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.