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

Recently 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 also both 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.

Two recent studies, from DCU and the ESRI, asked first-year undergraduates whether they felt that the skills taught in their Leaving Certificate courses prepared them for study at third level. An overwhelming majority said that they didn’t, that 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. 

Michael O’Leary and Darina Scully at DCU found a ‘worrying disconnect’ between the demands of second- and third-level education. The results of their research were depressing: 

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

That is, the majority report that they weren’t taught to think critically or to engage with what they were hearing or reading beyond taking notes. These are the necessary skills missing from our second-level curricula.

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.

A large majority of [school] leavers reported significant differences in teaching and learning between their second-level education and their post-school course. They indicated particular difficulties in relation to the standard expected of them, the difficulty of the course, and managing their workload. 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. (Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post School Transitions | ESRI)

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.

Thinking critically

To prepare students for college or university, our secondary schools need to be turned around to face the future. For third-level students, the ability to review, evaluate, and analyse new information, to investigate new ideas, and to use evidence-based reasoning to inform new perspectives is essential no matter what subject is being studied. But in a passive classroom dedicated to rote memorisation and passing the exam, those skills 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.

But 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 model encourages students to question what they are reading, to think through the subject for themselves, to do their own research, and to use class time to analyse the assigned texts through discussion and debate. A classroom structure with time for discussion, debate, workshops, individual presentations, and so on, creates a rich context built up by multiple associations. Guided independent projects allow the student to open up the subject further by introducing new frames of reference that further illuminate the context—historical, intellectual, or cultural—surrounding and supporting (or not) the bald facts.

That rich context enables students to reach a greater understanding of the course material and to 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.

Who goes where?

The Leaving Certificate has been our gold standard for educational achievement at second level for almost a century—and that’s the problem. The post-Truth, post-modern twenty-first century world we live in is vastly different from post-war, 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 that Einstein would turn Newtonian physics inside out? Space and time would never be the same.

Science has changed. 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. 

In 1924 only a small minority of more or less pre-ordained students went to the universities and very few, if any, working-class students made it as far as Leaving Certificate level. Maighread Tobin reports that high rates of non-school attendance and early school leaving were a feature of Irish life for working-class children at the time. ‘The annual reports from the Department of Education show average attendance rates below 80% for the years 1922 to 1927, meaning that at least 100,000 children were missing from national schools every day in those years. . . . The average school leaving age was 10½.’

The Leaving Certificate consequently became the de facto entry-level qualification for traditionally middle-class careers—the civil and public services, for instance. It served that purpose well, designed as it had been to measure levels of general education and to indicate how well applicants work within a disciplined system (and to silently mark their place in the social order). 

The standardised one-and-done exam is an
outdated concept based on nineteenth-century

pedagogical and social practices. 

But 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. The standardised one-and-done exam is an outdated concept based on nineteenth-century pedagogical and social practices. It can’t assess a student’s potential for success at third level, because it doesn’t measure the skills needed to succeed at that level.

Consequently, the Leaving Certificate, as it stands, is not fit for purpose.

Don’t just take my word for it. A report from the OECD at the end of last year found that the Leaving Cert is ‘too narrow and rigid’ and that it isn’t clear ‘how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert’.

After nearly a century, it should come as no surprise that our system of assessment could do with a major overhaul—primarily because it seems absurd that students will attend school for fourteen years, participate in class, do homework, write essays, research projects, and so on, but will have their educational future decided by exam in the summer of their nineteenth year.

Moving away from a single exam toward at least a partially project-based certification system, with continuous assessment across the senior cycle, would act as a far better predictor of a student’s post-secondary performance. But it does present a problem. Moving to continuous assessment cannot and should not mean that teachers would be asked to grade their own students for certification[1]. And Irish teachers’ unions agree.

Subjectively speaking

In ‘Class in the Classroom’,  two studies demonstrate obstacles to teacher objectivity to be found in learned assumptions—about class, race, gender, sexuality, gender choices, and so on—lodged in our subconscious that we may have forgotten about and may not even agree with anymore.

In a study at Princeton University, two groups were shown a recording of the same fourth-class girl answering questions on an oral exam; one group had been told she was working-class, and the other that she was from an affluent background. The first group assessed the ‘working class’ girl as below fourth-class standard, while the other group assessed the ‘affluent’ girl as above fourth-class standard. The table on the right shows the difference between the ‘two’ to be about a full academic year.

But they had all watched the same recording of the same girl giving the same answers to the same questions. The difference in the grades they ‘awarded’ can only be attributed to the single difference in the two groups: what the participants believed to be her social class.

The second study showed the degree to which such deeply held, even if unacknowledged, assumptions can stunt or boost student performance and effectively keep working-class students out of the universities, or steer young girls away from STEM subjects, or limit the educational progress of the differently-abled on multiple levels, and so on.

The solution is simple: portfolios of student work can be exchanged anonymously at the end of each term between geographically distant schools for grading. 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 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.

Continuous assessment

Moving toward continually assessed project work is a necessary but not sufficient development in adapting our second-level education to better reflect students’ needs, whatever their post-secondary ambitions.

Among the changes called for is a shift in curriculum and pedagogical style to better reflect the demands that will be made by third-level work. That means, in the first place, teaching the skills students are going to need to hit the ground running. Bridging the gap between ‘directive’ and ‘self-directed’ learning could be as simple as including a Critical Thinking course on all second-level curricula and increasing the level of self-directed project work required.

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.

On a related matter, 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 who are applying to universities that don’t offer an open Bachelor of Arts degrees.

And 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 third level.

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, students need
to learn how to think, not what to think.

It’s also important to remember that 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. How great would it be if, say, a would-be novelist with an English major could simultaneously serve an apprenticeship in carpentry as a career choice, if only to cover the time it takes to write the great Irish novel. 

Well-prepared students making informed decisions about their post-secondary career should be the aim. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, students need to learn how to think, not what to think.


[1] For obvious reasons, this year is a legitimate exception and a timely one: it will severely test the practice of grading standardisation.

Related articles

Equal Access to Education Redux
All other things being equal—Leaving Cert results, for instance—students who attend schools in working-class areas are less likely to graduate to third-level study than those from more affluent areas. Why is that? Two classic studies partially explain the disparity, but it took a pandemic to break it open.

Unequal Access to Education
The debacle surrounding calculated/manipulated Leaving Cert grades made it possible to see why students from private schools are disproportionately more likely to graduate to third-level study than all others. That’s the intention—to maintain the socio-economic status quo.