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The fate of this year's Leaving Cert is uncertain - but it's clear that our Sixth Years deserve better

Teacher Yvonne Brennan asks that the powers-that-be think of the wellbeing of the Class of 2021.

Yvonne Brennan

SO MANY SIXTH Year students are stuck in their rooms these days, starring at an array of icons, in another online Teams’ lesson. Like many of us, their schedules have been disrupted. They are no longer moving from class to class. Instead, they are waiting, waiting for many things and for many reasons.

They are waiting in virtual lobbies, waiting and coping with glitches and poor wifi connections. They are waiting for the next instalment on a certain exam topic. But above all they are waiting for the Department of Education to finally make a decision, on this Leaving Certificate nightmare.

Life for them, like so many of us, feels like some sort of strange navigational device that’s recalibrating its destination with no real idea where this journey might end?

These students are listening to, but at the same time trying to avoid, media speculation. They are hoping for an empathetic deliberation. They are hoping that those making these decisions will step into their shoes and see the world through their lens. They are hoping, like the poet Emily Dickinson that any moment now, sense will break through.

They are hoping that in this broken down world with so many things falling apart, those making the decisions will finally realise that this uncertainty is in turn tearing them apart.

Hopefully, those in charge will recognise that there is a big difference between completing assignments that may be used for predicted grades and studying for exams.
These students, and their teachers, need some clear information on this so-called ‘two-track approach to the Leaving Certificate.’

Legacy exam issues

These decisions are in the hands of an advisory group made up of key stakeholders in education, including representatives of students, parents, teachers, the Higher Education Authority and the National Educational Psychological Service.

This group has been established by The Department of Education to consider all of the various issues arising in relation to holding the 2021 examinations. The class of 2021 along with the Junior Certificate students, who have been largely forgotten, are hoping that this advisory group will consider their views and work together to reimagine a reasonable system of assessment that can work, while we continue to live with Covid.

Many of these students are hoping that those making these decisions will see the weaknesses in the system that existed long before this public health crisis. They know, like most of us, that exams are a metric for a certain kind of achievement, but not all achievement, it really just provides a tiny piece of the picture.

They would love to see the Department of Education expanding its capacity to capture the entire view. They believe that there’s so much more to see, beyond their talent for rote learning.

Thankfully they know that they are not alone in their beliefs. Peter Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College, recently spoke out against the Department of Education’s over-reliance on the written exam and its underuse of other complementary forms of assessment.

Like him, they cannot understand this commitment to a brutal but so-called fair system of examination. Like Prendergast, these students cannot help but question why their final assessments must be brutal, and they wonder by whose measure are they fair?

They believe that this expression is nothing more than a euphemism, used by many stakeholders in education to distance themselves from the brutal truth of this situation, that in Ireland second level students are suffering from anxiety more than any other country in the developed world.

And that even though, since Howard Gardener’s study, we’ve known there’s lots of ways to measure knowledge and understanding, we seem to be intent on holding onto an outdated system of exams that is narrow and inflexible.

Why the intransigence?

These students also realise, like Simon Sinek, celebrated author and much-loved optimist that this finite mindset is restrictive and unjust. They know this limited focus will never instil a love of learning or lead to, what Dr Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, describes as, mastery because their eyes will always be fixed on the end goal, that race for points and college places.

This end goal focus has created a desperately unequal and extremely competitive playing field. It has given rise to a profitable industry of Exam Preparation, which is available only to those who can afford it.

Yet in spite of it all this, these students remain strong. They find comfort in the views of Dr Jal Mehta, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, who recognises that this pandemic has forced us off the daily treadmill of life.

Like her, these students believe that we must now consider the human side of education and that Covid has encouraged us “to look at life circumstances and consider how they intersect with learning expectations.” She and so many other educators have come to realise that the fundamental principles of learning should always be focused on creating successful human beings.

These students feel they know enough to demand better. They believe that the Department of Education should have realised that this year would be no different than 2020 and that they’ve had plenty of time to prepare the playbook on this ‘two-track approach.’

They call on the words of the poet Langston Hughes, to give voice to their situation. “Their awakened eyes can see that this fenced-off, narrow space no longer suits,” them! They would love if The Department of Education could “look out into the world, with eyes no longer blind,” and see the reality of their situation.

They hope that the Department of Education will one day acknowledge the skills these students have to share, beyond the pages of an exam booklet, which will never measure all that they have to offer.

They are hoping that the advisory group, established by The Department of Education, can do the same and soon. They believe there is time to reimagine this year’s process of a college application and that this cannot be the only reason for holding onto this exam.

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Like Peter Prendergast, they do not think that writing thousands of words, as if their life depended on it, is really beneficial or necessary in this Covid crisis?

These students deserve an empathetic deliberation. Let’s hope they get it.

Yvonne Brennan is a teacher working in Co Wicklow.

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