While the rest of us are enjoying spring as it gets into its full flow, some 59,000 students around the country will be expected to have their heads buried in books as they cram in every last little fact they can before their doomsday June exams.
With its emphasis on rote learning, the disproportionate value it places on ‘book smarts’ over other types of intelligence, and its excessive amount of ‘teaching to the test’ – the leaving cert has attracted plenty of criticism.
The Leaving Cert’s limitations are described very well by Aine McMahon has in her article for the Irish Times:
“Is it possible to devise a selection mechanism that’s fairer than the CAO? It’s transparent and objective only if you believe it’s fairer that wealthier students can pay for grinds and extra tuition…
No other country is looking to our school-leaver’s final exam as the panacea. Teachers and students know rote learning is the key to Leaving Cert success. Critical-thinking skills, team work and all the things employers say they are crying out for are beaten out of students in the race to maximise points.
Students learn off essays and sample answers and shoehorn them into whatever question appears on the day instead of demonstrating critical thinking or deep understanding of what they have learned.
Who is served by this? For students, learning a narrow range of material in a superficial way with no ability to analyse and evaluate the information means trouble when they hit third level. It doesn’t serve teachers either, as they have to condense subjects by focusing on what is likely to come up instead of encouraging higher order or critical thinking.”
Defenders of the Leaving Cert claim that there are no alternatives or that the leaving Cert is the best of a bad bunch of options.
However if you scratch the surface these claims don’t really hold true.
Despite the lack of information on leaving cert alternatives readily available in schools, you don’t actually have to scratch that hard to find out about other options available.
Leaving Cert Alternatives
In Ireland we have a number of alternate paths to college or work but we don’t promote them very well.
What once were FETAC courses are now administrated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and offer a viable and often preferable route to college where the Leaving Cert is not a good fit, as is often the case.
These courses are often referred to as PLCs, standing for Post Leaving Cert courses. This is a misnomer, as you do not have to have sat the leaving cert to do any PLC course.
There are QQI courses in every subject, including law, health science, nursing, arts, engineering and computer science.
In 2016, 10,880 students with PLC qualifications were offered places in third-level courses, according to Central Admissions Office (CAO) statistics.
QQI courses can be converted into a maximum of 400 CAO points. It’s much more feasible to get the maximum from QQI, if you do what it says on the tin and complete each assignment on time and to the course specifications and you can expect to end up with 8 distinctions and the maximum 400 points.
Obviously, some courses require more than 400 points for admission, and in these cases, its best to do a QQI which will directly lead into the course you’re interested in. QQI courses can be converted to points, but some offer a direct progression into university courses that accept them as sufficient grounds for acceptance by themselves.
“Using the QQI progression routes tool, you can find a list of the nearly 700 CAO courses that will accept any QQI award for progression, or if you know the QQI code for a course you are interested in, you may be able to find even more.”
There is a problem with supply and demand in some instances, just as there are with CAO applications via Leaving Cert points. For example, there tend to be more people studying nursing FETAC courses than there are FETAC places. Still, there are numerous options for people with QQI nursing qualifications in the UK, and 500 QQI nursing graduates availed of that option last year.
At the moment, for students in our school, QQI is a viable option. In fact, in any situation where there is a QQI path to a students goal, that is the path I would recommend in place of the Leaving Cert. Which is the better option – study something you’re interested in for one year, leaving room to maintain your mental and physical health and pursue other projects and interests that have meaning for you? Or grind through two years of all consuming rote memorization of test answers?
Leaving Cert Applied
The Leaving Cert is regularly criticised for its pressure cooker-style final exams and rote-learning.
Wouldn’t it be better if there was a more practical option for students who struggle with the Leaving but could flourish if tested on a broader range of their abilities?
It turns out that there is. It’s called the Leaving Cert Applied. The only problem, say teachers, is that it is being neglected by policy-makers and damaged by the perception that it is only for “weaker” students.
Work experience is a significant portion of the course, and marks are awarded for final exams, attendance and course work. Students also cover traditional areas such as English, maths and Irish, but not in the way most people might recognise: there are shorter exams and a greater focus on project work.
Obviously coming from a democratic schooling perspective, we feel the Leaving Cert Applied has a lot of room to improve, its still too exam focused, and could benefit from a lot of the ideas applied in a project in the US called ‘the Independent Project’. The Independent Project involved students, in collaboration with their teachers, setting goals and choosing individual and group projects at the start of the year and being graded based on criteria they helped to come up with. Some people repaired cars, others started community gardens, others took flight lessons.
On a weekly basis, the students convened on a Monday to decide what questions they would investigate that week. On the Friday they presented their findings.
If Sudbury is too liberated to be integrated into the structure of mainstream schooling, then maybe something like this could be the halfway house that works for everyone.
