Anyone who’s done it never forgets it: the sweltering exam centres, the pastel, colour-coded booklets, the crystal ball-gazing about which poets would come up on English Paper II. The leaving certificate is a national common thread, an institution of the Irish education system. For better or worse, the format and structure have changed very little in the past half-century. Though an increasing number of subjects have incorporated a practical element, the senior cycle remains overwhelmingly a test of how well a student can memorise information and reproduce it in a written exam.
Today, many teenagers, teachers and parents will breathe a sigh of relief with the news that tabled reforms would bring an end to the mammoth single block of exams at the end of students’ six years in school. Mooted reforms would see students entering senior cycle in September 2023 sitting Paper One in English and Irish at the end of fifth year. A move towards greater non-exam forms of assessment such as projects and oral exams are being seriously considered. The announcement followed a four-year review of the senior cycle, which concluded that while most stakeholders don’t want exams to be scrapped entirely, there was a need to alleviate the stress that the June exam session brings.
Even before the pandemic, few people in Ireland – teachers, students, parents – were of the opinion that the leaving certificate was a flawless system. The emphasis on rote learning puts students with learning disabilities at an obvious disadvantage, for one. Being tasked with regurgitating two years’ worth of teaching in a two-hour exam would faze even the most academically inclined 18 year old. In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Children recommended that the system as we know it be reformed, given the disproportionate level of stress felt by students from such a consequential terminal exam.
But the rigidity of the marathon exam session in June was thrown into focus when lockdown in Ireland meant that cramming hundreds of teenagers into a desk-lined assembly hall or gym was suddenly out of the question. Cancelling the leaving cert – once so unthinkable it was a joke among stressed sixth years – was, almost overnight, the only option.
The proposal to measure one cohort of students by one metric, and a second cohort by another metric, was deemed unworkable by the Department of Education. Dr Damien Murchan of Trinity’s School of Education explains that such a system would have impinged on the fundamental reason why the leaving certificate has been allowed to persist largely unchanged.
“The entire leaving certificate depends on public trust – on public trust in the accuracy and the validity of the results. If there’s doubt about the methods used to generate results, it can call the integrity of the exam into question.”
The entire leaving certificate depends on public trust – on public trust in the accuracy and the validity of the results
He is of the opinion that the Department made the right decision not to employ calculated grades this year: “I think to proceed with calculated grades where we don’t have some standardisation data on students in order to moderate results would have been quite a risky move.”
But certainly, the use of calculated grades for two years in a row has forced education stakeholders to grapple with the prospect of leaving-certificate reform with an unprecedented sense of urgency.
Murchan and Keith Johnston of Trinity’s School of Education have recently delved deep into this very question – they edited the recently launched Curriculum Change within Policy and Practice: Reforming Second-Level Education in Ireland. For Murchan, the question of reform is a philosophical one: “When you change the curriculum you’re changing, essentially, the view of knowledge, the way of communicating knowledge from one generation to another.”
“We thought, in part, that by auditing what was being done and auditing why it was being done, we could capture some lessons for policymakers, for people interested in the future in developing similar curricula at secondary, at primary and other levels.”
Reform of the senior cycle is not, however, an entirely blank slate. Over the past decade, the junior certificate has been transformed from essentially a leaving-certificate lite to an assessment model with much less emphasis on the final exam. This involved almost dismantling students’ and teachers’ understanding of the process and purpose of assessment: “Traditionally, we would have seen knowledge packaged as sort of discrete subjects, very much self contained … Now we have this idea and concept of ‘key skills’, which are more kind of broader, transversal skills that a student may gain across the entire curriculum.”
But the most significant change to the junior cycle, in terms of how it looks as an assessment model, was the introduction of classroom-based assessment – that is, teachers marking their own students’ work for inclusion in their end-of-cycle results.
I think to proceed with calculated grades where we don’t have some standardisation data on students in order to moderate results would have been quite a risky move
Johnston explains that this change was possible in part because “there’s almost an acceptance within the system” that final exams were less pertinent in the junior cycle framework. “It’s as much about the process and the learning and trying to sort of accredit the learning outcomes in different ways including via the CBAs [classroom-based assessments], for example, which does include an aspect of school-based certification.”
But the senior cycle is different – one’s junior certificate results are, in the grand scheme of things, largely inconsequential. Leaving certificate results, on the other hand, are a student’s ticket into college. In a country where queue-jumping is a national sport, the third-level admissions system is all but incorruptible, according to Eamonn Dennehy, the president of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI). The leaving certificate is, he says, “the same for every young person in the country … if you get a H1 in something, well, that’s what you earned and it is comparable to anybody else anywhere in the state. And I think that’s extremely important”.
