Reforming the Irish Leaving Certificate

One of the recurring themes of this blog since it began in 2008 has been the urgent need to reform Irish secondary education, and in particular the Leaving Certificate. It has been my contention that the Leaving Certificate uses outdated pedagogy, promotes intellectual conformity, discourages critical inquiry, undermines excellence in science awareness and numeracy, encourages inappropriate career choices and disrupts the earlier (or indeed all) stages of higher education.

One of the more heartening aspects of the education debate is that the inadequacy of the Leaving Certificate has become much more of a matter of consensus, now including also the views of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD. In the meantime the President of Dublin City University, Professor Brian MacCraith, has highlighted some of the issues in a most interesting paper delivered at the MacGill Summer School on July 27. In this he argued that success in the Leaving Certificate owed more to ‘stamina’ than ‘intellect’, and did not deliver a ’rounded education’.

It is time to move from a debate on reform to quick and decisive action. Ireland’s ability to recover from the recession depends on this.

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29 Comments on “Reforming the Irish Leaving Certificate”

  1. Al Says:

    Hopefully this will be done right.
    There is just too many subjects on it!
    Can we talk about Irish being optional yet?
    Can we talk about some application of streaming where the option isnt leaving cert or leaving cert lite?
    There isnt enough practical application, consider this in view of the cultural changes regarding work and employment over the last 20 years. Prior to this teenagers could gain working experience alot easier.
    Eoghan Harris had an interesting column in the Sindo last week about our national sense of values when it comes to education.
    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/eoghan-harris/eoghan-harris-cannon-must-save-craft-skills-to-rebuild-manufacturing-base-that-will-lift-us-up-2835991.html

  2. no-name Says:

    Much of the problem is the that teachers themselves, many of them, at least, don’t know their own subject. As a fluent German speaker I decided to sit the Leaving Cert this year, just to see how it works. I can say that the teacher who ‘examined’ the oral part of the exam could not string a simple sentence together. No joke…she asked me “How do you come from?” and “Job…er…am…do you have?”. Much of the reading comprehension paper is in English and candidates are instructed exactly where to find the answer (“answer is in line 12-13”, for example, and they are newspaper column lines). In short, the reading part of the exam is such that a person with no knowledge of German can pass it. The people speaking on the aural exam speak incredibly slowly and it is repeated 3 times. The questions, mostly in English, are such that one could answer them correctly with just a little common sense and next to knowledge of German. The written exam consists of writing down 10 or 12 prepared sentences and most marks are given for content.

    I did a few of the past exam papers in preparation and compared my answers to the answer key provided by the Department of Education, which was very often incorrect. It is shocking.

    I would expect somebody who has been learning German for only a few weeks to ace the exam, even if they hadn’t learned off all their answers beforehand, as is expected. Of course, the candidates also have to contend with the fact that the answer key provided to the markers is often wrong.


    • My goodness, I had no idea it was as bad as that!

      • no-name Says:

        Indeed. However, the marking scheme was, for me, the most disturbing aspect of all. I was shocked to discover that it is devised only *after* the candidates have done the exam. It is also arbitrary in a way that I can only describe as crazy.

        For example, such a sentence would appear in the text in German, “The waitress is twenty years old, has long black hair, lives in Berlin, has two brothers and a cat.” The question would then follow, in English and to be answered in English, “Give three details about the woman!” (yes,there are exclamation marks all over the exam paper). The candidates are told that this is worth, say, 6 marks. However, the marking schemes usually reveal something like this:

        Long hair = 2 marks
        Has a cat = 1 mark
        Is a waitress = 3 marks

        And then the instruction: Do not award marks for “has two brothers” OR “lives in Berlin”.

        • Denis Says:

          That is indeed shocking. Has anyone pointed this out to, say, the Goethe Institute? I was under the possibly wrong impression that the DoE is assisted by the Institute in trying to increase the choice of German as the European langugage chosen by first years.

          But having raised two daughters who have studied French to honours LC level (and done well), yet retain hardly a word of the language having long forgotten the rote answers learned off by heart for the exam, I am not surprised.