The Leaving Cycle, like the Junior Cycle before it, is now under review and an overhauled (and rebranded) Leaving Cert Applied could be the key to revitalising our education system and ensuring everyone within it can thrive.
Beyond that, why not expand the likes of the Trinity Access Program and feature weighting in favour of students from different backgrounds across the system. College should reflect the demographic spread of the society around it after all, not just reproduce the same social order generation after generation.
Expanding Paths to University
On a broader scale though, there needs to be a big expansion of this type of path to college.
Research by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) shows huge disparities in respect of equality of opportunity for PLC access around the country.
Currently there is a cap of 31,600 approved PLC student places in schools/colleges which have a track record in delivering PLC courses.
A 2011 TUI survey showed that there were three applications for every course in the country last year. In addition, all colleges reported an increase in the number of recently unemployed seeking to upskill.
I’ve found it difficult to find up to date information on this, but as far as I’m aware, the cap of 31,600 QQI places is still in effect. This means a huge amount of applicants do not get into PLC courses each year. It’s a policy that makes no economic sense given the fact that the cost of providing extra places would be offset by the amount of students who would no longer be on social welfare as a result of accepting them.
Besides, there needs to be enough QQI places so that people do not have to move away from home in order to complete a one or two year course. That simply makes no financial sense and is not an option for most people.
Is the Leaving Cert Fair?
The Leaving cert is said to be fair. It’s just you against the exam, anonymous and standardized. However, the reality is that coming from a home where there is a nutritious lunch in your bag and warm meal on the table every evening, your parents have the time and education themselves to give you extra help, or the money to pay for grinds or grind school, is still going to be a huge leg up.
Unfortunately, no matter what system we employ, the reality is that if we live in a very unequal society, some children are going to have advantages over others regardless of whether assessment is administered via exams, continuous assessment, projects or whatever.
We must create built-in checks and balances so that people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds have that weighted in their favour. One example of this is the Trinity Access Program, where 20% of places are reserved for minorities and those on lower incomes. If we do not take proactive steps to ensure there is a student-body as diverse as the society around it, then college will just reinforce societal inequality, instead of being the engine of social mobility it has the potential to be.
The use of grinds also starkly illustrates the inequalities that give wealthier students a leg up. Nearly half of 17- and 18-year-olds surveyed by the ESRI for the Growing up in Ireland study took either one-to-one or group grinds. Nearly two-thirds of teenagers from homes in the highest income category did so, compared with a third in homes with the lowest incomes.
A more comprehensive set of predictors than Leaving Cert results is needed to ensure our colleges are more diverse and social mobility can be achieved. Contextual information such as family background, work experience, subject weightings, college assessment, interviews and even a lottery system could all be considered. Many of these selection mechanisms have been tried, or are still in use for some courses in the CAO system.
Exploration not examination
We already have FETAC courses and university courses that accept students based on portfolios. There’s no logistical reason why we can’t expand that.
Continuous assessment seems great, but it puts a constant pressure on in a time that should be all about dabbling, experimentation and trying out lots of new things. Continuous assessment has as many disadvantages as advantages. Students often don’t feel comfortable with the person testing and grading them. They are constantly trying to impress their teacher or mentor, so they’re afraid to be wrong with them and color their perception in a negative way.
So, if your teacher, the person who is meant to act as a mentor and nurture your learning, is also the person whose opinion of you will determine your success, then it is very difficult to approach your relationship to them with the kind of open and experimental attitude that is most conducive to understanding.
School should be a place of exploration. Currently, 1 in 6 students drop out of their first year in college, and the fact is, a lot of this is down to a dearth of opportunities to figure out where your interests lie in school. You cram for your exams, head stuck in a book for two or three years, and when it comes to choosing what you want to study, you have little or no practical experience with any of the available options.
While we haven’t had anyone reach graduation age yet (our oldest students are 16) research from other countries shows that Sudbury graduates who do choose to complete the state exams in their country via self-directed learning, have average scores above the average scores nationwide. This holds true in the US, for example. So, if someone chooses to study the Leaving Cert with our support in the school, there is good reason to think they’d have every chance of achieving their goals via that route as well.
School should be the place to figure yourself out, do projects, try and fail and fail again; then college can test your aptitude. Democratic schools like Wicklow Sudbury give students a chance to try things out and, when students fail, they are not punished, but rather they gain valuable knowledge for their next project. At Wicklow Sudbury, we’re proud to be offering students this opportunity. But it’s not enough. Every school in Ireland should support and discuss alternatives to the leaving cert. This will not only be transformative for the young people who chose alternative paths, but also for those who decide to remain on the route of traditional education because those students will have chosen their path knowing they had other options. They won’t be wondering if they are only on that path because they have to be.
What have your experiences with the Leaving Cert been? Share this post if you think it’s time to leave the Leaving Cert behind!
Written by Bernard Moran
Graphic by Rachel Kuhn