© Pablo Nidam / Scop.io

Let’s face it: The Junior Cert doesn’t matter

The exact form of words used is a blur, but the sentiment is easy to remember. The year was 1999. The setting was St. Macartan’s College, Monaghan – a very fine school which yours truly was fortunate to attend. The Junior cert results had arrived – results for which we had all worked with varying degrees of industry towards achieving, having been told relentlessly that the exams were the most important test of our young lives.

And here we were, with our As and Bs and Cs freshly uncovered, facing a teacher who was flipping the script of the previous year on its head. As I say, the exact words are beyond memory, but the sentiment was something along the lines of “senior hurling now, boys, that Junior Cert means absolutely nothing”.

Which, of course, some of us had suspected. The Junior Certificate was not, even then, in times of yore, a recognised qualification for, well, anything. It’s nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the senior final, three years later. A bit of a run-out for the under 16’s, in sporting terms.

This year, the results of the Junior Cert, we have been told, will not be delivered until late November. That is two things at once: It is an insult to all the young people who worked very hard to study and prepare for those exams. And it is also confirmation that the state itself, which sets the exam, regards the whole thing as entirely unimportant. Which raises a fundamental question: Why are we putting young people through it at all?

In recent years, the curriculum for the exam has been dumbed down beyond recognition. There is, in many subjects, no longer a “higher level” or an “ordinary level” for varying degrees of ability. Now, students’ study in “common level” classes, designed to be equitable but really meaning that the whole class learns and advances at the rate of its weakest member. The exams are marked by teachers, increasingly, in the schools themselves, granting them no greater a significance than a standard end-of-year summer test. One might worry that this incentivises schools to mark their students lightly, but then, who judges a school by its junior cert results? We all know it’s not important.

Wouldn’t it be better, for all concerned, if we are going down this road, just to abolish the exam in its entirety? Or, if we are to have a junior cycle, make it relevant.

It is deeply, and entirely, unfair to young people to tell them that an exam matters when everything the state says and does about that exam sends the opposite message. I can think of no faster way to foster cynicism about the state, and authority. But perhaps that’s the only good thing to be said about the present set-up.

In many ways, I’d argue, we went entirely off the rails when we abolished the old inter cert: Then, the inter was what you needed to enter an apprenticeship: You had a grounding in language, and maths, and history, and woodwork, and so on, sufficient to get you through life, and set you on the road to a trade. Do your inter, get an apprenticeship, emerge into the world as an electrician or a plumber, or a craftsperson, and get on with your life.

Now, you do this pointless exam, do a leaving cert, go to college, study humanities, and then try to figure out what to make of yourself.

And we think this is better? Better for who? Academics in regional colleges, certainly. But for students? I’m not so sure.

There are those who will make one point in defence of the Junior Cert, and it’s important to address it here: It’s meaningless in Ireland, they’ll say, but it’s not meaningless overseas. If you want to go to College in the UK, for example, your Junior Cert results will inform your predicted leaving cert grades, and thus affect your chances of getting an offer from York, or Cambridge, or wherever. But that situation too, is undermined by the current system: Those predicted grades lose value relative to UK grades when you dumb down subjects to a “common level” curriculum graded by your own teachers. An A1 (or H1, these days) awarded in common level by your own teacher is objectively and measurably worth a lot less than an A1/H1 awarded at higher level by a blind examiner. We’re dumbing down the exams, and devaluing them on the world stage.

For what?

For, I think, the simple reason that the state doesn’t want to pay examiners, and some clowns in the education world think that having a child do “ordinary level” is in some way embarrassing, as if the real world is free of stratification based on ability.

The truth is, nobody knows what these exams are for, any more. And increasingly, it seems, Government doesn’t care.

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