          I think one of the major problems with the leaving cert is that in encourages plagiarism in later studies (through its refusal to penalise answers learned off by heart, which no doubt crop up over and over again as an examiner trudges through the manuscripts). I don’t blame the students – they’re only playing the game as required, and it leaves a certain ‘method’ in mind as some students struggle to cope with third level assignments.


  3. We really need to ask why are we hanging on to it so tightly. It is because it is extremely accurate in what it measures and so, extremely fair. This is a case choosing between measuring the right thing somewhat inaccurately or measuring the wrong thing accurately. Unfortunately, it seems politically difficult to go for the former as most people think it is unfair.

    Add to this the fact that vested interests (mostly existing teachers) do not want to see drastic changes in content and methods and you have a fairly intractable problem.

    It often reminds me of the old joke; Q: “Could you tell me the way to Dublin?”, A: “Well I wouldn’t start from here anyway!”

  4. no-name Says:

    There exists also a “closed shop” mentality. If your undergraduate degree is in French and you have a PhD in Chemistry you’ll only be allowed to do your teacher training in French (even though you might not remember a word of it but be an expert in chemistry). I can’t think of any good reason for this, other than to keep people out of the profession, thereby protecting exisiting teachers.

  5. Peter Lydon Says:

    More nonsense from people talking about something of which they know just a little. It is beyond belief that someone of Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s stature would complain that the Leaving Certificate ‘discourages critical inquiry’ and at the same time seem unable to make the distinction between the Leaving Certificate Curriculum (perfectly fine) and the Leaving Certificate Examination system (perfectly not fine).
    Firstly, If Professor MacCriath thinks that the Leaving Certificate (again, no distinction) doesn’t deliver a rounded education, the proposed changes to the Leaving Certificate, which will see the modularisation of the Leaving Certificate Curriculum, won’t give him much solace.
    Quick and decisive action is fine – in battle – but in education, in which it can take years to see the fallout, considered action would be more appropriate. The push to standardised tests in primary schools for literacy and numeracy is a case in point. This is nothing different to the ‘No Child Left Behind’ programme in the US. Instead of improving education, it has damaged it – simply becasue it became a yard stick with which to beat teachers. So teachers responded to the incentive as any human being – they taught to the test. That old favourite, rounded education, suffered. Obama’s intiative was no better – being simply NCLB on speed.
    ‘No-name’ has missed an important point. He/She doesn’t say how they became fluent – are they German? Did he/she live in Germany? In which case they learned a particular dialect. And on hte aural, they spoke incredibly slowly’! Oh come on. Wanting the tape at the same speed as a native speaker is hardly fair.
    The marking scheme is devised after the exam to take account of the students response to the paper and the need to standardise the scores. Interestingly, all his/her comments focus on teh Examination, not the curriculum, or even how it is taught.
    If ‘No-name’ has a degree in French but can;t remember a word of it, perhaps a past university (in which one could study science and languages) coudl explain that one. No-name is worng. If you have chemistry and french, you can get recongition for it. The Teaching Council decides which University course it approves as being appropriate for school teaching. It automatically recognised degrees which were held by exisiting teachers. If one wants to become a teacher, look up their requirements before choosing a college course. It’s nothing different to looking up whether a college course in physics rewquires Higher level maths. Teaching is not a closing profession. The only barrier to entry is the barriers training colleges put in place – and these are mostly to do with the numbers they can facilitate on the course.
    The Leaving Certificate Curriculum is NOT delivered with outdate pedagogy. It is delievered with all the things Ferdinand wants, but ultimately all learning is about memory and the terminal examination is a test of that. Teh critical thinking goes on in the classroom up to a few months before the exam; tat’s when the rote memorisation (note, not rote learning) kicks in.
    In conclusion, one should know what one is writing about before writing.

    • Chris M Says:

      I agree with this. The exam is everything: if it is poor everything is poor.

