To secure that . . . all shall be provided with the means
and facilities requisite for their proper education and
training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

Qualified but not educated

Before the pandemic made ‘normal’ a sketchy memory, two very bright young people I know, from geographically distant schools, passed their Leaving Certificate in English literature without reading the assigned texts; instead, they simply memorised bullet lists of factoids supplied by or compiled from textbooks, teachers, and crib sheets. They both also passed Leaving Cert Irish, but after fourteen years of studying it, neither of them speaks the language.

In sum, they left school qualified but not educated—and deeply unprepared for the demands of third level study. They were short-changed.

We have fabulous, hard-working, and dedicated teachers in our secondary education system who are too often frustrated by the enormous pressure—too little time, too few resources, too many students—to teach, not the subject, but how to pass the exam. They too are being short-changed.

The Leaving Certificate has been our gold standard for educational achievement at second level for almost a century—and so, it should come as no surprise that our system of assessment could do with something of an overhaul. The post-Truth, post-covid, post-modern twenty-first-century world we live in is vastly different from post-war, post-flu, post-Victorian 1924 when the Leaving Cert was introduced. What was unthinkable then—literally unavailable to be thought—is mundane today: virtual classrooms, for instance, or textbooks that can be carried on a memory stick in your back pocket. Or kitchen appliances that talk back to you.

And the entire history of three-quarters of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first to date.

Knowledge increases exponentially. Social, intellectual, technological, medical, and scientific knowledge have all changed massively since 1924 in literally unpredictable and sometimes surprising ways. Who could have predicted Einstein’s impact on Newtonian physics? Space and time will never be the same.

Demographics have changed. Pedagogical models have changed. Universities and the subjects they offer have changed. Students have changed. 

What hasn’t changed is the Leaving Cert. The standardised one-and-done exam is an outdated concept based on nineteenth-century pedagogical and social practices. 

And emphatically, whatever its intended purpose in 1924, as a terminal exam it wasn’t designed to do what it’s being asked to do now: to prepare students for and assess their suitability for third-level study. It can’t assess a student’s potential for success at third level because it doesn’t measure the skills they will need when they get there.

It’s time to ask whether the Leaving Cert is fit for purpose. But first, we have to decide what that purpose is.

Disconnected

A report from the OECD at the end of last year said it was ‘unclear how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert’. In 2019, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) found strong support for that position when they asked stakeholders at secondary level—including students, teachers, principals, and parents—what they thought. Seventy-eight percent of students said clearly that the Leaving Cert, in its current format, does not adequately prepare them for third-level study. Sixty percent of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers agreed.

Ninety-three percent of students, 76% of parents, and 71% of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers, didn’t feel that the Leaving Cert adequately prepared students for the world of work either.

And whatever about its ability to prepare students for the next stage, how does it do its current job, assessing how well they have learned what they have been taught? Not too well. Only 28% of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers said that they believed the Leaving Cert is fair and that it accurately assesses students’ achievements. Among parents, support fell to 15%, and to 4% among students (Senior Cycle Reform).

That’s an informative snapshot of how the people most involved in secondary education view the single hoop through which our second-level graduates have to jump to reach their goals in life.

And the students’ worst fears are confirmed when they get to college. Two recent studies from DCU[i] and the ESRI[ii] asked first-year undergraduates whether they felt that the skills taught in their Leaving Certificate courses had prepared them for study at third level. An overwhelming majority confirmed what 78% of the secondary students had predicted: the Leaving Cert, despite being the main pathway to third-level education, doesn’t provide students with the intellectual skills they will need when they get there.

At DCU, Michael O’Leary and Darina Scully found a ‘worrying disconnect’ between the demands of second- and third-level education in Ireland. The results of their research were depressing. More than two-thirds of first-year students reported that they hadn’t been taught to engage critically with what they were hearing or reading beyond taking notes.

  • Only 25% of students felt the Leaving Certificate prepared them to
    interrogate and critically evaluate information or ideas.  
  • Only 28% felt it prepared them to identify sources of information.  
  • Only 27% felt it prepared them to compare information from different sources. 
  • Only 30% felt it prepared them to explore ideas from a number of different perspectives.  

