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Dumbing down the Leaving will make us all stupider in the end

Norma Foley announced, yesterday, that she intends to make the leaving cert significantly easier. Those were not the words she used, but the meaning of the words she did use could not be more clear:

“Less material to cover” is not hard to understand. It means, in simple terms, that students will be able to achieve the same grades this year as students did in previous years, but by learning fewer things. This is not a “more focused leaving cert”, or anything like that. It is not, for example, the case that students will not study calculus, but take a more in-depth course in trigonometry. No, the level of learning will still be the same across the board – they’ll just have to learn less.

The outcome, by design, will be that students who get H1s (modern A1s, for people my age) will have had to demonstrate significantly less learning than students who came before them.

This is the definition of “dumbing down”. And it is bad for everybody.

Parents, of course, will welcome it, and students will as well. In the political world, those are about the only two voices that matter. After all, nobody has ever lost a vote by promising to make life less stressful at exam time for young people. The problem is that in terms of exam policy, parents and students are about the two groups who should be listened to least of all.

The reasons for this are not hard to comprehend: The main interests of parents and students are selfish ones: Everybody wants, for themselves or their child, the best possible leaving cert result with the least possible stress. Immense effort is put in, every year, to figure out what is likely to “come up” on the exams. Some students learn off essays in various subjects, and regurgitate them out almost regardless of the question. The focus of the leaving cert, for a long time, has been on points, not knowledge – and all of that is parent and student driven.

And now, of course, this year’s class of parents and students want an easier exam because of “the unique circumstances” of the year. Has their education been affected? Certainly – that much is undeniable. But the solution is not to make the exams easier.

Indeed, the beauty of the Irish system – and it does have some very good points – is that the University Admissions system Ireland has is almost perfectly designed for a situation just like this one. Courses are not assigned based on talent, but based on supply and demand, filled on a first-come-first-served basis, with the highest points scorers getting in first. If “Medicine in Trinity” is 600 points, all that means is that they filled the course with applicants who got that score, and had no need to admit anybody with fewer points.

If points were to drop sharply in a particular year, the CAO points would drop to meet the applicants.

But it gets better: Because no matter how hard the leaving cert is, the points will never drop to begin with. Why? Because the leaving cert is graded on a curve.

That means that – at least until now – the state exams commission worked on the basis that every year group was about as smart as the one before, and the one after. And that to avoid grade inflation, they simply assign a quota of each grade to each exam: In other words, in English, maybe 10% of students will get the top grade every year. 10% more will get the second grade, 20% the third grade, and so on. This is independent of how “hard” the exam is.

Add all of this together, and you get a system that is already perfectly designed for “tough” years like this one. The Irish State Exams commission – which has run the state exams for decades now – is one of the very few public bodies which does its job quietly, efficiently, and well, without political interference.

What we have here, by contrast, is a blundering minister chasing a good headline in the short term and risking the sabotage of the entire education system in the longer term. After all, what happens next year? Do they go back to the “harder” exams? Or will – because you can be sure pressure will be exerted – politicians demand that the exams remain “less stressful”?

The most galling thing about all of this, of course, is that it is happening because neither parents nor students truly understand the exam system as it is. It is designed for situations just like this one, and being changed anyway, so that a Minister with a very poor record can grab a day’s worth of headlines.

We are told, endlessly, that education is our future. If you reduce the level of education in a society, you make that future a bit stupider. That’s what Norma Foley did, yesterday. And she did it for a few votes, which, most likely, will never come her way anyway.

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