      So the LC exam is very poor as agreed.
      But the LC curriculum is not.
      And the third, separate issue, is the point system. I would argue that this should not be touched until the exam is improved.

      The easiest thing to change is the exam.

      Imagine for example if the exam was reformed and open book: would that not fix most of the problems?

    • Al Says:

      Good points…


    • Oh my goodness, Peter, you’ve really mixed up a lot of things here and drawn some hugely questionable conclusions.

      First, you absolutely cannot separate the Leaving Certificate curriculum from the Leaving Certificate examination; indeed if you could that in itself would be scandalous. But in reality what is taught in the curriculum reflects what students and teachers expect in the exam, and how they expect to have to tackle it to get the best marks. This doesn’t kick in ‘a few months before the exam’ – it dominates and determines the whole senior cycle, as almost every teacher will confirm. The pedagogy is still dominated by rote learning and by anticipating what’s going to be on the paper. Last year I had an opportunity to speak to a group of LC students from five different schools, all with the same message. The curriculum was rigid (and in their view uninteresting), and could not for example adapt to take in current developments; at that point the students wanted to discuss the social, economic and scientific implications of the Icelandic ash cloud, but were told they couldn’t because it wouldn’t be in the exams. They also complained that they were always expected to be passive learners and had no opportunities for any creative input. The two teachers (from other schools again) also present agreed.

      No-name has also pointed out the bizarre nature of the languages curriculum, which is reflected in the truly terrible language abilities of Irish people.

      You also write: ‘ultimately all learning is about memory and the terminal examination is a test of that. ‘ No, no, no!!! Learning is about developing the mind. Memory is part of that, but only one part, and not the most important.

  6. no-name Says:

    The LC exam reflects the curriculum (if it doesn’t that’s reason enough to change the system). For example, in this year’s higher level German paper, basic words from the reading comprehension were provided in translation, presumably out of fear that students would not be able to recognize them, and thus, not understand the simple text. “To invent” (erfinden) was one of the words which, after six years of schooling in the Irish secondary system, the Department of Education did not believe students would be able to handle.

    The grammar section tested modal verbs. For example,

    “(1) (wollen) Frau Kaspari ______________ noch am gleichen Tag einen Termin beim Chef.”

    For those unfamiliar with the subject that is something I would expect somebody to successfully complete after a week of German lessons.

    Look at the instructions: “Answer Questions 2, 3 and 4 in English.”

    Now, what place does any language other than German have in a German language exam? Is the curriculum, and the teaching of it, so bad that nobody believes that the students would be capable of doing the exam in German, or is that the teachers would not be able to assess the content and accuracy of German answers (I strongly suspect the latter).

    A glance at the text books used for preparation for the LC exam reveals a level that is not beyond that of beginner.

    If one counters this by claiming that it is simply the exam which is improper and thus, that the exam does not match the curriculum, then the person making that claim is also attributing either incompetence or negligence to the teachers who set and mark the exams as well as the teachers who keep silent, knowing that the exams do not match the curriculum (if there really is a mismatch, which I do not believe).

