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Students at CBS in Westland Row, Dublin sit their Leaving Cert earlier this month Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Column Why the Leaving Cert is broken… by someone who just took it

Patrick Kelleher, who finished his exams last week, explains why the system needs a complete overhaul.

THE LEAVING CERT. I hear you gasp in horror even at the thought. Many of you have been through it. Those countless hours of studying, all culminating in a couple of hours sitting at a desk, with an examiner glaring at you with those unfathomable eyes…

But enough of horror stories. The Leaving Cert is something that we all know is not only troubled, but absolutely laced with difficulties from its feeble beginnings in fifth year to its epic conclusion in June of sixth year.

I’ve just completed the Leaving Cert, and to say that I’m disappointed by a failing system is an understatement. I’m disgusted. The Leaving Cert, very simply put, doesn’t work. This year’s exams have emphasised that.

The Irish exam system has always been praised because it’s thought to be fair. Students are anonymous and there can be no element of bias. But the real problems emerged, most notably, in this year’s now infamous English Paper 2. Anxious students across the country flicked hurriedly to the back page of that pink paper only to find something that a new word would have to be coined for. Pleaney.

This word is now known to students who underwent the shock and trauma of discovering that Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath, the poets who were considered the most likely to appear on the paper, failed to do so.

At first I understood the omission of these poets. After all, they want to make the Leaving Cert less predictable, and stop students from learning things off by rote. But these attempts have, and will fail. Why? Because as long as the system of the Leaving Cert exists, rote learning will take place. Students will continue to learn off essays, because that’s what they have been taught to do by the system itself.

‘We’re taught to be machines’

Isn’t it strange that we spend two years in preparation for this exam, and yet the bulk of the marks are obtained in a two or three-hour sitting? Can somebody explain the logic? Because for me, there is none. And as long as this ridiculous system continues, students will learn off answers. What else can they do? It’s not like we’re taught how to use our brains in school. We’re taught to be Leaving Cert machines. Creations of the State Examinations Commission that exist merely to churn out ‘opinions’ – really just the thoughts of a subject expert, but rephrased slightly.

The puzzled students’ shock was perhaps relieved slightly at this year’s Higher Level History Paper. I for one was puzzled. The paper was… Easy. Yes, it was easy. After the unpredictable mess that was English, for History they gave us everything we wanted. The messages that plagued online message boards were of glee. ‘The essay I learned came up…’

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that these exams in no way test our intelligence, and look at the contrast in these two papers. In one paper, we were challenged perhaps too much. For me, my two favourite poets didn’t appear on the paper, all in the name of making the exam less predictable. On the other hand, everything I and all the rest of the students in the country wanted for History was handed to us on a glorious pink platter. Where’s the balance, State Examinations Commission?

It’s clear that, despite the supposed efforts of the SEC to stop rote learning, they are doing exactly the opposite. These lottery-like exams just tell students to take risks on the day. Serious reform is needed if the Leaving Cert is to survive.

We need more continuous assessment. Why are projects that require so much work worth so few marks? And why are the notorious language oral exams worth 20 per cent of our overall grade? We need a new system of exams that actually test our intelligence – not a system that just tests how well we can cope with exams.

Patrick Kelleher is an 18-year-old Leaving Cert student from Co Roscommon. He writes at and up until recently, spent most of his time fretting over exams.

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