Missing the point(s)

On October 21 the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Skills had a discussion on ‘Second Level Curriculum Reform’. The Committee heard evidence from a number of key individuals in secondary education, including representatives of the teaching trade unions, the Teaching Council, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The discussion was wide-ranging and covered the curriculum generally, new or revised second level courses, the reform of mathematics teaching, the teaching of Irish, investment in education, and so forth.

However, what is striking is that no participant in the discussions mentioned the ‘points system’ administered by the Central Applications Office (CAO). As I have mentioned before, the points system has for some years now undermined the Leaving Certificate curriculum, secondary school teaching and learning methods, and degree programme choices in the final year at school. It has in my view become the chief obstacle to secondary education reform. The universities, which control the points system, have not acted to correct its failings, and increasingly it appears to be regarded as some sort of force of nature that cannot be adjusted.

In a country that aims to encourage a majority of young people to take a higher education degree programme, the entry qualification for universities and colleges and its requirements will automatically be the driving force in secondary education. It is therefore vital that this does not have a negative influence on curriculum development, learning methods and career choice. In the Irish case, the CAO points system manages to exert that negative influence decisively under all headings. Its reform must be a priority, and this must be recognised both by those involved in running secondary education and by the universities. It is wholly alarming that this does not appear to be the case.

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13 Comments on “Missing the point(s)”

  1. copernicus Says:

    English UCAS provides guidnace points, but mainly the central university application collection agency. English universities can alter their entry UCAS points
    as they do in clearing.

  2. Al Says:

    Have to disagree.

    The CAO system reflects the competition we as citizens/ parents/ students have engaged in. In as much as we can create a system that delivers immediate outcomes that is relatively fair and efficient, this is it!!

    One problem I see is that anyone who has finished second level in Ireland has had to do the leaving cert, with a questionable percentage of it being of any utility.

    We should be looking at a proper streaming system here that brings people to some capitalization of their potential.

    This isnt a statement proposing a higher/ lower catagorisation of ability, rather allowing people the opportunity to manifest their abilities within the educational system, be it technical, artistic, literary, scientific, etc.

    There are too many subjects to cover, to too deep a level. Any improvements in quality of any subjects comes at a cost to the student time available to the other subjects.

    Give or take subject type, the main skill set students engage in is the practice of exams, assisted by the necessary time management called cramming.

    Academics may complain that 1st year students come in unprepared for the third level experience, but the students come in with the most important skill set in their eyes: exam cramming.

    But because we are a smart economy and world class leader in education we dont need to look at this, nor address the question of whether we are becoming the most qualified educational system in the world while also ignoring the question of post qualification capabilities.


    • The CAO points system may be all sorts of things, but it certainly isn’t ‘fair’ or ‘efficient’. It distorts learning methods, it gives disproportionate advantages to wealthier students, it pushes people into inappropriate career choices, it complicates curriculum reform. It is the primary problem in Irish education today.

      • Al Says:

        Apologies, on the phone, third attempt at a reply.

        Learning method is degraded in achieving the necessary economy to cover so many subjects. Agree with you that grade importance also corrupts method.

        Any change to the system will have time cost and quality implications.
        Any attempt to improve quality will have time and cost implications, the need quantification.
        Forgive the silly example, but if an attempt was made to take the wealth advantage out of this, thru a points handicap based on wealth similar to golf, there would either be an exodus of these students or the creation of private third level entities to charge for the privilege.

        My second attempt was a better reply than this one!

        • copernicus Says:

          @Al
          “..there would either be an exodus of these students or the creation of private third level entities to charge for the privilege..”

          Any egalitarian approach without common sense ends in total malfunction like the UK NHS where it works for those employed in it, like my GP who says that we should be prepared to die waiting for an operation for the sake of saving the system, but then he has a private medical insurance. The current small selective grammar school system works very well for the Labour politicians’ children, whilst they have devised an egalitarian inner city comprehensives for the rest of us, and parents worry daily about their children coming home with knife wounds.

          The best Russell Group (RG)universities will go private eventually as the government hammers them to take in students with weaker entry points, but it does not mean more govt dosh for others. If not-wealthy realise that university education is worth having, then they do their best to send their children to privatised RGs, the same way as more and more of them having private medical insurance now.

  3. copernicus Says:

    I cannot believe that being wealthy is a sin (I am not wealthy but many of my students are as they run successful businesses)as also being in science and technolgy where we are accused of being not open minded to swallow what humanities academics dish out to us.

