Posted tagged ‘Leaving Certificate’

Getting to the points

August 21, 2012

This post is coming to you from Ireland, where I am currently on a short break. As Irish readers of this blog will know, one of the hottest news stories here right now is the impact on university admissions of the recent decision by Irish universities to award bonus points to secondary students taking and passing higher mathematics in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The movement towards this position was described some time ago in this blog, including this post written almost exactly two years ago.

The background to this whole issue was growing trend for students not to do higher level mathematics at all, thereby making the pool of those eligible to take various science and engineering courses very small; while at the same time the demand for people with these skills was rising significantly. Ireland was thought to be at risk economically if this trend were not corrected.

Well, bonus points were introduced, and the trend was most definitely corrected. As information has become available about the recent Leaving Certificate results, record numbers are now succeeding in mathematics, and demand for science, computing and engineering courses is up very significantly. So is everyone happy? Not a bit. Concerns are now being expressed that the whole points system has been distorted, and that those with no interest in science and engineering are getting mathematics-based bonus points for their applications to do, say, classics or English literature. And so there are called for the whole thing to be reversed again, or at any rate adjusted to award bonus points only to those wanting to do relevant subjects. Even the Irish Times has weighed in with an editorial, and in the meantime the whole issue is also likely to be included in more general proposals made by the universities to reform the points system.

This last point is important. When still President of DCU I strongly backed the proposal to award bonus points for mathematics, for the reasons set out above; but I never thought this was the complete answer. The reality is that this and other issues can only be resolved if the entire Irish points system is overhauled and, preferably in my view, abandoned. It has seriously damaged Irish secondary and higher education. It is time for it to go. But while we are waiting for that, people should not worry so much about the precise impact of bonus points: they are doing what was wanted of them. Most particularly, they have brought students back into the sciences, which was vital for Ireland. Now is not to the time to get ambivalent about that.


Reforming the Irish Leaving Certificate

August 6, 2011

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.

University admissions: time to re-think the criteria

February 7, 2011

This is going to sound very grand, but over the past few years I have been trying to persuade the education sector and politicians of two things: the socially undesirable and financially unsustainable nature of ‘free’ higher education that is not adequately funded; and the damage being inflicted on Ireland by the Leaving Certificate examination (the Irish final school exam).

I want to focus briefly on one aspect of the second of these, the Leaving Certificate. I believe that, having once been quite innovative, it is now a thoroughly flawed exam with a wholly unsatisfactory curriculum attached to it. But it is also more or less the sole basis on which school leavers are admitted to university, so that the whole sad heap of its inadequacies infects higher education. There is an urgent need to reform the Leaving Certificate, but one way of advancing that agenda is to decouple it completely from university admissions.

There are many reasons for doing this, but the three most important are the following. First, the Leaving Certificate tests all the wrong skills and therefore doesn’t prepare students for higher education. Secondly, students make inappropriate subject choices in secondary school based on what examinations in those subjects will do to help them into university; let us stop that. Thirdly, the Leaving Certificate fuels the points system, with its mad impact on career choices.

In other countries, notably Britain, there is some evidence that using final school exams for university entrance purposes reinforces inequalities and condems students from disadvantaged backgrounds and minorities.

It would be more appropriate and also fairer to set minimum entry requirements for all subjects, and then apply a lottery system to all those where demand outstrips supply. That would allow us, at last, to stop the deeply flawed pedagogy of the school system from undermining our society and our economy. It is time to take this problem seriously.

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.

Educational anguish

August 22, 2010

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

Liberating secondary education

August 17, 2010

The nature of Irish secondary education is determined by two things: the Leaving Certificate syllabus, and CAO points (the score calculated from Leaving Certificate results that determines higher education entry). In the overall scheme of things, very little else matters. As higher education participation goes up and up, the purpose of secondary education is not to provide a pedagogical experience in its own right but to shepherd students through the access points to higher education. On the other hand, this is done not by preparing students to be analytical and thoughtful in order to manage higher education, but rather by making them word perfect in a purely mechanical way in regurgitating the ‘right’ Leaving Certificate answers. This lethal combination of influences has totally undermined the post-primary intellectual purpose of education.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not making this point for the first time; most recently I addressed this issue here. Yesterday, however, there was some strong support from Tom Collins, acting President of NUI Maynooth and a highly respected educationalist, in an opinion piece for the Irish Independent. Here is how he characterised the issue facing us:

‘Apart from [the points system’s] impact at second level, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the system is no longer fit for purpose at third level either. There is a palpable concern in higher education regarding the capabilities and dispositions of students entering it straight from second level. The manner in which the points system rewards rote learning, instrumental learning and memorisation while simultaneously discouraging exploration, self-directed learning and critical thinking means that even relatively high achieving second-level students can struggle on entering third level.’

