Posted tagged ‘Central Applications Office’

Missing the point(s)

December 4, 2010

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.


Are points fair?

July 25, 2010

Over the past few days there has been a little debate in the pages of the Irish Independent about the CAO points system. Briefly, for those not familiar with the Irish education system, the CAO is the clearing house for university and college entry, and the points which represent a student’s currency as an applicant are based on his or her performance in the final secondary school examination, the Leaving Certificate. At the end of a report on Friday in the paper on the MacGill summer school, the Independent‘s education correspondent Katherine Donnelly made the following comment:

‘One of the problems with tinkering with the points system is that, while it may be brutal, it is fair – and it’s the devil everybody knows.’

On Saturday, this drew a response in the paper’s letters to the editor, in which an educationalist questioned the appropriateness and fairness of the points system, arguing in particular that it disadvantaged those who could not resource the exam preparations, and that it did not encourage critical thinking and holistic teaching and learning.

Katherine Donnelly’s comment is understandable, in that it represents what is still probably a majority view. She was probably in any case not voicing a personal opinion. But the author of the letter was right: the points system may be known and may by now be familiar or even predictable, but it certainly isn’t fair. And it is so hard to dislodge because, to cut to the chase, it suits ambitious middle class parents because they know how to play the system and have the resources to make it work for them. It disadvantages under-resourced schools or families, and it distorts the popularity of certain university programmes. In fact, I have tried and I cannot find a single persuasive reason to retain it, other than that changing it will be hard work.

I believe that the points system, and indeed the Leaving Certificate that it has helped to distort, undermine this country’s future, and I intend to repeat that message wherever I can for the next while. Reform is urgently needed, and it is time for us as a country to overcome our lethargy on this particular issue.

Bonus points for mathematics?

March 1, 2010

As many readers of this blog will know, for some time now the issue of how to persuade more Irish students to take Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate (Irish final school examinations) has been a topic of heated debate in Ireland. Part of the backdrop is that the number of those taking this option has been declining for some time, and according to an Irish Times report last summer is now below 20 per cent.

The key consequence of this trend is that the 80 per cent who have chosen not to pursue Higher Mathematics will be excluded from most science subjects at university, and this in turn will have a serious impact on our capacity to attract international investment. Some professional bodies have responded by urging the universities to offer bonus points for Leaving Certificate Mathematics, thereby providing an incentive for students. On the other hand, the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD – rather misunderstanding his role and powers in this regard – has indicated that he would not authorise such bonus points. Others, including some well-known academic commentators (including TCD’s Sean Barrett) argue that this should be a free market and that politicians and university leaders should not interfere: students should study whatever they want to, without inducements or pressures to do something different.

It may be worth noting that bonus points for mathematics have been applied in an equivalent setting in Australia.

I confess that I am one of those inclined to favour bonus points; but I am open to argument that this is wrong. My chief purpose in raising the issue here is to encourage a response from readers, as I am seeking to consider the arguments right now before contemplating further action.

For what it is worth, however, I do not believe that CAO points represent a ‘free market’, but rather a highly distorted one. I believe that the major cause that makes students turn away from mathematics is its perceived difficult nature, and I tend to think that we may need to compensate for this. I do however also accept that bonus points for mathematics may distort the CAO score if the student uses them to study something unrelated to maths: say, law. But there may be ways of addressing that.

And finally, what we are looking at here is a temporary expedient. The real solution, in my view, is to overhaul and apply radical changes (not excluding complete abolition) to the CAO points system. But that won’t happen overnight.

As I have said, comments on this would be very welcome.

Becoming a cramming factory?

February 4, 2010

It’s that time of year again, and the deadline has passed for applications to the CAO for student places in 2010-11. Of course we don’t yet know how this will be distributed across Institutions, programmes and courses, but what we do already know is that this year sees a record number of applications, as young people opt for the safety of a better qualification. We are told therefore that numbers of applicants are up 10 per cent on last year.

Of course, this is not just any other year, and any increase in the number of students could create problems, as the additional students will receive no extra funding at all. This means that the services – including teaching – that are offered to students will inevitably be affected.

It’s hard to know what universities should do at this point. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the RTE radio programme Morning Ireland looked at the impact of additional student applications, and also considered information coming from students quoted on the programme. suggesting that, with previous cuts, higher education institutions were  becoming ‘cramming factories’. On Wednesday the chief executive of the HEA, Tom Boland, was on the programme accepting that the additional student numbers would cause a burden, but suggesting that during the current economic difficulties it had to be a case of ‘all hands on deck.’ He also suggested that students should be prepared – to a greater extent than in previous years – to receive an offer for a course that had not been top of their list.

It is hard to argue with Tom Boland’s call to the colleges to come forward and help. It is easy to see that for the next year or two, and maybe substantially beyond, the sum paid to colleges by the government for educating each student will be much lower than it was only two years ago. And it is likely (and probably right) that the institutions should support the drive to bring greater numbers into higher education, at least up to a point.

However, there are also some issues we need to address.