  7. Peter Lydon Says:

    Ferdinand, you said “First, you absolutely cannot separate the Leaving Certificate curriculum from the Leaving Certificate examination; indeed if you could that in itself would be scandalous.” I wasn’t saying they should be separate. I was stating a fact. The curriculum is decided upon by the NCCA. This is a separate body to the SEC. The SEC interprets how the curriculum should be examined. There isn’t a mechanism whereby the SEC can go back to the NCCA to clarify what they meant by a particular provision on the syllabus. The fact that they are separate is part of the problem. We design a syllabus and then the exam. It should be the other way around. Decide what you want students to be able to know/demonstrate/create and then decide the course content.
    You said “But in reality what is taught in the curriculum reflects what students and teachers expect in the exam”. This is incorrect. The curriculum is set by the NCCA and that is what teachers teach. Yes, teachers try to predict what will come up on the exam papers – and as long as there are terminal exams, it will always be thus – and yes they will focus on what they think will come up. However, this is becoming more difficult as the new LC and JC syllabii will be tested in their entirety by the SEC. Therefore teachers cannot ‘get away’ with just focusing on certain topics.
    As a practicing teacher I have to disagree with the assumption that pedagogy is dominated by rote learning. The PDST runs in-services course throughout the year for teachers which focus on implementing varied methodologies in the classroom. Teachers attend these voluntarily and they do so in numbers. As President of the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland I can attest to the fact that teachers want to use varied and interesting methodologies to deliver curriculum targets. But ultimately the exam and the points system demands that they ensure their students have memorized the material they have delivered. In short, the exam can undo the enjoyable aspects of learning a topic.
    Yes the curriculum is rigid – at least of for some subjects. This is because the syllabii are devised without the flexibility teachers would like and usually don’t allow for more topical events. As you know, the syllabi are drawn up by NCCA course committees on which the Universities have representation (indeed, the exams are vetted for standards by the universities also). So in effect, the curriculum is in part decided upon by the universities – the very one who complain about it!!!
    The students who wanted to discuss the social, economic and scientific implications of the volcanic ash cloud should have taken geography. My own experience of this is that every student, in every class, in every subject, wanted to discuss this. It would be nonsense to have a system where this happened. Researchers need to remember the pinch of salt with which to pepper students views – yes, they are valid and important. But in every classroom situation, many, if not most students, would rather do something other than what they were supposed to be doing. Lecturers have this problem with their students Facebooking during lectures!
    What is a pity is that two teachers agreed with the lack of opportunity for creative input. There is always the opportunity – it is up to the teachers. I do an assignment with my senior students where they have to ‘adopt a volcano’. They can present the assignment however they wish – poster, scrapbook, PowerPoint, video and so on. But in the end, they have to be able to write paragraph for the exam on a variety of volcanic topics. The exam takes the fun out of it. What your two teachers said is more a reflection of them than the system.
    A terminal exam is a test of memory. Learning is about developing the mind but memory is by far the biggest part of that. If one had no memory, what would one have? One couldn’t remember something said two seconds ago. This is not to say that learning should be about developing the memory. But when I’m on the slab, I hope my brain surgeon can remember what is a lobe – I don’t what her to be Googling it! Ideally I would be comforted by the knowledge they have *mastery* of their course material. How would one decide they had mastery – that they could demonstrate what they had learned – but to do this they had to access their memory. Certainly practice would help them master the steps they had to take in an operation – isn’t practice rote learning?


  8. I have to agree with Peter that the examination is separate from the curriculum. A perfectly good curriculum can be ruined by poor examination techniques.

    However, i must disagree about the importance of memory. The brain surgeon is an exception and even then only when he is at the operating table. Most situations require other mind techniques.

  9. Chris M Says:

    Peter says “A terminal exam is a test of memory.”

    No, no, no.

    It does not have to be, and it should not be so, for the most part, for an exam at that level.

    That’s the number 1 thing to change: have an exam that cannot be predicted (e.g. do away with set text in English). Stay with in the curriculum which is a separate issue.

    At the extreme end of this is an open book exam that differentiate between students abilities; I am not advocating this for practical reasons, but that’s the spirit.

    Every thing else follows.

  10. Peter Lydon Says:

    Chris, even a terminal exam, say for example in Mathematics, which requires a student to solve, say an equation, requires memory of the steps necessary to solve the equation. Even where a problem is open to several solutions, some memory of available techniques is necessary.
    Open book exams are fine so long as the answers to the question cannot be found in the book..for example…students should not have to learn off reams of Shakespearian quotes (unless they are drama students perhaps)…to answer a question on, eh, say courage in hamlet.
    There are already several exams which cannot be predicted. With English it is a bit different, since the texts are prescribed so students know they are coming up! and given that there are certain common themes & issues in various literature, students can guess at what can be asked. For eg. they know they can’t be asked about the themes in Hamlet that only occur in say, Merchant of Venice.

  11. Peter Lydon Says:

    Thought you might like a view of what is coming down the line. http://www.ingeniosus.net/archives/waiting-for-the-jeff-fesslers-of-the-world….I thought this was a better link than the Facebook thread.


