Tuesday 10 December 2019

Why Leaving Cert is an insult to pupils' intelligence

Two of our daughters were among the estimated 116,000 teenagers to begin their Leaving and Junior Certificate exams this week.

If, like Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, who was on John Murray's radio show reminiscing about his own Leaving Cert days, you date from an era when one or two honours and a respectable pass in three or four other subjects was often enough to earn you a place on a degree course (in the Minister's case, it was architecture), you might not fully appreciate how much times have changed -- especially if you're lucky enough not to have a child sitting either exam this year.


It's a tough time for everyone involved. For the students, or at least the conscientious ones who take school seriously, the exams are the culmination of two or three years of intensive classwork, countless weeknights and weekends spent ploughing through Everest-sized mountains of homework, and the kind of stress levels no young person should be subjected to.

The stress element is particularly pronounced in the weeks and months leading up to the exams when some, though far from all, teachers seem to mistake pressure for preparation.

American corporations vacuuming up the country's best and brightest graduates during the so-called good times never tire of telling us how the young, Irish workforce were among the best educated in the world. And our politicians, as gullible and self-satisfied about this as about so many other things during that hallucinatory boom, never tire of clapping themselves on the back for it.

It's astonishing how anyone could have reached this conclusion, given that our educational system -- at least at second level -- is dominated by rote-learning and a punishing race for precious points, when it should really be about imbuing young people with genuine intellectual curiosity and equipping them with the tools, both academic and personal, they'll need to get by in the big, bad world beyond the school gates.

Frankly, I find it amazing that any child's natural abilities and love of certain subjects (in the case of our two, these would lean heavily towards languages, music, art and other creative pursuits) can survive the hothouse environment fostered by our educational system.

What I'm about to say is not meant to be boastful or smug, simply truthful: we're very lucky, my wife and I. We have good kids. In the old Dublin parental parlance, they've never given us an ounce of trouble. They have their strengths and weaknesses, their strong subjects and not so strong ones, just like anyone else's kids. But they're serious and they've worked hard.

It's no picnic for parents, either, at exam time -- and anyone who tells you any different is talking through a part of their anatomy exclusively reserved for a less complex function than speech.

With the Leaving and Junior tests mostly ending at different times of the day, the business of getting them from A to B and from B back to A, ensuring they have a decent lunch in between, can alone be a logistical nightmare; more so if you have a younger child in primary school.

At various times you have to be master and servant, boss and buddy, a stern hand and a shoulder to cry on, as well as a bit of an amateur psychoanalyst. Still, you can now say to yourself that, having nursed them (there's no other way to say it) through the good days and bad, when their confidence and self-belief continually soared and dipped like the biggest rollercoaster in Disneyworld, at least the end is in sight. And after all, exams are simply a means to an end.

But what kind of an end, exactly? For a Leaving Cert student, what have the last five years (six if they take Transition Year) actually been about?

I looked at my eldest daughter's exam timetable this week. I didn't just check the start and finish times of the various papers; I also noted down the amount of time devoted to each subject. The results are absolutely startling.

The longest exam of all is higher level Irish. Spread across two papers, it lasts for a staggering six hours and 50 minutes.

English, also broken into two papers, clocks in at six hours and 10 minutes.

So in other words, the language that will be of least practical use to her -- unless she plans to do an Irish degree or become a teacher, which she assuredly doesn't -- is given pre-eminence in this supposedly crucial, make-or-break exam over the language she'll converse in for the remainder of her life.

Meanwhile, European languages such as German, French and Spanish, all of which could open new career doors at a time when young people emerging from schools, colleges and universities will need to be more mobile than ever before, merit no more than a single exam paper running to three hours and 20 minutes.


Even more shockingly, science subjects, again mirroring their place in the wider curriculum, are disposed of in a single, three-hour paper -- and this at a time when our leading educationalists are throwing their hands up in horror at how comparatively few science graduates this country is producing.

Something is badly wrong.

The fact all our children can emerge from a broken, outmoded educational system that straitjackets their thinking and clings doggedly to a ruptured ideology based on redundant notions of post-imperialist national identity, yet still make something of their lives, speaks volumes for their character.

They deserve our respect and admiration.

Good luck to all of them for the rest of the exams.

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