• Are we clear on how many students, or what percentage of the age cohort, we are able to take in without fatally compromising quality and standards? What steps should we be taking to avoid such erosion of quality?
• As funding continues to be much lower than before, and as both school leavers and mature students indicate a desire to go into (or return to) higher education in significant numbers, are we clear on what model of third level pedagogy we should now adopt, given that the traditional model is becoming less workable?
• As in all these circumstances it is becoming more important than ever that students leave secondary education well prepared for the methods and objectives of higher education, are we doing enough to enter into a dialogue with the secondary sector and with the Department of Education to ensure that we have a shared understanding across the education sectors and institutions of how this process of preparing students should be undertaken?

The main problem that we face at the moment is not that we are being asked to do more with the same or decreased funding, but rather that we are doing this without any consensus about these issues and therefore without any real understanding of the objectives and methods of higher education in this new climate. In short, we are muddling through. In the first moments of economic crisis this was understandable, but now it will no longer do. This isn’t about higher education structures or institutional issues, but rather about how we can offer our programmes with reduced resources while maintaining acceptable (or preferably, excellent) quality. If we don’t get this right, then we are probably heading for inadequate cramming factories. But I believe we have it in us to do better than that.

What do you want from education?

November 26, 2009

Recently I was chatting to a group of intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning people, all of whom have one or more children in secondary schools in Dublin. What, I asked them, are you hoping that these schools will deliver for your children. The optimist in me was hoping for answers around pedagogy, civilised values, knowledge development, life skills, the thrill of science and the arts, that kind of thing. I didn’t get any of it. What did I get? They were hoping for the highest possible CAO points*. That was it.

We really have come to treat education as a board game, where you have to make the right moves and gather points. It is entirely tactical, with almost no intellectual angle. You doubt that? Well, I asked my companions what specific expectations they had of the syllabus in English literature – how much Shakespeare should Leaving Certificate students be doing, for example? And exactly what level of scientific knowledge should their children have acquired by the time they take their exams? Oh yes, they wanted Shakespeare. Was it because he crafted some of what we now know as the English language, and because he disseminated intellectual ideas from the classics to his own day? Not at all – it was because this was an expected part of the syllabus and students know how to prepare for it to get high points.

As I have mentioned before, I have grave reservations about the CAO points system, and its influence on the way in which students work for the Leaving Certificate. This conversation strongly reinforced those reservations. The social and material ambitions of parents for their children are pushing those children into working methods and career choices which are of very doubtful value for the wider society. The points system is turning the final stages of secondary school into a transaction in which student acquire what they are led to believe is the currency that will resource their later lives. And it would have to be said that the universities, as the owners of the CAO project, are allowing this to happen.

I think it is high time we had another look at the whole CAO framework.


* For non-Irish readers, the CAO is the Central Applications Office (which administers university and college entry), and the ‘points system’ is the mechanism by which Leaving Certificate examination results are converted into a points score which determines eligibility for specific university courses.

Misguided points?

June 7, 2009

One of the most influential structures of modern Irish society is what is known as the ‘points system’, the framework that determines access for school leavers to the higher education system. All results of a student’s performance in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate, are converted into points (with a maximum of 100 points for a Higher Level paper, and 60 for an Ordinary Level paper), and the overall sum of the student’s points so calculated is the ‘currency’ that the student can use in applying to do a course or degree programme in a university or college. Each programme of study has a threshold of points that the student must have in order to be admitted. The student submits their application to the Central Applications Office (CAO), and in the application lists his or her choices for programmes of study in order of preference; these choices can be for any programme in any institution covered by the CAO, including all universities and institutes of technology and other colleges. They are then admitted to the highest preference in their list for which they have the required points.

The problem with the system is that the points required are not particularly determined by the minimum level of attainment deemed necessary in order to be able to do the course. Rather, the points are arrived at primarily as a result of supply and demand: the greater the demand for a particular programme at a particular institution, the higher the points. Therefore the most popular subjects have the highest points – and typically these have been the programmes that quality students for professions such as medicine or law, but also a number of arts and humanities subjects. Access to less popular subjects – but often ones where there is a significant requirement for more graduates in those fields – can be achieved with much lower points, despite the fact that some of these are by common consent more demanding in terms of knowledge and skills. Moreover, the popularity of some programmes has been influenced by parental ambitions to see children in socially respectable professions, or even by the perception that these programmes are easier: so that ironically ‘easier’ subjects can have higher points requirements.

The result of all this has been a serious distortion in both student preference and the availability of nationally needed skills. The points system has exercised a huge influence on Ireland’s national direction, and the influence has been almost all bad. But although this has been known for some time, there has been an overwhelming reluctance to do anything about it. In 1997 the government established the Commission on the Points System, and this reported in 1999. This Commission, while making some recommendations for adjustments, concluded overall that the system was fair and practical. This conclusion was probably questionable then, but is impossible to justify now. The points system has become a real threat to the future of Ireland as a functioning society and to the knowledge economy. It needs to be re-visited, now.