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O'Casey said: 'Th’ time is rotten ripe for revolution'. Minister McHugh, now is the time to revolutionise the Leaving Cert

Our teacher says that in the midst of this Covid-19 crisis, we need an empathetic response to the Leaving Certificate question.

Anonymous Teacher

FOR A LARGE proportion of Leaving Certificate students the much-anticipated announcement from Education Minster Joe McHugh of the deferral of the exams due to Covid-19 perpetuated rather than assuaged fears.

Students tuned in hoping for a considerate plan of action but were vastly disappointed. In the days leading up to the announcement, young delegates from the Irish Secondary School’s Union of Ireland (ISSU) were hopeful that the minister would really listen to their suggestions.

Unfortunately, the update demonstrated that McHugh, like many ministers before him, was completely unwilling to consider any direct challenges to the traditional structure of exams in this country. Even in the midst of a public health crisis, calls for reform were completely ignored. Despite the majority of students voting against postponing the Leaving Certificate in favour of predicted grades or other strategies, the minister pushed ahead with a traditional agenda.

Slow to change

Although his response has shocked many, it is unfortunately not surprising. In terms of Leaving Certificate reform, the Department of Education remains rigid in its approach to exams. Despite this system of examinations being the subject of much scrutiny through the years where issues such as; exam papers dependence on lower-order questions, the persistence of rote learning, the rising levels of anxiety which in turn has resulted in more special examination centres each year and the increase in students applying through DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) all reformative attempts are quickly diverted from the actual problem of exams towards something else.

The dawning of each new government often brings with it the promise of reform yet the system of exams in Ireland remains the same. The points system as we know it originated in the medical faculty of UCD in 1968 and eventually extended to other departments as demands began to exceed the number of college places available.

In 1978 the Central Applications Office (CAO) was established to handle first-year applications for five universities replacing the open-entry system that previously existed. In 1990 results were computerised, followed by a new grading system in 1992. In 1998 marking schemes were made available to candidates and students could view their examination scripts and appeal results. Aside from these and other investments the Leaving Certificate as we know it today is firmly rooted in its traditional structure.

With each new ministerial appointment to the Department of Education, we see brief dalliances with the idea of continuous assessment or other strategies designed to alleviate the high stakes nature of exams. Instead of changing a structure that excludes so many, the focus of various committees appointed by each Minister for Education quickly turns to something else; a certain syllabus is revised, a new methodology promoted, higher-order questions are administered, SMARTER approaches to revision are endorsed and inevitably teachers find themselves devoting Croke Park hours to these latest endeavours. Despite knowing that these initiatives will not do enough to really address the level of inequality that exists within our schools, teachers and students are expected to row with the tide.

A class divide

As a means of defending this traditional system of exams, we hear the same lines being repeated over and over – ‘The leaving certificate is brutal and fair.’ But fairness and the Leaving Certificate is an increasingly mismatched reality. It is well-established that opportunity structures in education are unequal for a number of reasons. Some students find themselves disconnected for a whole host of explanations; limited subject choices, feeling overwhelmed by the heavy workload or a reluctance to engage with the process of rote learning are just some.

Those invested in education have known that despite many attempts to bridge the gap, a mighty chasm still exists between DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) and Non-DEIS schools. A report published by the Higher Education Authority in October 2019 clearly depicted this troubling reality. Focusing on the socio-economic backgrounds of third level students in Ireland this report discovered that the number of DEIS students in institutions such as University College Dublin is below 5% which is proportionally lower than the percentage of affluent students. The measures in place are simply not enough, more reform is needed.

Instead of considering how this high-stakes exam excludes so many, most recent reforms from the Department of Education have focused instead on encouraging more students to take Higher Level papers. This agenda began with the decision in 2012 to award an extra 25 points to students who passed Higher Level Maths. Plans for this type of reform continued and in 2017 a new grading system was introduced. H1s replaced A1s and so forth. 37 Leaving Certificate points were awarded to candidates obtaining between 30-39% on a Higher Level paper and points awarded for Ordinary Level grades were reduced.

This reform has arguably created a greater gap between Higher and Ordinary levels, with many students believing that the workload and effort required at Ordinary Level is largely ignored because points granted for Ordinary Level marks were reduced.

A recent ESRI report entitled, The Early Impact of the Revised Leaving Certificate Grading Scheme, shows that these measures have done little to bridge the gap between socio-economic groups. The report similarly indicates that as a result of this increasing pressure to take Higher Level subjects more and more students are engaging in grinds.

This ESRI report also demonstrated a worrying consensus among many students that grind teachers are better placed to predict examination content and provide sample answers. Some actually believe that grinds are important to maximise points. Grinds are undoubtedly an inevitable consequence of this high stakes examination system in Ireland, a country where students believe that their self-image is so closely aligned with academic performance.

This may explain why the few advertisements heard on the airwaves during this Covid-19 crisis, aside from government warnings, are grind schools offering online tutorials in key subjects.

Our system of education is in danger of becoming an industry. The gap is growing wider. 

The ESRI report similarly shows, that despite all attempts at introducing new-fangled methodologies students invariable equate good teaching with teaching to the test. Without classroom connections, so many will inevitably fall behind and two weeks in July will never bridge this gap. Teacher’s Unions have already indicated that this time will mostly be used to supervise practical exams that should have taken place months before.

On Friday those who are most vulnerable required an empathetic response but unfortunately, Minister McHugh failed to deliver. Quantitative researcher and author Brene Brown has spent most of her career studying key aspects of the human condition. She describes empathy in the simplest of terms. Empathy fuels connection. In times of struggle, the belief that someone is really listening and understands our pain is essential. As teachers we understand this duty of care, perhaps our Minister for Education and his department heads need to be reminded of its merits.

Now more than ever our students need a minister with the capacity to step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective. Empathy is the only thing that will fuel connection in this time of isolation.

We’ve known for a very long time, for a whole host of reasons, that so many students in our country struggle with this system of exams. Some will triumph. Those who are ambitious may become more instrumental in their focus but those who struggle are at risk of becoming even more disillusioned and unmotivated by a system that is already tremendously challenging in normal circumstances. Many may perish and for what?

Circumstances dictate that the time, in the words of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey is ‘rotten ripe for revolution.’ All that is needed is a cabinet minister with the courage to really consider change. Perhaps the inevitable reshuffle to our interim government will uncover the right candidate to do so.

Spare a thought for students today

In the meantime, students face a massive dilemma. The decision that is currently in place will suit those who are motivated and invested in a system of education that suits them.  Those who can afford it will continue to connect with grind schools. We need the government to recognise the weight of this decision for those who struggle under normal circumstances. Before this education ‘deal’ is sealed we need to consider other ideas.

Now is the time for Minister McHugh to gather innovative educational advisors like those who offered solutions to other government departments including Health and Public Expenditure. Rarely does an empathetic response begin with the words ‘at least.’ ‘At least the exams are postponed until August,’ for so many, this response is inadequate. For so many, this system of exams in no longer fair, only brutal.

Published in 2014, the ‘Leaving School in Ireland Study’ commented upon the profound effect of Leaving Certificate grades on young people. This study noted that stress levels reported midway through sixth year are strongly predictive of stress levels three or four years after leaving school.

We can only imagine the rising levels of stress in this crisis. Rather than quilting students and teachers into compliance, it is time for further discussion. For those who need it most, we need a minister brave enough in the midst of this public health crisis, to really consider a fairer and more reasonable solution.

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Anonymous Teacher

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