It always amuses me to watch celebrity do-gooders come out around this time of the year and demand that the Leaving Cert be overhauled.
There is nothing wrong with the Leaving Certificate exam. It’s an indicator of the level of your academic ability, and if you don’t like it, well, that’s a pity. The LC is an exam with three different levels (Foundation, Ordinary, Higher) in core subjects and two in optional subjects (Ordinary and Higher), and thus gives pupils the opportunity to work towards the level they are comfortable with. There is also the option of doing the Leaving Certificate Applied, a fantastic program which allows academically weak pupils to procure a certificate in their final year at school. Through the Points System, The LC system delivers an accurate measure of the pupil’s academic ability and prepares him/her for the occupation to which they are most suited.
Of course there are problems; our secondary school graduates often lack creative thought and critical skills and they are ill-prepared for the world of 3rd level. These are problems have nothing to do, however, with the actual structure of the LC. Rather, they are indicators of some serious issues which lie at the heart of the teaching profession today.
Morale levels among teachers are at an all-time low with the profession reporting one of the highest levels of depression within the public sector. Reasons for this include unwelcome Junior Cycle reforms, increased classroom discipline and behavioural issues exacerbated by societal change and dysfunctional, broken homes, and the invasive demands of pay reform agreements which include unpaid working hours. Add to this the upcoming obligation on schools to provide mental health services for children in the form of Wellbeing. Depressed, confused, badly-treated teachers cannot be expected to teach to the best of their ability. The government must take care of its teachers if it wishes to have successful schools.
Downgrading of the Teaching Profession
Teaching course requirements are attainable by most average LC pupils; Arts requires 300 points, while specific 2nd level teaching courses begin at 380 points. Statistics show that approximately 40% of pupils receive between 300-445 points in their Leaving Certificate therefore making almost half of school-leavers possible candidates for teaching. The cream of the crop, the high-achievers, are not being attracted into teaching. The faculties of medicine, law and business snap up the most talented young people with lucrative training offers and countless opportunities for travel, upward mobility and salary growth. The mediocre and the plodders, on the other hand, file into Arts degrees, and then struggle through the two obligatory years of teacher training (another area which needs a major overhaul). The financial incentives to become a teacher are non-existent; a McDonald’s employee tossing burgers earns almost as much as an NQT. They come into our schools to do teaching placement, and those that give you hope for the future with their innovation, sense of vocation and genuine love of the profession are, sadly, few and far between. The reality is that our pupils will only perform as well as their teachers expect them to perform; the attitude and ambition of the teacher has a crucial effect on the pupils. If the government wants successful schools and a highly-educated workforce, it must urgently address key issues such as pay for new teachers and teacher training. The current situation is unfortunately bleak.
Leaving Certificate Applied
Not all pupils have the academic ability to sit the Leaving Certificate. This fact needs to be recognized and respected – we should not force pupils, by means of societal expectations or otherwise, to sit an exam which they are incapable of successfully completing. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is a fantastic resource for these pupils to, nonetheless, receive an end-of-school certificate and go on to further education, be that a FETAC course or an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, the LCA has received a bad name in school circles as merely an opportunity for pupils of lower academic ability and with poor behaviour to come together in a class and do nothing for two years, and worse still, wreak havoc. This is the result of mismanagement and poor school strategy. It has all but ruined the reputation of an assessment which some pupils should be completing instead of the Leaving Certificate. The majority of schools should be obliged to offer the LCA program, particularly rural schools. Pupils who wish to go into professions such as hairdressing, mechanics, childcare, etc. should not be enduring the stress of the Leaving Certificate, and indeed causing extra work for already hard-pressed teachers, when they could be enjoying the more practical LCA. Societal attitudes in schools and communities around the LCA need to change.
Call for Change
The Leaving Cert is not the problem. Teacher morale, downgrading of the teaching profession and negative attitudes to the practical LCA ARE definitely problems.
Sort these out and the Leaving Certificate will be sorted too.