For third-level students, the ability to review, evaluate, and analyse new information, investigate new ideas, and use evidence-based reasoning to inform new perspectives is essential no matter what subject is being studied. The great majority of students in both the DCU and ESRI studies who had recently made the transition to third level, felt that the Leaving Cert quite specifically did not prepare them for that. At third level, they weren’t asked to remember the ‘right’ answer, they were required ‘to apply [themselves] much more in terms of thinking and explaining [their] opinions and answers’. They found it ‘challenging and overwhelming at first to evaluate and analyse situations, scenarios, visual and textual data.’ And they spotted a major problem: ‘A lot of the Leaving Cert is fact-based . . . in college . . . my learning has been very conceptual’ (DCU).

Real people

There was strong support—as there had been from 76% of NAPD students—for a move away from a one-and-done written exam to a system of continuous assessment over the Senior Cycle.

Moving toward at least a partially project-based certification system graded in real time would undoubtedly better prepare students for post-secondary learning. But it does present a problem. A move to continuous assessment cannot and should not mean that teachers would be asked to grade their own students for certification. This year and last would clearly be exceptions in exceptional circumstances.

The solution is simple: portfolios of student work can be exchanged anonymously for grading between geographically distant schools. The graders will know nothing about the student, or the school they attend, apart from the work in front of them. Consequently, any subjective assumptions concerning social class, gender, ethnicity, student likeability, previous performance, and so on won’t come into play. In this way, students from Blackrock College will be judged by the same objective criteria as students from Ballymun Comp.

Second-grading of all or a percentage of those portfolios by a real person, as opposed to an algorithm, can ensure the value of the grade while allowing the outstanding to stand out. ‘Standardisation’ by algorithm deletes from history improved or higher than average performances by students in disadvantaged schools—because algorithms can’t distinguish between an improved grade and an inflated one.

Going forward

The clear picture surfacing in these three studies is that our secondary schools need to be turned around to face the future—Principals, teachers, parents, and the students themselves are asking for it. Students want to be prepared to feel challenged but not overwhelmed when asked ‘to evaluate and analyse situations, scenarios, visual and textual data’ (DCU).

That means, in the first place, teaching the skills students are going to need when they graduate from second- to third-level. And primary among them are critical thinking and self-direction.

Critical thinking

In a passive classroom dedicated to rote memorisation and passing the exam, critical thinking skills of interrogating ideas or exploring them from more than one perspective are counterproductive because they take up too much time. Passing exams doesn’t require critical thinking; it demands instead that students listen, note, and memorise. Or does it?

The human memory doesn’t work by rote. It works by association, and the greater the number of associations, the easier information is to access. An active, participatory classroom structure with time for discussion, debate, workshops, individual presentations, and so on, creates a rich context built up of multiple complex associations. Guided independent projects allow the student to open up the subject further, introducing new frames of reference to further illuminate the context—historical, intellectual, or cultural. Those new frames of reference will add colour, depth, and nuance to the narrative the students brought with them. And that colour, depth, and nuance will be brought back to the class to inform the discussion.

That rich context enables students to reach a greater understanding of the course material and retain much more of what they have learned than students engaged in passive reception and rote memorisation. Deeper understanding and increased retention through classroom and project work translate into improved written work, growing confidence, and a smoother transition to third level. And incidentally, it improves exam results.

The only association for rote memorisation is itself.

Self-direction

Perhaps the most significant ‘disconnect’ in transferring from second to third level is the contrast between the passive role too often imposed on the secondary school student and the more active role demanded at third level.

Leaving School in Ireland from the ESRI found that a large majority of school leavers reported significant differences in teaching and learning between second- and third-level education.

A key factor emerging from the in-depth interviews was the need to engage in self-directed learning in further/higher education, especially the challenges in managing deadlines, which was contrasted with the more directive approach adopted in school. 

Students who go to university straight from a ‘directive’ approach at second level, and whose days have been organised according to a strict timetable, may have problems managing their own time. They may have difficulty keeping up with work required but not handed in for grading—reading, for instance. Students who have learned by rote may have difficulty using what they have memorised to solve novel problems or evaluate new material. Students who have never been asked for their opinion until the teacher told them what it was can have difficulty processing new information without direction.

