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Opinion: If government parties want future votes, they must listen to the Class of 2022

Harry McCann says if the government ignores students’ calls for a change to the Leaving Cert, they risk alienating future voters.

Harry McCann

THEY SAY YOU never forget your first – political party. For this reason, the motion from Sinn Féin in the Dáil this week for a Hybrid Leaving Cert should be viewed as a shrewd move by a party that is rightly tapping into the youth vote.

Likewise, the calls by Labour for the #HybridLC2022 drive. Young people have something to say about the flaws they see in the traditional Leaving Cert system and they should be heard.

For those in power, young people have long been an afterthought. In Irish politics, the generational divide has become a defining factor. Our young people are regularly excluded from the political process and only seem to enter the minds of ministers and spokespeople when a handy scapegoat is required. Covid threw up many an example of this and not only in Ireland.

Opposition parties here at least appear to see the benefit of appealing to the next generation, even those still ineligible to vote. While this might seem like a waste of time (why court those who cannot vote for you?), the experts tell us that there is real value in securing the first time vote. While some research suggests that young people start on the left of the political spectrum and become more conservative with age, political scientists know that your first vote is formative, and voters rarely switch parties.

Who represents young people?

While no political party in Ireland can claim to have a frontbench of young faces to appeal to voters under 30, a few parties have opted to reach the demographic using a strategy that doesn’t solely rely on TikTok.

For Sinn Féin and Labour, this has included taking a strong position on the future of the Leaving Cert. Their political strategists know what those in Government have failed to grasp – to have a fighting chance in the next election, they need to respect the Class of 2022.

While some critics (I believe naively) think otherwise, young people are informed and engaged citizens. We know what we want, and we are equipped with the knowledge that we now have the electoral clout to compete with older demographics at the polls. The vote of traditional demographics like farmers was once the holy grail for Irish political parties, but I would argue they can no longer compete with the generation that has the digital prowess to influence the masses.

A young, engaged population

The growing levels of activism amongst young people have understandably frightened those in power. It was no mistake that the #VoteAt16 movement was not encouraged and embraced.

But despite the best efforts of those in power to stop the wheels of change from turning, the next generation looks poised to become a dominant force at the polls – with a current vision for the future that does not involve business as usual, but rather “anyone but the current lot”.

It was only a matter of time before politicians in Ireland realised that young people have the potential to tip the balance of power.

But political survival is only one reason to embrace the argument for a hybrid exam model. The more apparent and straightforward reason is common sense. We are historically not quick to embrace change in Ireland. We take time to make big decisions. But reform of the Leaving Cert is long overdue. We have quietly accepted an outdated system that has failed too many for too long.

Many of the teaching unions and some universities have recently and curiously attempted to use the growth in top grades during Covid as a reason for a return to the traditional Leaving Cert. They’ve expressed concern about the inflation of grades. But they fail to recognise that it is positive to see more students rewarded for their hard work and determination. We’re also to expect some disruption during a period of change like this.

As author and teacher, Edmond Behan pointed out on Twitter over the weekend; could it be the case that the traditional exam has just systematically deflated the efforts of many students over the years? We should not be fooled into thinking that students being rewarded for their efforts is a bad thing. If anything, it should be the number one reason for the hybrid system to become the norm.

Much has changed in this country since the start of the pandemic. While many of us welcome a return to normality and our old way of life, we need to realise that change in our education system was necessary and should remain. It’s no coincidence that change to our working world is coming too. Dual conversations around hybrid working and hybrid exams should at least serve to remind us that the world in which we live has changed utterly? We must adapt to this new world or lose out.

The educational reasons for Leaving Cert reform have never been enough for successive Governments to embrace changes to teaching and learning. If this is the case again, I urge them instead to consider the political implications for a moment. If they fail to listen to the Class of 2022 and those thereafter, they may need their honours Leaving Cert maths to measure the seismic gap in the polls that will follow.

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Harry McCann is a 23-year-old journalist and award-winning entrepreneur.

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