He is dubious about a more permanent facilitation of teachers marking their own students. “If you go for school-based [assessment] … the status of the school, the good name of the school, will feed into that young person’s grade one way or another.”
Dennehy adds that the lack of consultation with teachers for junior cycle reform has led to a skepticism about any changes to the senior cycle. “Any reform that we’d be thinking about – and this was true with the junior cert [and] it will be true as well about leaving cert – [we would say] show us the evidence of the changes that you intend [to make] and how they’re going to benefit the system in general. I suppose we want an evidence based decision making process here. And that was missing I think in the junior cert framework that was actually kind of foisted on teachers and they weren’t part of the decision making process.”
Dennehy concedes that the system as it stands is imperfect, but reform has the capacity to make it worse, not better, if the process is flawed. “If there are flaws in it, let’s not repeat those mistakes. I’d be careful about that.
The leaving certificate is the same for every young person in the country: if you get a H1 in something, that’s what you earned and it is comparable to anybody else anywhere in the state. That’s extremely important
He concurs with Murchan’s point about public buy in, too. “We’d be of the opinion that our current system is very trustworthy … it enjoys the confidence of the general public.”
Junior cycle reform was implemented in stages, starting in 2017: students sat all subjects bar one the “old” way, and did one subject, English, under the new model of assessment. More subjects were added each year. But even this approach has been the subject of considerable debate, Johnston says. While it might seem unwise to dump an entirely new system on all students for all subjects, teachers are “able to collaborate together in different subjects around reforms, because the reforms are happening in every subject at one time”.
“There’s also a suggestion that whilst [the] all-at-once approach may be more burdensome in the initial stages, it may have the potential to enact or to lean toward the implementation of more significant or bigger reforms in the longer term.”
Murchan points to previous examples of reform being frontloaded rather than brought in in stages. The primary-school curriculum was overhauled in the late 1990s “on a much more sudden basis”, because of the nature of primary teaching. “The same teacher teaches the same subject so it would be very difficult to be teaching Irish in one way and English in another and perhaps history in another.”
Second-level mathematics, he continues, has seen reform implemented in both ways. “Mathematics is one of the most-changed curricula over the years – there’s been about six changes since the 1960s. And they’ve done it in different ways … sometimes they’ve brought it in all at once. And there would seem to be a better appetite [for that]. It’s a big bite to take but it may be digested more easily, ultimately, for the system.”
If you bring in a curriculum together, if all the teachers engage in introducing the curriculum at the same time. It gives a sense that ‘we’re all in this together, this is all new and we’re all working together’
“If you bring in a curriculum together, if all the teachers engage in introducing the curriculum at the same time, even within a school, it gives a sense that ‘we’re all in this together, this is all new and we’re all working together’. If you phase it in, you leave one group of teachers upfront, dealing with introducing reform, and the other teachers are not quite as engaged with it.”
Much like higher education, it’s impossible to ignore the question of funding in any discussion of schooling in Ireland. Dennehy points out that this country has “the most underfunded education system in the OECD”. While a lot of talk about reform is “aspirational”, he says, when it comes to mending the holes in the current system, such as how students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia are at a major disadvantage. But “you need staff to do that. You need resources to do that. You need space to do that. You don’t need 30 [students] in a classroom …. But that’s not available, especially psychological services, etc, are very scarce. In-house counsellors, again scarce. They were cut back in recent times.”
“It’s wanting to talk about a bright new dawn, but these things have to be planned properly and the people who’ll have to implement it need to be part of the decision making process.”
Indeed, on school services, Murchan points to Finland as the gold standard – as so many do. One of the most enviable aspects of the Finnish education system is a “synergy” between teachers and other professionals who work with students: speech therapists, language therapists, social workers and so on. Tackling the stress that the leaving certificate places on students will likely involve work to bolster the role of career guidance teachers or psychologists who work with students.
This country has the most underfunded education system in the OECD. A lot of talk about reform is aspirational, when it comes to mending the holes in the current system
Murchan also points to the US education system as an example of a form of schooling where stress and anxiety isn’t nearly as commonplace – or, indeed, simply accepted as part of the process – as it is here. But he notes that Ireland’s education system is actually sought after in the likes of the US for other reasons. “Irish students’ academic achievement is on par, if not higher, than the achievement of students in most other education systems, particularly in numeracy.”
“So, on that measure, I think other countries would be looking to ourselves”, he says.
Clearly, there is an acceptance that, if there is one change which must be made to senior-cycle education, it’s the impact of the leaving certificate on students’ wellbeing. But there remains a fear that major change will not create a net improvement. As Dennehy puts it: “Show us an alternative that you think is better and why.”
“Look at the strengths of what we have already … if you’re going to change something, you have to have the capacity to change.”