    • Peter. Thanks for the interesting blog. If you measure the wrong thing you’ll get the wrong results. Better to imprecisely measure the right thing than to precisely measure the wrong thing. The fact that No Child Left Behind measures the wrong thing does not undermine the value of good measurement. This article also uses mis-measurement as an argument against privatisation in education. They are too different ideas. Perhaps privatisation is not going to work but the fact that mis-measurement is damaging education does not prove this point. It would be foolish to experiment with private education and then not measure the outcomes correctly.

      There was an error in your link: http://www.ingeniosus.net/archives/waiting-for-the-jeff-fesslers-of-the-world

  12. Vincent Says:

    If the leaving cert is not what one is trying to achieve, the end. -And it’s not now nor ever was the end. – Why then have such focus on it.
    Further, a measurement should be a mark on the side of a container and so shouldn’t interfere with the filling not a choke point like some weird reverse egg timer.

  13. Peter Lydon Says:

    Brian, you’re right about measuring and mis-measuring. NCLB measured what they wanted it to measure – better literacy and numeracy attainment. The problem is that was all they got, in a narrow band, and using short term memory techniques. It didn’t produce the better educational outcomes – for example, the flexibility of thought that leads to better problem solving. But then, what test would be an accurate measure of this?
    For me the article highlights that some believe privatisation is the cure for the ills of education – ills which are defined by the outcome of tests (in fact, more likely PISA) – tests which are decided upon usually be non-teaching bureaucrats who strip public education of funding. This happened in New Jersey where the state invested money in privatised testing but not in improving education in the classroom via resources, more teachers etc.
    This of course is only a problem where privatised schemes are used in place of properly funded public education.
    Sorry about the link – I see where it went wrong.


  14. ” the flexibility of thought that leads to better problem solving. But then, what test would be an accurate measure of this?”

    As I said, it is better to measure the correct thing even if it is not as accurately. I am sure that there are many ways to measure problem solving ability but they may be more expensive. But we should remember that we are not checking up on the students, we are checking the system and the teachers. We can use sampling methods to do this – we do not have to check every child.

    Actually, if I were pushed, I would say that I believe that privatisation is the cure for education, but only if we have proper regulation and measurement. (of outputs, not inputs)

    • Peter Lydon Says:

      Brian, I get your point about measuring the the correct thing, even if badly, is better than measuring the incorrect thing. This is beyond dispute.

      The problem is that some people believe that what is being measured is actually a measure of the thing they want it to measure! We can accurately measure literacy and numeracy. Standardised tests can measure this – but this is not what the government wants them for – they want them to determine whether or not teachers are performing i.e. whether they are a good or poor teacher. Standardised tests do not measure teacher performance as we would want. What they measure is the ability of a teacher to strike fear into the hearts of students about what will happen if they fail their 4+, 7+ and 11+ literacy and numeracy tests. That is not teacher performance given the outcomes we desire post LC.
      Basically, when it comes to teacher performance, what is the correct measure?

      We have the the world and its granny complaining about the Points System and how the LC Exam promotes rote-learning – our solution – transfer the rote learning exam to primary schools!!!

      Re: Privatisation – has rightly screwed up the UK system. The cure for education (I have yet to read a coherent argument of what the problem is and why it is needed) is rigorous selection of trainee teachers and standards-based teacher training. A car with all it bits functioning properly from day one is less likely to brake down than a car that has dodgy wiring.

  15. Ned Costello Says:

    @Peter Lydon – very insightful comments from a practitioner – thanks for sharing them. On the importance of memory: I agree with you. I think that there is a confusion in the minds of some between the pejoratively termed “rote learning” and memory. Memory (and mastery of the subject content) provides the building blocks which we can assemble into knowledge and insight by using other techniques. Perhaps the curriculum/exam system excessively emphasises the former rather than the latter (a conjecture rather than an assertion on my part, by the way) but that being so, it doesn’t negate the importance of memory.


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