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Leaving Cert student: Is the 2021 CAO fiasco proof that the 'points race' has been run?

Luke Heffernan missed out on his dream course this year – he feels the ‘points race’ is redundant.

Luke Heffernan

Updated Sep 9th 2021, 2:04 PM

THE LEAVING CERT exams have been underway for almost a century. They are a rite of passage for so many students.

Some believe these exams are necessary to assess the worthiness of our young people so that they may accordingly be squeezed into courses that have a shockingly limited number of places.

The ‘hard reality’ of this year’s exams has meant that even the most hard-working students have been sieved out of their first choices and forced to settle further down their CAO list.

How can we possibly believe that the Leaving Cert and the CAO points race system is the best way to go from here on out when this is happening?

Facing challenges

It wasn’t until the summer before 5th year that I shifted my sights away from Veterinary Medicine towards a career in Medicine. My sister had just been diagnosed with a rare form of Leukaemia that of course shook my own as well as my family’s lives.

The treatment, late nights home, long drives and struggles flowed well into my Leaving Cert studies. It was some time during this dark period that I knew I wanted to be a doctor, someone who could help people like my sister survive these speed bumps in health that knock us off our feet and cause us to question what matters.

This family trauma launched me into action, from the get-go I had my goal in sight, I was ready to do everything in my power to try and grasp my fingers around an intensely sought place in medicine.

I still have nightmares thinking about the late-night study, denying my parents’ worries that I was ‘taking the study too far’ and promising them ‘I’ll go to bed soon’.

Coupled with the Leaving cert stress came the all dreaded Health Professions Admissions Test (HPAT), what many believe to be the biggest hurdle to get over when applying for medicine, a cut-throat exam where the average score out of 300 is 150. The sheer joy I felt when I scored a very competitive 171 (in the 80th percentile) – foolishly the first thing I shouted when I saw I managed it was ‘I’m going to get in, I did it” – that joy has now been grasped and shattered.

From joy to disappointment

That jubilance was furthered even more when I opened my Leaving Cert results on that sleepless Tuesday morning to see that I had scored the sacred 625 points, the sheer happiness that I felt thinking that my hard work had more than paid off was indescribable.

I also later discovered that in the six exams I did sit I scored all top grades, so the accredited grades process actually didn’t inflate my results at all.

This remarkable score combined with my HPAT score left me with a total of 736 points to apply to medicine with a score that would award me with a place in medicine in any university of my choosing in any other year and declare me the first doctor in my family, while also making my school, a DEIS school very proud also.

I was joyous, I was ready to celebrate, and was ready to open the CAO this Tuesday and accept my shiny offer for medicine despite talk of a points rise. I was sure that there was no possibility that points for medicine would soar to the heights I had scored. Of course, I was wrong.

When I opened the impersonal email from the ‘Central Applications Office’ to see that I had been offered my 6th choice the tears and disbelief all came at once. ‘There must be a mistake’ was the mantra that left my lips at least a dozen times as I held my face in my hands. All my efforts, all my hard work, seemingly not good enough.

Telling my family was the hardest part, after having been so confident. Having to tell them that I hadn’t got an offer for medicine, the one thing I dedicated almost every minute of the last two years to achieving was both gut-wrenching and admittedly humiliating.

Medicine in NUIG rose nine points (the equivalent of 45 leaving cert points) to 737, one point more than I achieved. Now I’m faced with the heavy decision of accepting my 6th choice or taking a gap year to try again.

The system is broken

I’m around long enough to have learnt that you don’t always get what you want in life. It’s easy for those who have long finished this exam to exclaim that we, the class of 2021 will have ‘lots more opportunities in the future’ and that we should just get on with it.

That might be a fair assessment was it only a few of us complaining. But, there are hundreds of students like me who despite their best efforts, sweat and tears have not been offered the course they have dreamed of. Something is really wrong this year. There is heartbreak and disappointment throughout the country on the back of the ‘points race’ – a wholly disrespectful phrase to use when discussing the future of a generation in the first place.

I’m sick of hearing TD’s and many others saying insensitive things like ‘that’s the way it is every year, the hard reality is that not everyone can get their first choice’. But when students who put all they have into their work, follow the saying ‘you reap what you sow’ to the best of their abilities and still don’t get rewarded for their work there is something systematically wrong.

Yes, we are coming out the other side, hopefully of a global pandemic. It has upended our society, it’s been tough on everyone, including exam year students. But, we can’t pretend that the Leaving Cert system had been working all along and that 2020/2021 exams are an anomaly. At least, let’s have an honest look now at this flawed finale to an otherwise excellent secondary education system and use this upset, this crisis as an opportunity to fix it.

It is very easy to blame the ‘dual approach’ system that came with this year’s Leaving Certificate, to blame the teachers for being ‘too generous’, but have we ever stopped and thought maybe that these inflated grades aren’t the problem, our focus should be on the system that has not changed majorly since its inception in 1925?

For the first time, we’ve seen people lose their desired course due to random selection despite achieving 625 points. This to me proves that the dreaded ‘points race’ can go no further, the final whistle has blown and the ribbon has been cut.

We need far greater investment into third level from our government, we need college administrators to act instead of calling for a return to a ‘normal’ exam system, we need third level institutions to demand the funds so they may greatly expand capacity, we need the minister for education to finally break away from the ‘traditional leaving cert’ and move towards a system that assesses students on more than just rote learning, but on their ability to adapt and challenge themselves.

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In Ireland, we need to be able to offer a place in third-level education to anyone who desires one. We’re one of the few countries that rely solely on exam grades for third-level entry. Most top-tier institutions in other countries require interviews to ensure proof of interest in the desired course, but the Irish system is different, with no questions asked.

Thankfully, my sister has recovered from her illness, in no small part due to the excellent care she received from medical teams in Irish hospitals. Their knowledge and professionalism inspired me to go for medicine, and I believe the best doctors are not just those who scored high points in the Leaving Cert aged 17/18, but those who possess the empathy, emotional intelligence and exemplary work ethic that is required in this job. It’s a shame that the ‘points race’ excludes many deserving candidates from medicine and other courses like this.

Nursing pioneer Lilian Wald once said that ‘reform can be accomplished only when attitudes are changed’. I believe Education Minister Norma Foley’s and many others’ attitudes to the ‘brutal but fair’ Leaving Cert seems are stuck in the past.

In a time where everything we have known has been turned on its head due to the pandemic they too should realise that the Leaving Certificate exams should follow suit and be redrawn from the ground up. It’s time we force them into the present with our voices, demanding a fair system that doesn’t measure our abilities out of a mere number – 625.

Luke Heffernan is a Leaving Cert student from Avondale Community College in Wicklow.

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