Yet more thoughts on the Leaving Cert

This a is an analysis (fisk?) of this article in the Irish Times by Barry O’Callaghan, former principal and chair of the National Association Association of Principals and Deputies (NAPD) leading for learning committee…


Anna sat the Leaving Certificate in the summer of 2017 and secured a place in Trinity. She got 580 points, was pleased with her results, yet her next words nailed the problem: “If I was to sit it today, I wouldn’t get 200 points.”

You could say exactly the same thing about university exams, or indeed, any exam. When it comes to exams and learning generally, it’s a case of use it or lose although my experience is that when push comes to shove you can actually remember a lot more than you think you can.


Her mother told me earlier that year she worried about the endless hours studying in her bedroom and having to be coaxed out to say hello and eat.

That’s unsurprising considering that she got 580 points.


Across all the big issues surveyed, students voiced the strongest dissatisfaction. The Leaving Cert did not come close to preparing them either for work or for third level (are we surprised when the first-year dropout rate for some third-level courses is more than 30 per cent?), never mind preparing them for life.

The Leaving Cert is hard, probably the hardest challenge an 18 year-old has had to deal with. It is quite natural that they would want it to be reformed in the hope that it might become less stressful.

Transitions are always hard: whether it’s from primary to secondary or from secondary to tertiary or from the world of education to the world of work. Students will always imagine that somehow improving one level will make to transition to another level seem seamless. But that will never happen. That’s why we call them “levels”.

Drop out rates are high when students perform relatively poorly in the Leaving Cert, a fact that runs counter to the core thesis of this article. The HEA’s excellent statistics department has shown this for many years – performance at third level is crucially dependent on “prior academic achievement” as measured by CAO points. (The effect is strong at low points levels, below 300 or so, and quite weak when you got to higher points levels.) The Leaving seems to be a good “signal” for academic achievement at higher level once you go above a certain threshold.


Shouldn’t the Leaving be more than an entrance exam for third level? It is time to disentangle it from CAO and bring back matriculation.

Possibly, but the devil is in the detail here. Will forcing students to do more than one exam (and possible multiple exams) not create more pressure on students and more than likely create a matriculation industry, just like the HPAT?


Or maybe it’s time to create a technical stream after junior cycle, as Germany does, to prepare for employment in industry and trades?

Do we really want to pigeonhole youngsters at 16 years of age? There is a lot of dissatisfaction around this approach in Germany and, indeed, in everyone’s education utopia, Finland.


Why does everyone have to aspire to university, when so many are, post-Leaving Cert at least, unsuited?

Reasonable point but it’s important to ask who’s driving this emphasis on third level education? I would say it’s a nexus of government, the institutions themselves, parents and, most of all, employers. It suits a lot of people to increase higher education participation rates. Why hire a school-leaver with an A in maths when you can hire a graduate with a bunch of exemptions from the actuarial exams.


Also, what about expanding apprenticeships to traditional white collar careers, as has happened in accounting and insurance?

That is happening albeit slowly and the funny thing is it’s portrayed  as a  really original thing to do when, in fact, it was the norm back in the 1980s.


Change is needed, but whatever we do, we must end up with a robust, reliable and fair Leaving Cert.

The case for change hasn’t been made yet, at least not in this article


Despite its many failings, the present system ticks many boxes – except fairness. How can it be fair when some students have unlimited access to external help and are taught in smaller classes in schools with better facilities?

There is some truth in this but a system based on, say, continuous assessment is far more likely to benefit students from more affluent backgrounds with access to far more cultural capital.


Reforms must be dynamic, evolutionary, ambitious but also realistic and doable. We should add “timely”: University College Dublin first introduced computer science as a degree subject in 1972. It then took all of 46 years, half a lifetime, to introduce it, in 2018, to the Leaving.

Fair point re computer science but there are huge resource implications. Plus it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to teach the next ‘big thing’. We should always emphasise teaching that which has endured, and is likely to endure.


A student recently told me that his best teachers were those who gave the best notes. I, naively, was hoping he would choose those who facilitated learning, made them think, asked awkward questions, advocated self-directed learning, turned them into problem solvers and collaborators and developed their curiosity.

