Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Leaving Cert is not Education

Nat O'Connor: The Leaving Certificate results are out today. It is appropriate that there is something of a debate going on about whether or not we should reform the system. Education underpins the economy. Investment in education is the single best way for a Government to increase the earning potential of an individual, and to increase economic growth through their presence in the economy. Therefore, there is every reason to examine whether our current system is fit for purpose.

IBEC claim that the Leaving Cert failed to produce "individuals who were adaptable, could think for themselves and had an appetite to learn" (Irish Independent), while Prof Tom Collins of Maynooth agrees that students don't have the right abilities to do well at Third Level (Irish Examiner). John Walsh lists circumstances where the system is unfair (Irish Independent) and the Irish Times editorial argues that reform is urgent.

The Minster for Education has quickly stepped in and quashed the suggestion of change, stating that "The harsh reality of life is that, over your lifetime, you will always have pressure" and that the current system is the "fairest way". (Irish Independent). There is some truth in the Minister's suggestion that the Leaving Certificate is (or is meant to be) a fair way of allocating college places. The basic problem is that, at some point down the line, success in the points race has become confused with actual education that is beneficial to individuals, the economy and society.

Let's consider three ways of changing the system, which are quick enough to implement.

First suggestion: Shrink the Junior Cert so that it is simply a test of the basics, especially the four Rs - reading, writing, arithmetic and (crucially) reasoning. For people who fail, replace their transition year with a 'second chance' intensive catch up on the basics. Third level institutions should never have to do this.

Second suggestion: Introduce an oral exam for all core subjects, like in France and Italy, worth a small but crucial number of points, so that students have to genuinely know what they are talking about, not just memorise rote written answers.

Third suggestion: Change the model of college recruitment of students. I elaborate this point below.
Let's compare two models. In Model A, colleges only take the best performing students. In Model B, colleges let in greater numbers of students to first year, but then they really have to work hard because a large proportion of them will not make it into second year.

I think the elitist Model A is a major problem. Scarcity of places fuels the points race. It may be easier to adminster for colleges and the Department of Education, but ease of administration should not dictate the choices open to people.

And I don't accept the argument that the Department is skillfully matching the supply of college places to the number of different occupations required in the economy. If that were the case, we would have more scientists! Anyway, many people don't work in the occupations their primary degree prepared them for. Conversely, many occupations don't have an obvious match with a primary degree.

Many primary degrees, notably humanities but arguably all of them to some extent, give people a set of transferable skills that are widely applicable in the economy.

And what happened to choice in a free market? If we had a surplus of doctors, lawyers and accountants, that might nail the lack of deflation among professional fees once and for all!

There is another problem with Model A, which is that some people think that they are purchasing a qualification, and therefore cannot fail. And some colleges, regrettably, seem to go along with this.

Model B is arguably more democratic, but also makes more logical sense too. Why not let every student  enter college once he or she achieves a reasonable target result in the Leaving Certificate (with a high maximum number of places available based on the biggest lecture theatres available). The targets required should be published in advance by the college in question, as UK college's do with A-levels. That will retain some healthy pressure, but not insane competition.

By making the real cut at the end of first year in college, students will be judged on who is actually most suited and best performing at the actual subject. The Leaving Certificate really tells us very little about who will make a good doctor, lawyer, vet, teacher, etc. becaue the relevant subjects are not even on the syllabus.

Implementing Model B would require some of the funding to colleges to follow student's choices, so that highly subscribed courses would get extra money for teaching assistants and tutors. That would mean that some cash would reward teaching excellence at third level, which has been sadly neglected in the culture of 'publish or perish'. It might also require a more formal system for reallocating students who fail first year.

In the longer term, there are of course many more ways that education could be reformed, at every level, with the lack of pre-primary education and basic philosophy (i.e. critical thinking) obvious missing elements. But in the meantime, let us remind next years' students that the Leaving Certificate is only a sort of game; a twisted, artificial competition created out of the unnecessary restriction of the supply of available college places.


Anonymous said...

There is some truth in the Minister's suggestion that the Leaving Certificate is (or is meant to be) a fair way of allocating college places.

It may be an impartial system but it certainly isn't equitable. And there's a big difference.

It's a bit like deciding qualification for the Olympic 100 meter final on the basis of who is best at an archaic event like the hop-skip-and-jump.

Or who gets to be a chess grandmaster via a knock-out round of nine men's morris.

Similarly the leaving cert impartially measures a certain skillset, but those skills of regurgitation-against-the-clock are largely irrelevant in third level education and almost without value in a modern economy.

Brendan Quinn said...

I couldn't agree more. With modern technology, all but the science subjects in Uni that need lab space any student that applies with a basic acceptable level should be allowed into Uni course. With video podcasts, or live streaming all students can have access to the lectures on their laptop. Lecturers would need more time for marking papers but that is easy to overcome.

Jane Gray said...

Interesting discussion.

I worked at a state university in the U.S. where Nat's suggested model of entry to third level education was more or less applied.

