Solving the Leaving Cert Problem

Roddy Doyle is the latest high profile person to suggest that the Leaving Cert (LC) is not fit for purpose. Although best known as a writer, Doyle is a former teacher in a disadvantaged school so his opinion should be treated with a bit more respect than that of, say, David McWilliams, who has dismissed the Leaving Cert as little more than a “pub quiz”. Nonetheless, I think his comments are useless, in the sense that they don’t contribute anything useful to the discussion.

When talking about “the Leaving Cert”, we have to consider three aspects of the problem:

(i) the curriculum itself, (ii) the method of assessment and (iii) the fact that for the majority of students the LC is effectively an entrance exam for higher education.

Unfortunately, commentators have a tendency to dismiss the entire senior cycle on the basis that the method of assessment is (in their eyes) not fit for purpose. Radical change is suggested, a suggestion usually accompanied by claims that the world is so different now, and changing so rapidly, that a shift from knowledge to (21st century!) skills is required. It is interesting that the NCCA, in their design of the Junior Cycle “curriculum”, have plenty to say about skills and attributes but very little to say about what a 16 year-old should actually know.

The most common argument against the LC exam is that it is merely a test of rote learning. “Rote learning” is never clearly defined but I think we can safely say that most people take it to mean memorisation without understanding.

The problem with this argument is that memorisation without understanding is, as Dan Willingham has shown in his book “Why don’t students like school”, very difficult indeed. That’s why when IT people encourage us to use meaningless passwords for our computers, we ignore them. Our ability to recall information is very much intertwined with that information having meaning for us. For me, learning off a paragraph about a cricket match would be easy but for someone who has no understanding of the game, it would be very difficult.

So the “rote-learning” as employed by students in the LC (e.g. memorising essays) is not rote learning at all: it’s tactical memorisation and it’s an intelligent approach to meeting the demands posed by the types of questions that appear on LC papers. If we feel that there is too much tactical learning by students, we should focus on the type of questions we’re asking and not throw our hands in the air and call for a radical overhaul of the entire system.

Anyway, when it comes to reviewing the senior cycle, we must first look at the curriculum. The current senior cycle is technically “knowledge rich”, meaning that knowledge is at the core of the system: detailed syllabi are provided for each subject. Hopefully that emphasis will remain because without knowledge, all those nice “21st century skills” like problem-solving and critical thinking are impossible. The evidence for this is irrefutable: critical thinking requires relevant domain knowledge.

We then come to the method of assessment. The usual response to the deficiencies of the LC exam is to call for more continuous assessment. The argument is that this would enable us to test a wider range of knowledge and skills and reduce the stress on students. This is a reasonable argument and indeed continuous assessment is widely used in third level for this very purpose. However, the big difference between continuous assessment used in university and that used in the senior cycle, is that in the senior cycle, every single assessment would be of a high stakes nature. Therefore, by changing to a system involving a substantial amount of continuous assessment in all subjects, we might sleepwalk into creating an even more stressful environment where students feel they have to abandon all extra-curricular activities. Furthermore, continuous assessment comes with all sorts of obvious problems related to fairness and authenticity that I won’t go in to here. Suffice to say that CA is not a panacea.

The final aspect of the senior cycle to examine is the link between it and higher education. No matter how much tinkering you do with the points system or indeed any other entry system, the fundamental problem is that, like the housing market, demand greatly exceeds supply especially in high prestige courses. But the universities have very little capacity to increase student numbers.

So how did we come to find ourselves in this position? In my view, we’re here because of the unintended consequences of placing so much emphasis on third level education coupled with the marketisation of the university sector.

When governments decided, as far back as the 1980s, that Ireland’s future lay in becoming a “knowledge economy” and that the way to achieve this was to increase third level participation rates, it unwittingly triggered a rat race that would inevitably put enormous stress on young people while, paradoxically, perpetuating inequality. The intensity of this race was increased by the marketisation of the university sector worldwide. This is not necessarily a criticism but “marketisation” is a word that does reflect the undeniable fact that universities began to see themselves as in competition with each other and they vied with each other for prestige in the form of high-points courses, impactful research, enhanced engagement with society and endless initiatives designed to differentiate institutions from each other. The creation of DCU and UL (formerly NIHE, Dublin and NIHE, Limerick) with their unashamedly vocational ethos may have been a factor in the gradual shift towards instrumentalism in higher education.

In any event, universities now saw themselves in a battle for high-point students eager to study courses that would set them on a guaranteed, and in some cases lucrative, career path. It is not uncommon now for universities to highlight the high employment rates of their graduates and, increasingly, the earning potential of those graduates.

One way to attract high-point students is to offer courses that were previously provided by the professions. Law courses sprung up all over the country and accounting degrees providing exemptions from the professional exams became the norm where once they were rare and possibly unique to DCU. Maths departments struck gold when they moved in to the actuarial mathematics ‘market’ thus disenfranchising the smart kid from a disadvantaged background with an A in Leaving Cert maths. Nursing schools became a feature of most institutions although that was driven to a significant extent by the medical world, especially the nursing profession itself. But universities were happy to oblige.

By hoovering up all of these professional courses and incorporating them in to their own portfolios, the institutions inadvertently helped to create a society of have and have nots. The lifetime financial benefit of a third level education is higher in Ireland than anywhere else in the world and while people use this statistic as a way of demonstrating the ‘value’ of higher education, it could also be seen as an indicator of inequality caused by an excessive emphasis on university education. If you can’t afford to go to university, many doors are closed to you and, realistically, you are going to earn less.

Of course all of this suits the professions and employers generally. Why employ a teenager just out of school when you can employ a graduate? Why have a situation where one of your trainees has to do six exams, with all the study leave that would involve, when you can employ a graduate who only needs to do three exams?

So, the current situation suits everyone except the school-leaver and, especially, the kid from a disadvantaged background who cannot afford to go to university.

The only way to get out of the position we find ourselves in is to provide more non-university routes to high-prestige and high-earning careers. But all the signs are that we are going to continue to do the very opposite.

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