Giving good notes is an essential part of being a good teacher and is not inconsistent with being an inspiring teacher. In fact you can be inspiring and not be a particularly good teacher. The story goes that the great physicist, Richard Feynman, was inspiring, but students often left his lectures somewhat euphoric but unable to remember much of what he had said!


Then I remembered that I once held some teachers in high regard for the very same reason. It’s what the Leaving did to us 40 years ago and continues to do. How can we blame young people who have learned to play the game, just as we did? It’s the game, stupid!

Playing the game effectively is the sign of a smart person. Don’t knock it. The world of work, especially academia, is to a large extent about playing the game.


Young people must learn how democracy works by experiencing it in action. We need to loosen our hierarchical structures, bin the idea that we know and they don’t. They are but “kids” yet they address us as “sir” and “miss”. Learner voice must be engaged with. Democracy must be learned in our schools.

Now this is where things go a bit mad. There is a strand of thought in education that suggests that teachers are “co-learners” and that students should dictate what should be taught and how it should be taught. This is a recipe for disaster. The reality is that students are, in the main, naïve novices, and teachers are more than a bit wiser and knowledgeable. That’s what it means to be “educated”. If the writer can provide any evidence that student-led curricula lead to better outcomes I’d love to hear it.


It makes little sense that 14 years of schooling culminates in a final two years of rote learning and cramming, all to be judged in a three-hour exam on a sunny June day. We must immediately reduce student stress over these two years, lest they continue to leave us burned-out and disillusioned.

Does it really make little sense? What’s the alternative – continuous assessment? Does that really reduce stress in system where every mark counts if you want to get your first choice on your CAO from. And does chopping learning up into bite-size chinks really improve the depth of our learning or does it actively encourage the student to think in a disjointed kind of way? It’s by no means clear what the optimum way to assess students is.


Instead of a three-hour terminal exam, can’t we have a shorter exam in the summer of fifth year and similar in sixth year? Split the course, take the test and bank the marks.

This seems a bit contrary to the whole thrust of this article. So we should test material, bank the marks, and move on. What about the whole “I’d only get 200 points now” argument?


There is another idea talked about for many years, whose time has come – remove the Junior Cert from State certification. The old “inter cert” once served a purpose for early school leavers, but no longer does. Schools can issue their own certification. This would free up significant resources for the Leaving.

I’m confused by this. Schools issuing their own certification is fraught with problems; problems around grade inflation, parental pressure, selection of leaving cert subjects, plagiarism etc. etc. Again, as in a lot of education discussions, the writer is making a suggestion in an evidence vacuum. Where has this worked before? Where’s the evidence that this approach will prepare students adequately for the demands of the senior cycle whatever that may become? We need to stop experimenting with young people’s lives. Extraordinary changes require extraordinary evidence.


We could be braver still and mirror third-level semesterisation. Over the two years have four testing points: December/January in fifth year, June in fifth year and likewise in sixth year.

As I said in an earlier blog, I know of no study that has shown the benefits to student learning of semesterisation. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that semesterisation has reduced students’ ability to retain knowledge gained in prior study. Semesterisation seems to promote the ‘bank it and move on’ approach to learning.


We live in an information-rich age and need to ask what young people leaving school should know. Can we reduce content in top heavy syllabuses, allowing for learning at greater depth and providing time to stop, think and explore?

There’s a hint in this of the “knowledge is obsolete because of Google” argument (a ridiculous one) but it is a fair point to ask if students should do fewer subjects in greater depth. For what it’s worth I like the breath of our secondary education.


At day’s end we need to ask if young people are leaving our schools with a sense of achievement and, as forward-looking global citizens, ready to contribute to making the world a better place.

Yes, they are. Our first year students are, in the main, excellent. I often think that they regress a bit as they cope with the demands of third level (being not very IT-literate and struggling with attention to detail are key problems) but by the time they graduate they are a credit to our education system.


Unless we help equip young people to fix the broken and existentially challenged world we are bequeathing them, the Leaving Cert will become the least of their problems.

This reminds of the time celebrity economist, David McWilliams, blamed the financial crisis on the Leaving Cert because the Leaving promoted group-think – or something. If we want to solve our many problems we’d be far better off focusing on our dysfunctional political system rather than the Leaving Cert. I remain to be convinced that the Leaving Cert is “broken”.

And by the way, the world is not broken. Check out “Better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker.

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