I can see why it might be considered more democratic, but I'm not sure that it was necessarily fair to the students (or at least to some of them) from an emotional/psychological perspective. First year in college can be challenging enough, even if you are prepared and have a good chance of making it.

I would suggest that considerable additional resources for mentoring and student support would also be required.

Nat O`Connor said...


I agree that mentoring and support are very important and additional resources would be required for these.

But the sum total of emotional/psychological impact on young people could well be less than the current Leaving Certificate regime.

Anonymous said...

Laim Smullen

In a completely unrelated issue check
This piece out. It contains some
important information regarding the third level fees issue we don’t hear
much in fees "debate" about in the

DIT: fees will not create money for third level

DIT: fees will not create money for third level

Robert Sweeney said...

In relation to Nat’s article (I'm limited by space), I think one of reasons for the underperformance of the Irish education system (accepting its current framework and structure) may be to do with societal factors as much as with the system itself. Since the Celtic Tiger era, and its aftermath, Ireland has become a more unequal country. As I’m sure many of you know from reading The Spirit Level, this tends to put stresses and strains on people across society as a whole. There is increased status competition, aggressive behaviour, less mental and physical wellbeing. Combined with the pressures of consumerism, and its unattainable ideals of how people should look, act, and be in general, I think young people, who are more susceptible to marketing and more insecure in general, are particularly affected by these changes. Having left school 10 years ago, and recently taught in my former secondary school, students definitely act out more and are less well behaved than they used to be. Former teachers of mine tolerate things from students that they didn’t do just a decade previously.
In relation to Leaving Cert pressure, I think because Ireland is so unequal the consequences of not doing well in school are much greater. In Sweden, which has a much more equal distribution of wealth, if you don’t get straight As, and instead become a postman, for example, that’s not so bad - you are not so much down the social pecking order. In Ireland, with it’s steep social gradient, not succeeding in school is much more likely to be detrimental to your wellbeing later in life. That, coupled with the media attention, I think, accounts for the inordinate pressure around Leaving Cert time.

Robert Sweeney said...

I think the underlying pedagogical method/philosophy on which modern education is predicated is flawed - at all levels - primary, secondary, and third-level. Namely, a teacher instructing a group of 30 or so students (or up to 200 in the case of some 1st and 2nd year university courses) of varying degrees of ability, for lengths of time for which it is impossible to maintain attention throughout. Inevitably, some students fall behind, while the more advanced get bored. As alluded to Brendan Quinn, the technology exists to allow students to learn at their own pace through video/podcasts. Thereby students will not move on to another level until they have mastered the previous. This is especially important in the sciences where it is vital to have a strong grasp of previous modules in order to advance to the next. For example, unless you have mastered certain areas of maths there is no way you can progress in physics. You can get away with it in the social sciences - for example, you don't need to know Russian history to grasp American history.

Robert Sweeney said...

I would strongly recommend people visit the most-used online education resource - a free online teaching website. Though focusing on the sciences, it covers a range of subjects through 10 minute or so videos. The response of those who have used it seems to unanimous - it much more efficient than conventional classroom techniques, and even better than one-to-one tuition (when students get stuck they can pause or re-watch a video, whereas even in a one-on-one scenario, students feel under pressure about appearing stupid and don’t always speak up). I have to say the teaching is superior to anything I've encountered. It is also starting to develop interactive software, which generates problems. This is fed into a system whereby a teacher can see which area a student is struggling in. Instead of teaching to a whole class, a teacher can pull aside a few students a help them with the area in which their struggling. For an outline of its philosophy see Having studied science at university, had this been available to me it would have greatly aided me (and some of my grades!) Again I STRONGLY advise people to visit it.

Robert Sweeney said...

Of course this is a radical departure from conventional methods and restructuring education along these lines would face resistance for a number of reasons. Such an overhaul would likely encounter lots of bureaucratic inertia from teachers, department of education, etc. Also, rarely mentioned, I think the modern education system has an important socialising function. It’s authoritarian, competitive nature, in which students have to call their teacher sir or miss, ask when to go to the toilet etc, evaluate themselves and their abilities against their peers, is a way of inculcating obedience and competitive values, thus preparing them for later life employed in modern business. There’s always the danger that people might get the silly idea that they should control their own workplace and I think modern education system kind of knocks such notions out of people’s heads.

Anonymous said...


There’s always the danger that people might get the silly idea that they should control their own workplace

Drop the 'l' from that last word and you've actually hit the nail on the head as to the reality of work for some cutting-edge knowledge economy activity.

Young software engineers are expected to understand their own pace of work, to influence the cadence of a project, to be able to estimate the duration of future tasks, to work in a self-directed manner against a vague and evolving schedule. Which of course many are totally incapable of doing, having had their work-pace dictated to them all through the education system.

On the idea of self-directed learning, in the UK the Open University has been innovating in this area for 40 years with massive success. The government here could do worse things with the education budget than extending the free fees regime to cover OU tuition, at least on a pilot basis for a limited number of students. Maybe redirect some of funding currently wasted on the minor ITs that serve little function other than pork-barreling in marginal constituencies (Tipperary Institute, I'm looking at you!)