    There is considerable social engineering as academia is politicised not by politicians but a certain section of academics and aided by the administrators, and they do not rest until they tinker with the working system so much that it comes off its base. Then what? We jolly well trash any one with a few bob, any one who wants to study science and any one whose parents have gone to universities dares to get good A level grades,…

    @Al: “The CAO system reflects the competition we as citizens/ parents/ students have engaged in. In as much as we can create a system that delivers immediate outcomes that is relatively fair and efficient, this is it!!”

    Mark me, you are in a minority!

    • Al Says:

      I am all for ironing out the inequalities in as much as is possible.
      Accepting that education is the silver bullet, one also has to face the danger that educations original purpose, choose your own definition, but for the purposes here: “the development of knowledge, skills and ability”, can be endangered or ecclipsed in using education solely as a societal equalization tool.

      • copernicus Says:

        Couldn’t agree with you more! But then, I am accused of dominating the discussion here!! I have posted elsewhere the status of the completely dysfunctional UK NHS and the English comprehensive school system driven by “societal equalization tool” (can I use it elsewhere with your permission and attributing this to you ofcourse?) But then I walk to work/take a bus/train/tube, my egalitarian-minded Guardian reading colleagues have their VWs, Fords and some with BMWs.

      • Al Says:

        Hi Just to develop that point a little further.

        Social equalization is a good thing in and of itself.
        But it cant just remain as a political instinct ignorant of the fact the other peoples money is being spent on it.

        While it is the instinctual commitment that fuels the advocate of equality, instinct often isn’t the best means of deciding best outcomes.

        Advocates of equality have to as harsh in evualating success/failure as critics of their efforts are.

        Further it can blind one to successes and failures of particular efforts or recognition of the varities of effectiveness.

  4. copernicus Says:

    @AL three words have a lot of ringing: remember: ” naughty but nice”

  5. kevin denny Says:

    While the CAO system does appear to have many of the invidious properties ascribed to it here, I think its not the ultimate cause. So abolishing the CAO doesn’t solve the problem because it depends on what you replace it with.
    So what is driving the points race? Excess demand for places. The points system is an efficient way of rationing those places, efficient in an administrative sense that is. It may not be efficient in a deeper sense because it doesn’t ensure that lots of very good students get to where they should be. But that is driven in turn by the fact that people’s attainment at the Leaving Cert is to a large extent driven by parents’ SES. This has been well documented (by me amongst others). So its not fair either.
    So what to do?
    (1) Ensure that educational attainment is not determined by an accident of birth. This means figuring out why kids in Dublin 4 do so much better than in Dublin 10. And then doing something about it.
    (2) Increase the number of places such that there is no rationing.
    (3) Take much of the heat out of the system by moving to a US system where the high demand/professional degrees are graduate entry.
    (4) Replace the current system with one where a minimum entry level is decided on academic grounds (“How good do you have to be to do medicine?”) with places amongst those able enough randomized.
    I think that resource constraints imply that the chances of (2) or (3) happening are approximately 0. Vested interests will ensure that progress on (1) will continue to be glacial. (4), Ferdinand’s idea I believe, probably wouldn’t fly – far too radical.
    So I think our educational system will continue to be managed much like our economy: do as little as possible as late as possible, never confront vested interests, never admit there is a fundamental problem and, if all else fails, blame foreigners.

  6. Perry Share Says:

    As ever, the challenge is to come up with a workable alternative. The way the CAO works, the whole process of ‘sorting’ students takes place in about 2 weeks from mid-August to early September. The level of resource for each institution is manageable, transparent and relatively immune to pressure from TDs, bishops or mammies.

    There are a range of possible alternatives, for example use of personal statements; matriculation exams set by institutions; interviews; aptitude tests; lotteries &c.

    All of these are relatively resource hungry and where are the extra hours to come from? Also they are arguably open to manipulation by vested interests.

    Furthermore, the well-heeled denizens of private schools will always find a way to maximise their chances – if entry to medicine was based on singing-and-dancing ability they’d be lined up outside Billie Barry’s!

    So, if there is to be an alternative to the ‘points system’, which undeniably does skew how teaching and learning are conducted at second level, lets see it spelled out! (It could be included in a posting together with the equity-enhancing tuition fees system we are all anticipating.)


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