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Opinion: The Leaving Cert might not be perfect but it is fairer than many other systems

The university bribery scandal in the US shows how far some parents will go to secure their child’s college place, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

JUNE HERALDS NOT only the beginning of the Leaving Certificate but also the annual debate about whether the high stake exams are still fit for purpose.

The typical complaints are that the Leaving Certificate causes too much stress and that it fails to develop critical thinking among students.

While there well may be merit to these arguments – finding solutions to these issues is not so simple.

The Leaving Certificate can be pictured as the three-legged stool upon which the entire Irish education system rests.

The three legs are – the format of the exam (mostly supervised exams), the integrity of the exam (students being assessed fairly on their own work) and the consequences of the exam (entry to third-level education).

Trying to change one of these will have far-reaching and possibly unintended, consequences for the Irish education system in general.

That the Leaving Certificate creates tremendous stress for students is the biggest criticism levelled at it. But ultimately it is stressful because third level places are allocated entirely based on scores in the exam.

So to lessen the stress, one must dilute the influence of Leaving Cert scores on college placement. But by doing that, one would destroy the meritocracy that is central to accessing third-level education in Ireland.

One only needs to look at the university bribery scandal in the United States to see the lengths that some people will go to ensure that their offspring get their desired college placement.

In Ireland, the nature of the Leaving Cert removes the temptation to engage in these corrupt practices. But allowing more subjective criteria to be used to allocate course places in third level institutions here would allow for similar issues to arise.

Some may argue that even in our current system, wealthy people give their children an unfair advantage by paying for private schools and grinds. That is true.

But is there any education system in the world that completely negates the educational advantages that come with wealth?

The answer is no and while it has flaws the Leaving Cert offers a relatively level playing field when compared to systems in many other countries.

It is also been argued that the stress associated with the Leaving Certificate could be relieved through continuous assessment, meaning that the educational achievement of students would no longer be entirely dependent on one set of exams over a three-week period at the end of their schooling.

But would this really remove the stress associated with the Leaving Cert?

While the stakes are incredibly high for students come June of their final year of school, they get to spend most of their years of secondary school without incredibly important exams looming over them.

Some students might feel even more pressure if they have to submit projects continuously over a two-year period knowing that each one could potentially determine whether they get the third-level course they want. 

This year Trinity College Dublin moved away from assessing students on the basis of the end of year exams to creating two different exam periods to complement a new emphasis on continuous assessment. But now many students report feeling more overwhelmed than ever before.

The other problem with continuous assessment is that it threatens the integrity of the Leaving Certificate.

As a university lecturer and someone who myself ‘cheated’ in the Leaving Cert, I can attest that the more work that students undertake away from those closely supervised exam halls – the more cheating will take place.

When I cheated in my Leaving Cert – I didn’t think I was cheating. Back in 2002, two of my exams had a research assignment that students were supposed to do on their own over the course of their studies and then write about in the exam.

One teacher simply gave me an essay he had written for me to memorise, while another teacher dictated a field trip report in class for us all to write down and learn off.

Ultimately, in both of these exams, I presented work that I pretended was mine, but wasn’t.

In 2015 a British teacher spoke out about how teachers assisting students to cheat in their in-house assessments was prevalent throughout the education system there. Assessments that should have been done by the student and submitted – were being entirely re-written by their teachers as well as being re-drafted over and over again. 

As a university lecturer in the United States, my courses are graded based on continuous assessment. I regularly catch students cheating on assignments, even though the rewards for successfully cheating are relatively low compared to the stakes involved with state exams in Ireland.

With coveted university places and potentially lucrative careers on the line, it is very likely that some students would cheat on any continuous assessments assignments that were tied to the Leaving Cert.

Therein lies our problem. While many Irish people would like to see substantial reform of the Leaving Certificate, as long as it is tied to university entry – it is difficult to make substantial changes, while continuing to preserve the integrity of the system. 

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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