At this time of the year, we tend to hear a lot of negativity about the Leaving Certificate, how it needs to change, how it is letting our young people down, how it is all about ‘rote-learning’ (how awful!), and how it kills creativity. This year has been no different, and in the last week two separate reports from DCU produced some ‘newsworthy’ conclusions (with which many teachers disagreed). Let’s have a look at what those reports said:
Research carried out by the DCU Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection came to the conclusion that the Leaving Certificate exams are ‘largely memory tests that encourage “learning off by heart”‘, and raised questions about whether our youth are being adequately trained in problem solving and creative skills at 2nd level. The findings were partly based on interviews carried out with 30 recent Leaving Certificate pupils, who are now in 3rd level education.
DCU, in a separate study, also surveyed 304 first year university students, with results showing that many felt the Leaving Certificate did not adequately prepare them for university life.
Both studies received a considerable amount of media coverage and airtime; many educators have been concerned about how reliable such research can be considering the small numbers surveyed and the fact that the research was limited to Dublin students. It seems somewhat unethical that the responses of 0.005% of Ireland’s student population (an unrepresentative sample) can be allowed to dictate national conversation and indeed policy development on such an important topic. However, what worried me most was the conclusion that the Irish education system needs to move away from knowledge accumulation to skill development.
Without a doubt, there are problems. I distinctly remember a conversation some years ago with my Dissertation Supervisor at NUI Galway’s History department where she told me that most of that year’s 1st year History students had managed to fail History (achieve 40%). Others in 3rd Level Institutions relate how the standard is being dropped – the goalposts are being widened – every year to allow a decent number of students to pass exams, so universities won’t lose face, lose funding, and be forced to shut down. Anecdotal evidence from State examiners continues the same sorry tale: worrying numbers of our children cannot spell, they cannot add, they cannot answer a simple, lower-order question satisfactorily. Recently I attended the final of a schools debating competition at Trinity College Dublin, and was struck by the inability of many participants, even at that level, to listen to a question and logically answer it.
We do have problems – but changing the structure of the Leaving Certificate will not solve them. Indeed, I believe it would be tragedy if we began to mindlessly meddle around with a system that has served us well over the past decade. The new Junior Cycle reform hasn’t been exactly a glowing success, so let’s not be irrational here. Instead let’s look at the glaringly obvious problems in our schools and consider whether our efforts and finances might be better used solving them instead.
Why not value teachers more?
I strongly believe that the Leaving Certificate program, along with the Leaving Certificate Applied, provides a robust and dependable education for our youth. Taught well, by competent and gifted teachers, it is a certificate of which to be proud – but an education system cannot stand on content alone. And unfortunately, our Government has not been doing very well attracting the best-quality candidates into teaching in the past decade. Due to cruel pay cuts, teachers have been emigrating en masse to brighter horizons, with the subsequent creation of a substitute teacher culture which is beginning to wreak considerable havoc on the quality of education in our schools. The salary for teachers is miserable, and we have been the victims of unfulfilled promises about pay remuneration. The Postgraduate Diploma in Education courses are, as a rule, badly organised and poorly taught. Our brightest are being lured into careers in law, finance and medicine; ‘600-point’ students rarely, if ever, take up teaching as their career, and last year, the CAO points for teaching courses dropped.
So, are our teachers inspiring, challenging, encouraging instructors for our youth? Are they the very best they can possibly be? Are they passionate about what they teach, in complete command of their subject, able to present it in a convincing and persuasive manner? Unfortunately, while they do their best, very often the support, training and direction they need is simply non-existent. And our brightest most often turn to careers with far greater financial incentives and professional support than teaching will ever give them.
This is in direct contrast to many of the world’s top-performing education systems – Japan, South Korea and Finland hold their teachers in high respect, and high-quality teacher recruitment and training drives educational success. Before the Irish government pours money into a new Leaving Cycle program doomed for failure, it urgently needs to address the serious issues around teacher recruitment, teacher training and teacher pay; otherwise, reform or no reform, the situation will only get worse.
Why not tell our students that university is just one of many options?
We already have a skills-focussed, continuous assessment-based Certificate for students who learn differently. It’s called the Leaving Certificate Applied and it is an excellent resource for any student challenged by the knowledge-based Leaving Certificate program. We need to offer it, promote it and value it. There are far too many young people trying to get into university just because society expects them to, because their friends are going, or because the career guidance teacher told them to. There are far too many young people in our universities who should not be there. They should be doing apprenticeships, FETAC Courses, attending local Level 6 colleges, working on the farm, fixing cars. We need to be able to say confidently in our schools – ‘University might not be for you – and that’s absolutely fine. Here’s another brilliant option. You can be just as successful as your college-bound classmate, just this route suits you better.’ Our young people need to be encouraged to find their own path and reach their own potential, not just ‘go to university’.
In the past 6 months, I have not seen the media, nor the government, engage with either of these issues. Instead there is a continual focus on reforming a knowledge-based education system to one that engages primarily with the transmission of skills. This is not the problem with our education system, for the reasons I have outlined above, and many more.
However, media and government preoccupation with this ‘perceived’ problem is alarming, because it points to a desire to redefine education as we know it. Education transmits knowledge: knowledge is power. If skills are transmitted instead of knowledge, where does that leave the power that comes with knowledge? Skilled people are good workers; they follow instructions, perform tasks and make an excellent workforce – but are they independent thinkers? Will they call out corruption and tyranny? Will they face the future armed with the lessons of the past?
And so today, as we analyse, criticize and sympathize, let us listen to the critics with an informed mind.
Thanks for reading.
Miss de Búrca