Professor Collins also suggested in his analysis that students entering higher education may be too young to benefit from it properly. He concluded:

‘Over many years of working in higher education, I am increasingly convinced that the student who has spent a number of years after second level in the world of work, volunteering or some other form of useful activity will perform better in higher education than the student who enters straight from school.’

In Ireland there tends to be a major rush to get students through education and into employment. I suspect that Tom Collins is right: that a break between secondary education and higher education may have significant advantages, allowing the students to enter university with a more mature outlook, and having perhaps left behind them some of the less useful aspects of the secondary sector. It is certainly worth a thought.

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.

Edging towards bonus points for mathematics

June 27, 2010

According to a report in the Irish Independent, all the universities except University College Dublin have now agreed that there should be bonus points in the Leaving Certificate for higher level Mathematics. UCD may also come to the same decision, but it will need to be taken by its Academic Council, which is not due to meet until September.

The issue of bonus points has been covered previously in this blog. While most academics would take the view that this is not the complete solution to low levels of mathematics attainment by secondary students, it is at least potentially part of the answer. What will need to be impressed upon the government, however, is that the situation will not become fully satisfactory until problems at second level have been addressed, including the problem of inadequately trained and motivated mathematics teachers. The risk is that Ministers and officials may think that the universities’ action in applying bonus points at the Leaving Certificate level provides the solution and that no further government action is required. We must not allow that view to gain traction.

Be a good parent – step back a bit!

June 8, 2010

This is the time of years when people all over Ireland experience extraordinary levels of anxiety and determination over the final secondary school examinations, the Leaving Certificate. But I am not talking primarily about the students, I am referring to parents. Mature people whose judgement I normally respect are seen to cajole, bully and coerce their offspring into inhuman preparations for the exam, so that their parental ambitions may be fulfilled in their children.

At a social gathering recently I was listening to a group of parents with children about to do the Leaving Certificate. They were explaining the amazingly elaborate and dictatorial rules they had in each case imposed on their sons and daughters – the minimum time they were required to spend working each day, the total prohibition of social contact, the rationing of television and other entertainment, the diet even.

I don’t think this is a healthy state of affairs. Of course young people should take the Leaving Certificate seriously, and of course preparation is a good idea. But the treadmill of memorising is not necessarily the best way of preparing for what is to come, and this kind of focus helps to keep in place teaching and learning methods that should long have been abandoned. Furthermore, the weight of parental expectations can do significant psychological damage at a time when students are already somewhat vulnerable.

I just wish that parents would relax a little more and let their children find their own way of handling this phase in their lives. Their role is to be supportive, not overbearing. It is time for parents to stop turning into horrific monsters during this period in a young person’s life.

Secondary concerns

April 23, 2010

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join a group of second level students from around Ireland who were at an event in TCD’s Science Gallery to discuss the future of secondary education. What struck me in talking to them was that they were articulate, enthusiastic, intelligent, perceptive. and actually also extraordinarily courteous. But what they were saying was that their educational experience was too often undermined by a system that did not encourage initiative, participation, analysis and evaluation; and that teachers too often were worn down by this system and had become slaves to predictable routine and cynicism. It was, in short, a description of an education system that was in no position to deliver the recruits for a knowledge economy.

We have of course heard a number of recent warnings about the quality of our education, some from industry and some from educationalists. But so far these warnings have not produced a real debate about how we could do it better. We need to accept that we are going the wrong way, and that if Ireland is to be the success story of the new decade as we were in the 1990s, this will need to be fixed. Fixing it is not a matter of tweaking the Leaving Certificate, it is about understanding that right now we have system that was designed for a long gone era and for a different society, and that it has not adapted. We don’t have much time for this, and yet there isn’t a real sense of urgency in the national debate. It’s time to take this problem seriously.