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Why the leaving cert reforms are a terrible idea

One of the few things in Ireland that works relatively well is the education system. It is, after all, mostly fair: While we have some private schools, and rich parents will always be able to afford grinds, and so on, the fact of the matter is that in the leaving cert, everybody has an equal opportunity. Third level education is much cheaper here than almost anywhere else in Europe. The college admissions system – based, as it is, on points – is pretty fair. Nothing is perfect, and there are always problems, of course, but as education systems go, you can do a lot worse than Ireland’s.

Indeed, if you listen to the things Irish people complain about, education rightly does not rank high on the list. While there might be the occasional grumble, we’re broadly happy with that part of our society. As we should be. We have one of the most educated populations in the world.

But politicians, as a class, have an illness: To advance up the career ranks, they need to do things, and achieve things. That means, invariably, that they need to change things. In this case, the education minister needs to be seen to leave a mark in her department, and to build a legacy.

And so it was, yesterday, that we got something that nobody has really ever demanded: An announcement of a major leaving cert reform:

Major reform of the Leaving Cert is being planned from 2024 onwards which will include spreading project work and exams over fifth and sixth year.

The move aims to reduce student stress levels around the traditional final written exams in the final year and introduce teacher-based assessment for continual assessment, projects or other course components.

Minister for Education Norma Foley is keen to proceed with reforms which would see students entering senior cycle in September 2023 sitting Paper One in English and Irish at the end of fifth year.

Over time, 60 per cent of marks for all Leaving Cert subjects will be based on written exams and 40 per cent on assessment components such as project work, orals or practicals.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this, beyond the argument above that none of it is really necessary.

The first problem is that the proposed change makes teacher and school quality much more important than it is already. Some subjects already have project work, of course, and in those subjects, teachers often stay behind after school hours – at least in good schools – to help their exam classes, and provide more time for students to get their projects completed. In a set national exam, as we have at present, every student gets the same time to sit their exam. Is this going to be true of practicals and projects and so on, or will we perhaps see another shift in favour of those lucky enough to be in schools with an achievement culture? You already know the answer to that, in your heart.

The second problem is the fallacy that stress can be reduced by spreading the stress out. That’s absolute nonsense: Imagine the pressure on a student going into an exam having completed a practical a year earlier. Will they know the results of that practical? Will they know, for example, that to pass their exam, they have to get 60 or 70% in the written paper? In many cases, this proposal will have the effect not of reducing stress and pressure, but increasing it: Rather than a student being like a footballer going into a match needing to win, many students may feel like footballers coming out for the second half 2-0 down. And what’s the alternative? That they do not know their practical mark a year later, when they set their written paper? You can be sure that the country has its fair share of slightly neurotic students who will have done well in their practical, but be convinced that they failed. This is an invitation for those students, too, to pile pressure on themselves.

The third problem is teacher based assessment. As a short term emergency measure during the covid pandemic, it just about worked. But that was short term, and in an emergency, and not without controversy.

One of the things about the Irish system which really boosts public confidence in the exam system is blind marking: You’re marking an anonymous exam number, not a real flesh and blood student perceptions of whom are burned into your consciousness over five years. This can work both ways, by the way: Is it hard to imagine a teacher sub-consciously marking down a gifted pupil who they think has under-achieved their ability? Is it hard to imagine one sub-consciously marking one up who they think has done “better than expected”? Is it hard to imagine a teacher taking non-education factors into account for a student whose father is an alcoholic, or who suffered a bereavement during the year? Or who was once very rude to them?

None of this is necessary. It is not immediately clear what it achieves. It is, again, a classic example of the Irish politician: They are entirely incapable of fixing the urgent problems in Irish society, but all too willing to risk messing up the things that do work, just to make a name for themselves.

This reform should be opposed.

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