July 2017        

Time to scrap the Leaving Certificate

Graham Harrington

If the Irish education system is the “murder machine” that Patrick Pearse described, then the Leaving Certificate is the murder weapon.
     The Leaving Cert system ensures that the potential career and life of the pupil is dependent on a single memory test. There is little actual education in the period coming up to the exams, with teachers rushing to get through modules. For example in English, probably the most important subject, poetry is taught in an over-simplified format, with the teacher getting through complex poems with a few sound bites that can be used to impress the examiner, rather than any meaningful discussion on the content.
     There’s a sort of lottery over what poet will come up in the exam, so pupils, under pressure with their work load, will try to guess what poets to study. The whole system is based on a sort of guesswork, with the final result being based on what quotations the candidate remembers on the day, rather than anything based on intelligence or proper understanding.
     Most pupils, of course, forget everything once they finish the exam, making the entire thing pointless.
     There is no room for any education about things the pupils are interested in. If it isn’t in the curriculum, it isn’t covered; and even if it is it’s done broadly and in a very simplified way. If a pupil wants to study something they find interesting but the subject has no chance of coming up in the exam, they are actively discouraged from pursuing it, even if the topic is relevant.
     It goes without saying that political economy, politics of any kind or anything else that doesn’t fit into the neat and narrow curriculum isn’t covered. Pupils have no power over what they learn. This isn’t the fault of the teachers: if they do something mad like teaching the pupils what they want, their points in the exam will drop, which is what a teacher’s success is measured by—not by what they teach, or how they open their pupils’ minds, or encouraging them to think independently.
     The entire system is geared towards training people to be disciplined, not to ask questions, and be an asset to capitalism. Courses on business studies are always encouraged; but there is no Leaving Cert subject covering democracy, or anything encouraging participation in one’s community.
     History, for example, is very much concentrated on the “great man” view of historical change, rather than on people’s history. Those who think differently from the simplistic textbook history are penalised, with assessment being based on how well the pupil can regurgitate the official history.
     Elitism plays a major role in the system, as it always does in institutions in a class society, with pupils from a working-class background more likely to drop out and never take the final exams at all. Nothing exists to prevent this. In fact the system doesn’t mind, as these pupils are seen to be poor performers who will only get low points anyway.
     Those who do take the Leaving Cert exam are not provided with any additional support that their more privileged classmates can avail of. The parents of those pupils can afford to get them grinds and so on, which can compensate for lower ability, which means that the Leaving Cert is much easier if you come from a more upper-class background, regardless of your ability.
     To make this more entrenched, universities and colleges tend to have a select group of schools that they deem appropriate to take new entrants from. The culture among schools in working-class areas tends to discourage intelligent pupils from pursuing high-level courses at third level and instead encourages them to take up a trade or a labour-intensive career, even if they are fully capable of a professional occupation.
     This is all to say nothing about the inherent failure of a system that bases itself on rewarding the regurgitation of years of material in two weeks of exams; or the mental health problems associated with it.
     The alternative is to put education at the centre of the education system, as obvious as this sounds.

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