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Column The Leaving Cert poorly prepares students for the realities they now face

The Leaving Cert is an outdated, crude and brutal instrument that fails to prepare young people for either the realities of third level education or modern life in general, writes Paul Rowe.

ONCE AGAIN THIS year, the sword of Damocles has fallen over a generation of young Irish adults. By now, the Leaving Certificate results have been published, tweeted and texted the world over. There have been whoops of joy and cries of angst as students examined their marks. This is a rite of passage that comes with an almost cathartic sense of relief from students and parents alike.

It is time for us to reflect on what this annual ritual means. The Leaving Cert defines our second-level education system. It maintains a vice-like grip on the type of schooling young people experience. Students are drilled and drilled again in what is necessary to maximise their exam scores. Subjects are often chosen for points rather than for a genuine interest.

The Irish exam system is outdated and crude

The Leaving Cert is an outdated, crude and brutal instrument. It is long overdue for fundamental reform. It perpetuates a system of learning that poorly prepares students for either the realities of third level education or modern life in general.

This high-stakes exam, taken at a particular stage of a student’s life, does not reflect their performance throughout their years in school. It only measures a small segment of an individual’s intellectual ability and completely ignores many human competencies that are crucial for personal success.

At its core, it is a test of memory and writing. It forces our young people to become adept at a two week long marathon of fast and legible hand writing – a skill that they will never ever need again and that has long become obsolete.

The ability to evaluate, research and critically assess

The exam is a test of knowledge of ‘the right answer’ rather than a test of the ability to evaluate, research and critically assess. When students do arrive at their first year in college they are required to sign a ‘non-plagiarism statement’ to affirm that the work submitted is their own. It beggars belief that our system actually drills students for six years to do precisely the opposite.

A much wider range of skills needs to be assessed in order to give young people an accurate picture of their capabilities and knowledge.  This broader means of assessment is also necessary to ensure that students are properly prepared for third level education. Far too much of first year of college is devoted to changing the learning style of students and far too many students drop out when they find themselves unable to adjust

A new final assessment of students at second-level should include a portfolio of their concrete achievements. It should include evidence of innovative project work, for example. It should also measure a student’s abilities in self-management and wellbeing. Students should be able to communicate effectively in the modern world, be critical and creative thinkers, be able to work in teams, develop leadership skills, manage information and have an awareness of intercultural and global issues.

The points system’s failures

Dentistry is one career for which the highest Leaving Cert points are needed. In conversation with a highly successful dentist recently, I asked him what he considered to be the key attributes needed to be a good dentist. His response:

“The ability to visualise in three dimensions. A high level of manual dexterity. A love of the interface between medical science and technology. Empathy with people in pain, who are worried, frightened and in stress. A highly organised and detailed mind. The stamina to do meticulous, high quality, detailed physical work over long periods. The ability to look after themselves, their own feelings and live a balanced life.”

The Leaving Cert, as it is currently configured, does not facilitate these attributes.

Hopefully, the tide is turning. The Minister for Education and Skills is to be congratulated in commencing the reform of the Junior Cycle from September 2014. This introduces a new approach that will encourage group and project work, research, creative and critical thinking skills – precisely what Educate Together wants to implement in its new second-level schools set to open next year.

Exams should be fit for purpose for the 21st century

However, the big prize is to change the final Leaving Cert exam. The first students to complete the new, reformed Junior Cycle will complete 6th year in 2020. We need to make sure that our Leaving Cert or new final assessment system is fit for purpose for the 21st century.

It is time for the State Examination Commission, the Department of Education and Skills and the universities and colleges to acknowledge the necessity for this system of evaluation to change and to work towards a new, fairer and more learner-centred system.

Paul Rowe is the CEO of Educate Together, the representative organisation for primary & secondary multi-denominational schools in Ireland.

Educate Together opens and runs schools that guarantee equality of access and esteem to children, irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background. Educate Together schools are learner centred in their approach to education and are run as participatory democracies, with respectful partnership between parents, pupils and teachers.

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