The Future of the Leaving Cert

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

As concerns regarding this year's Leaving Certificate examinations rise, Grace Donnellan examines the current system and provides alternatives

When reading the news regarding the Leaving Certificate recently you would be forgiven for thinking that the year was still 2020. It appears that, despite last year’s debacle and the intervening months that the government have had to create a plan for 2021, no conclusion has been reached concerning the exams. A preliminary solution seems to have been decided with Minister for Education Norma Foley stating that a two-track approach will be taken, which will involve exams and an alternative non-exam process. However, the details of this plan have not been outlined. At the time of writing, discussions are still ongoing between Department of Education officials and teachers' unions regarding how this process will be run, as well as, other details such as practical and oral exams. Minister Foley has been quoted in a Department of Education press release saying: “We will be actively planning both to hold the Leaving Certificate examinations, and to put in place a corresponding measure that can also be offered to students”.

While this year is somewhat of an anomaly, questions regarding the sustainability of the current Leaving Certificate model are regularly raised. A 2020 review of the senior cycle programme by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) found that “purpose and the vision of senior cycle seem to be too narrow and rigid for Ireland’s aspirations”.  Additionally, a report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCAA) reviewing senior cycle education is due to be considered by Minister Foley in the coming months. Practical concerns have been raised regarding the single assessment of many subjects. Most exams are run over only 3 weeks in June, with students often having 2 exams on one day, and limited opportunity for resits of exams.

However, there are many benefits to the current system. Speaking with the Education and Research Officer for the ASTI, Moira Leydon, she says “The Leaving Cert, because it is externally assessed, is a very robust, fair and objective model... Are there alternatives which can deliver the fairness and objectivity of the Leaving Certificate? We (the ASTI) do not believe a predicted grade model can deliver that”.  Predicted grades are a useful alternative when exams cannot be sat. However, last year’s results have led to legal challenges. Additionally, the President of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, Reuben Murray, has said that some students were facing intense class tests while in school as teachers tried to ensure they would have a body of work to base a predicted grade on if needs be. On the topic of online exams, Leydon says: “Can we get online models that replicate conditions of no cheating and no plagiarism which we get when we have students sitting in the exam hall?” Online exams are also not the most accessible as they require students to have a computer, a quiet room, or a stable wifi connection.

An alternative to the current Leaving Certificate that is often proposed is continuous assessment. However, this also comes with some challenges. The idea of having some exams at the end of 5th Year was put forward in the NCAA 2019 Draft Consultative Report. However, in some subjects, skill development occurs over the 2 year period and so this was not considered an ideal solution. Additionally, the question arises as to whether this would actually solve any current problems or just lead to two sets of stressful Leaving Certificate exams. Other suggestions put forward in the NCAA report include allowing students to use different methods of assessment such as audio-visual or PowerPoint, moving away from a one-size-fits-all written approach.

Leydon explains: “one of the key policy concerns that the ASTI has been raising is that we need to review the admission system to higher education, are there other ways that colleges could supplement data coming from the CAO with other information?” She continues that “creating supplementary & more nuanced measures in addition to the CAO would create a more flexible system”. These concerns have been echoed by the OECD and the NCAA. In the 2019 NCAA Draft Report, many advocated for a reform of the current CAO system. One parent/guardian described the Leaving Certificate as “a rat race in pursuit of CAO points”. An alternative could involve personal statements or interviews that allow students to demonstrate their suitability and interest in a particular course, instead of relying solely on grades in subjects that might have no relevance to their chosen degree. A practice like this is used in the US. However, it comes with its own problems as wealthy students have used various techniques to game the system.

“The ASTI believe the externally assessed Leaving Certificate exams are the best option. We acknowledge the critiques, but these can best be solved by looking at admissions to college. As well as providing greater capacity for students to have wider learning experiences and so students can make post-school choices that are not all funnelled into higher education” says Leydon. Again, this has been brought up in the NCAA draft report, where consultative feedback emphasised the need for a broader learning experience. The report also recognised the limited pathways available to people who do not wish to take the traditional senior cycle or proceed into conventional higher education.

The current Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programmes take a different approach to the Leaving Certificate. LCVP allows students to prepare for the world of work and utilises continuous assessment with a portfolio making up 60% of a student’s final grade. However, teachers of LCVP have argued for a review of the module in order to make it more attractive to students. The LCA programme also employs practical and continuous assessment elements. Nonetheless, concerns have been raised over the lack of progression opportunities for LCA students. The OECD also recommended an enhancement of the current vocational options available during and after the Leaving Certificate.

In previous Action Plans and Statements of Strategy, the Department of Education has reaffirmed its commitment to managing a learning experience that is of the highest international standards. It is clear that our system is not providing this calibre to current senior cycle students. Reflecting on the continuing uncertainty surrounding this year’s Leaving Certificate, Leydon says “There should have been a decision in principle made by the government once it became clear that there would be waves of the pandemic, as seen globally”. The government needs to overcome its paralysis regarding education policy not only when considering the pandemic but also the long term future.