Some thoughts on the Leaving Cert

Greg Foley, School of Biotechnology


What exactly is second level education for? In my view, secondary education must do two things. Firstly it must educate young people in the traditional sense by providing them with the opportunity to acquire a wide body of knowledge that will ultimately enhance their lives. I’m thinking about things like the great events of history, the wonders of the natural world, literature, poetry, foreign languages, science and even mathematics in its purest form. Secondly, it must prepare them for higher and further education. Second level is not the place for obsessing about “real world problems” (whatever they are) for the simple reason that the vast majority of school-leavers will go on to further or higher education. The classic example of this fallacy is the Project Maths initiative in which students supposedly tackle “real world” maths problems at secondary school but end up being unable to cope with third level mathematics.

Every year there is a barrage of comment and opinion in which the basic message, repeated over and over, is that the Leaving Certificate is not fit for purpose. My own experience of teaching university students is that the Leaving is a good measure of overall intelligence and, crucially, work ethic. Performance in the Leaving is not a particularly good predictor of individual performance at third level but ask any lecturer which they would prefer: a class full of 500-pointers or a class full of 350-pointers and I am quite confident that they will go for the former. Group dynamics play a very important role at any level of education and it is easy and highly rewarding to teach a class full of hardworking, enthusiastic 500-pointers. When the entry points drop to the 350 mark, the job becomes much more difficult and maintaining standards is a challenge.

Finally, it is worth commenting on a commonly held belief among those who deride the use of end-of-year exams. There seems to be a view that there are significant numbers of “brilliant young people” who just cannot perform in exams and these people are being disadvantaged by a system that does not make use of alternative forms of assessment. Thirty years of lecturing at third level tells me that such people, brilliant rather than having some very specific talent that is not tested in exams, are very rare indeed.


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