

We have a moral duty to proceed very carefully when making changes to our education system. International experience (e.g. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence or Canada’s fixation with discovery maths) suggests that transformation is a high risk strategy.

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