The Leaving Cert isn't the real problem, the CAO system is
The Leaving Cert gets a hard time.
And many of the complaints we level at it are indisputably true. It is unduly stressful. It matters in the sense that everything matters, but its importance is artificially elevated. It does somehow only happen during Ireland's best two weeks of weather each year.
But perhaps the primary criticism of the Leaving Cert is that it encourages rote learning — that it's a "memory test." A test of a student's ability to cram information and stay up late rather than a true measure of aptitude.
This one is a little unfair.
While it's impossible to be prescriptive about what skills anyone will need as they go through life, it's fair to say that most things come down to the effort they apply and access to the appropriate resources rather than their "natural level" of aptitude.
Furthermore, the Leaving Cert offers an impressive balance in choice of subjects, which students can explore for two or three full years. At worst, any 18 year old who leaves school with a comprehensive knowledge of Shakespeare, modern European and Irish history, economies of scale and supply and demand, balance sheets and quadratic equations while able to passably speak three languages is a pretty impressive kid.
That's without even getting into the more niche subjects that students can gain an in-depth knowledge of, such as Agricultural Science, Classical Studies and Accounting. As it stands, Philosophy, Politics and Society and PE are also all being trialled or introduced as state exam courses — suggesting a more holistic direction for the Irish education system.
Of course, that's not to say that the Leaving Cert can't be improved upon. It can be. Vastly.
For starters, there is no reason to assume that a selection of exams that last between two and three hours each are an appropriate gauge of a student's level after two full years of study.
People have bad days. It's a cliché, but one of those clichés that's a cliché for a very good reason. Because it's true. Waking up sick on the morning of an exam, or god forbid, two exams (some people can even fall ill for a week or longer) really shouldn't be grounds for the state, or our universities, to ignore what might have been two years of hard work. Ad misericordiam grounds, such as a death in the family, or poor mental health, should also be verifiable by the state and taken into consideration.
Universities facilitate thousands of repeat exams, and the same should be true at the secondary school level. Similarly, submissions could be made on behalf of a student, signed off by all the student's teachers, and the principal, coupled with extensive examples of the student's previous work and house exam results. Both of these solutions would surely have flaws — but hey, I came up with them off the top of my head and it's not even my job — but this is certainly a problem that could be managed far more creatively than it is now.
Even now, the Department of Education is taking steps to offset the pressure of the one-shot exam system by building more and more coursework and continuous assessment into the curriculum.
But while the Leaving Cert system might be a problem in those cases where a student has a bad day — the CAO inherently messes the whole thing up for everyone.
The Central Applications Office is the body which manages all applications to Higher Education Institutions by Irish students. Each grade equates to a CAO score which a certain value of points, and if there are more applicants for any given course than there are places, then students are ranked by how many points they have, and admitted accordingly. This might seem like a good idea on face value... but it's not.
Case in point:
Imagine two students who have selected the same History degree at the same college as their CAO first choice. It's entirely plausible that the first student is a student with a proclivity for Maths is studying Honours Maths, Physics and Applied Maths at the Leaving Cert level — and nails them all, without even studying History at the Leaving Cert level.
Wonderful as a proficiency in maths is, it doesn't necessarily suggest either a passion or talent for History. It does, however, mean points. There is an automatic 25 point bonus for Honours Maths students, who already have the benefit of there being several other optional maths-based exams that they can take.
Meanwhile, the student who has chosen to study Classics and History at the Leaving Cert level could get full marks (they call that a H1 now, by the way, A1s aren't a thing anymore) in both and but still come out with fewer points than the first student — perhaps because of results in an unrelated subject like French, or Accounting, or indeed, Maths.
Nevertheless, with the exception of a few courses that require minimum grades in a foreign language or (of course) Maths, the specifics of a student's education don't come into play at the CAO level. You could be some kind of goddamn Tim Pat Coogan-Diarmaid Ferriter hybrid and still lose your spot in a History course because some kid who doesn't even know when 1916 happened beat you out by 12 points (that's a thing now too) with their grades in Chemistry, Music and Maths.
You could even have a student who has no proclivity for history, who earns 24 points fewer than the history buff on merit, getting the final place in a History course based on a one-point advantage that they gained simply by choosing to study Honours Maths.
This is a problem with the CAO system rather than the exams or the curriculum.
Suggestions of more active learning, or increasing the level of coursework and continuous assessment, are all well and good — but ultimately meaningless if universities don't have a care in the world for where a student's skills and passions lie.
Intuitively, it seems as though active learning would help Irish kids to learn better — but what's it for when the actual application system doesn't take into account the talents of each individual student? The Leaving Cert needs to change for the better, but it won't matter until the CAO system changes with it.