Starting to bridge the gap between ‘directive’ and ‘self-directed’ learning, and between passive and active student participation, could be as simple as including a Critical Thinking course on all second-level curricula and increasing the level of self-directed project work. Self-directed doesn’t mean unsupported. Teachers should be involved at all stages from conception to completion, but as mentors, sounding boards, and cheerleaders, not as taskmasters.

So where do we go from here?

It seems strange that for fourteen years students will go to class and pay attention, do homework, study hard, write essays, complete independent projects, and sit end-of-year exams—and none of that will count in assessing their suitability for college. Their immediate educational future depends entirely on a single set of exams they will sit in the summer of their eighteenth/nineteenth year.

Another important lesson offered by this unexpected social experiment is the stress reduction reported by students when their work and its assessment is spread over the length of the course.

Crucially, before Covid only 2% of students in the NAPD report found the Leaving ‘not stressful’, while 87% found it ‘stressful always or most of the time’, and 87% said that the stress affects their ability to study.

That’s a lot of stress, under which they will sit for exams that they believe will determine their future. Fifty-one percent of students found particular difficulty ‘coping with the pressure and stress resulting from the realisation that everything rested on this one final exam’.

But when the pandemic forced us to find another way of measuring student excellence, we discovered that there are viable alternatives to the one-and-done pressure cooker that is the current Leaving Cert.

The Government chose ‘calculated grades’ provided by teachers—a sort of retroactive continuous assessment—that would be ‘standardised’ nationally. That produced a major furore, a bit of reshuffling, and ultimately, some very different results. Students from schools that had traditionally performed well were disappointed to see their grades fall below expectations. Students in schools in working-class areas, however, outperformed their schools’ previous results. Overall grades were higher than ever.

It’s not clear yet whether those higher than ever results represent simple grade inflation, the distortion of teaching and learning during a pandemic, or a lack of teacher objectivity, and there could be some of all of those in play. Or is it possible that more of our students are performing better for any number of reasons—including improved teaching practices and better resources—but that those improvements aren’t being measured by the Leaving Cert?

The pandemic has unexpectedly offered us an opportunity to ponder those very questions and a lot more that have surfaced. It could enable us to rethink how we prepare students for life after the Leaving, with a two-year free trial of alternatives to thrown in.

The three studies I’ve covered provide some at least of the information we need to design and build a programme that will allow students to ‘progress successfully in the labour market, across a range of alternative education pathways, and [to] exercise a responsible global citizenship’ (OECD).

The NAPD recommends that the Government establish a Senior Cycle Forum that would ‘complement the work of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment and liaise with it closely’. Using a model similar to Citizens’ Assemblies, the Forum would be ‘tasked with making recommendations for Reform’. Stakeholders would include principals, teachers, students, parents, and representatives of third-level institutions and business, amongst others. Certainly, something along those lines would be necessary to change what is, and should remain, a lynchpin of our educational system but is no longer doing the job we need it to do.

And as we go forward it’s important to remember that not all Leaving Cert students are studying full-time. The needs of differently-abled students who require different support services or non-traditional students who are juggling commitments to families, jobs, and other responsibilities in addition to their studies, need to be accommodated. For those, and indeed for all students, a modular Leaving Cert, in which courses can be taken cumulatively, allows for a more flexible pathway to the next stage in each student’s journey.

Teaching subjects not currently examined in the Leaving Certificate but that students may want to study at third level—law, philosophy, or political science, for instance—would help students choose a course before they commit to a three- or four-year programme. This is particularly important for those applying to universities that don’t offer open Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Students need to learn how to think, not what to think.

And not all Leaving Cert students are heading for university. Adding the option of vocational courses to the senior cycle—construction trades, for instance, ideally with attached apprenticeships—would increase the value of the Leaving Cert to the student body across educational, intellectual, and social divides.

The aim of secondary education and the Leaving Cert that measures it should be well-prepared students making informed decisions about their post-secondary career. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, students need to learn how to think, not what to think.


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[i] O’Leary, M. & Scully, D. (2018). The Leaving Certificate Programme as Preparation for Higher Education: The View of Undergraduates at the End of their First Year in University. Dublin: Dublin City University, Centre for Assessment Research, Policy & Practice in Education (CARPE).

[ii] Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions. (ESRI).


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