Everyone has a view on the Leaving Cert at this time of year and, if you’re to go by social media, the majority think it is not fit for purpose in some way: whether it’s the stress it causes, or the fact that a lot of memorisation (not rote learning) is required, or that it doesn’t prepare students for third level, very few people seem to have anything good to say about it. People who are self-employed, especially very successful people, are especially scathing about the Leaving. Celebrity economist, David McWilliams refers to it as a “bullshit pub quiz”. Mind you McWilliams has also suggested that the Leaving Cert was responsible for the financial crisis, so his utterings need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s an interesting psychology at work here I think. There is no doubt that being self-employed is hard – the constant need to bring in work is a major source of stress – and it is quite understandable that the self-employed might be quite resentful of people in steady, pensionable jobs, especially public sector jobs. And the thing is, obtaining a very good Leaving Cert provides the school-leaver with the fastest route to a steady, safe career in the public sector, or in the multinational sector, or indeed in any sector. While there are obviously other routes available, there is no doubt that obtaining 500+ CAO points provides you with the widest range of options in choosing what kind of career you want to pursue. And, a really important point is that the people who do extraordinarily well in this “bullshit pub quiz” become our doctors, our engineers, our lawyers, our scientists, our engineers, our nurses and our teachers. The young doctors we produce are outstanding – I know this from personal experience – and our scientists have proved themselves capable of competing with the best in the world when given the necessary resources. Our nurses are held in particularly high regard and our education system performs at well above the international average.
But of course the LC is not perfect and it would, no doubt, benefit from greater diversity in the way we teach and assess. For example, you could greatly improve the Project Maths course if you got rid of a lot of the Euclidean Geometry and substituted some computational/numerical mathematics. But you’d need every student to have access to a laptop and standard software: the logistics would pose a problem.
But the key thing about solving the Leaving Cert ‘problem’ is that to solve it, you should not actually start with the Leaving Cert itself. As things stand, no amount of tinkering with the Leaving will take away from the fact that, despite the recent focus on apprenticeships, it has become, to a large extent, an entry exam for third level. Furthermore, the demand for places in the traditional universities, especially the Dublin ones, is such that every assessment, whether it’s the final exam or some form of continual assessment, will be a high-stakes one. So pressure and stress is unavoidable.
And when the stakes are high, the learning process becomes dominated by tactics rather than real learning. This is compounded by the fact that a high stakes system requires that marking schemes be tightly defined and highly transparent because transparency and fairness are seen as inextricably linked.
So, as long as the entire system remains as it is we are in something of a bind and radical thinking will be required to get out of that bind. The problem is that our education system is a bit like the health service – there are an awful lot of vested interests involved. For example, much of what the universities do is effectively a taxpayer-funded subsidy to the private sector. Why, for example, would a student study, say, actuarial mathematics at university? The answer? To gain exemptions in the professional actuary exams. So, in effect, when universities teach subjects like actuarial maths, they are doing the spade work for the financial sector. And it’s not just maths: you could make the same argument about law, accountancy and perhaps even engineering. But no university is going to divest itself of these highly prestigious disciplines.
So how do we proceed? I think the problems we face are a bit like the housing crisis. The pressure on school-leavers is not unlike the pressure on workers trying to find affordable places to live. Most reasonable people recognise that the solution to the housing crisis is to provide a greater supply of affordable housing. Likewise, the solution to our problems in education might be to create non-traditional routes to high-demand careers – the careers that are causing all the stress at second level – not just those careers that you would typically associate with the IoT sector.
Unfortunately, I think it’s a case of “good luck with that”.