First of all let me be really clear about one thing. I never wanted my son to do the Leaving Certificate (LC). I had hoped he would do the International Baccalaureate (IB). I even placed him in one of the few schools in Ireland that offers that option. But children are children and they want to do what their friends are doing, so here we are on the eve of the Leaving Certificate.
Why did I not want my son to sit the LC? Primarily because of the stress it puts on young people to regurgitate so much rote learned information, secondly because of the limited skill set they acquire by doing the exams and finally because there is no easy option to repeat it which makes the undertaking even more stressful as there is no safety net to fall back on.
Leaving Cert and Stress
It puts an incredible amount of unnecessary stress on young people at a time of their lives when they are already going through enough stress and emotional turmoil thank you very much. All exams are stressful, but the Leaving Certificate comes as an all in one package that requires a lot of rote learning over a wide range of subjects and can only be done in one sitting over a period of just over two weeks. It’s an insane way to assess whether a young person has the required understanding knowledge or skill set to progress further in life. Late puberty is a difficult time for kids, perhaps more so now than before. The pressure that kids are placed under with respect to image and self esteem is intense and is of course fuelled by social media, the last thing most of them need is more stress.
Leaving Cert Repeats
If one of the exams doesn’t pan out as expected, it can’t simply be repeated. The entire Leaving Certificate has to be repeated. Furthermore, young people cannot do this at school in the same way that they can in other countries and neither can they resit the Leaving Certificate in a few months when all that shallowly learnt knowledge is till fresh in their head. No, they have to wait an entire year and sit all six subjects again. Pure madness and pure stress.
The rationale? Well people might just do two subjects a year over three years and get all H1 s. Yes and so what? Pretty much every other type of learning that we do in life is done piecemeal, so why not this? I am sure that the third level sector could magic up some way of giving bonus points to one sitting if they wanted to; there are a lot of brainy academics there after all. Lets face it, once you are 23 years old the University sector actually doesn’t even care if you have a Leaving Certificate at all provided you have demonstrated adequate life experience. Meanwhile, if you wanted to enter an Irish University having done your A levels there is no issue with having done one a year if that is what you did. Such warped logic that causes so much stress for young people.
What skills does the Leaving Cert give us?
The LC as a final graduating school examination is so arduous and so utterly inapplicable or reflective of skills that young adults actually need such as analytical skills, team based approaches and more importantly than anything emotional intelligence. In most other countries young people have to demonstrate continuous understanding of the subjects they are studying, and also have a far greater opportunity to demonstrate individuality and uniqueness and personal opinion. You wouldn’t dare do that in the LC; it might lose you marks!
The Leaving Cert Industry
The Leaving Certificate generates a whole industry around it too. The first of those is the education system itself. Schools vie for top places on the leader board of points acquired in the leaving certificate and parents crave places in those schools because big points means good college places which surely must mean good jobs and successful offspring and successful parenting! Right? Schools with high places on the leader board focus a lot of 5th and 6th year on testing, on question answering, on rote questions, on predictive question spotting and the like. Navigating the LC becomes more about strategy than understanding knowledge passion or wisdom. Those children with access to the strategies will undoubtedly do better. Bestowing of merit praise and worth on the kids that do well of course duly follow in the schools which have focused so intensely on LC preparation. Kid’s worth and their value to the school are ranked and noted. Some schools offer prizes to high achieving children.
Next the vast array of books and websites and guides that help you add finesse to your strategy. Parents anxious to support their children go ahead and buy these. I swore I never would, but of course I did. I, like any other parent would do anything to help my child through this gruesome rite of passage. Finally, of course the grinds. Again parents seeing the anxiety that the LC is provoking within their children opt for this. Some parents feel that their children are just not receiving enough guidance in school to navigate the exams. God forbid they were only receiving an education. So there are all year courses, Christmas courses, Mid term courses, Easter Courses and even crash courses. Again I swore I would never engage with this industry, but I did. My son needed help, and I turned to the structure of these courses in the holidays to try to keep some sense of momentum going. Its been a holy hell.
Then of course there is the sub industry of getting assessments. Validated assessments for a wide variety of physical and emotional conditions can change the way you might sit your exams which can be very helpful for some kids and can shave a large percentage of points off University requirements. The problem is that the Public School Intervention teams can’t cope with the number of assessments they are expected to approve and sign off on, so parents are obliged to go privately. I drew the line here. Whilst its obvious my son has challenges in processing some directions and understanding instructions or comprehensions, something identified in primary school, I didn’t pursue it with formal assessments. He tells me half his class have exemptions and exclusions and special dispensations and are on the DARE program for University entry, so there is definitely a thriving industry filling in the gap that the public system cant cope with.
Leaving Cert and Self esteem
Undertaking the LC stratifies kids into groups of those who will be successful (referred to I believe as 600 pointers or 500 pointers), to those who wont be as successful. The children who achieve well below the average for the school are rarely referred to with pride in any annual report. They are there to fill the register. The stodgy carb filler in the Sunday Lunch. Don’t tell me for one second that kids aren’t aware of this stratifying and judgment of them as human beings. It can’t be good for their mental and emotional health and it isn’t something that a focus on mental well being for a day, or a week or a month in school is going to easily lighten or shift.
All kids subject to that regime end up viewing their worth, or a part of their worth in these exam results. That is not exactly healthy. It applies equally to those kids that are high exam achievers and to those that are low exam achievers. Its part of our education system that we encourage our youth to value themselves on external achievement rather than on internal understanding stability and self worth. Any self help book you pick up will emphatically state that the route to self esteem does not come from external validation and external achievements. Self esteem comes from connecting with yourself, and from realising your value from the inside not from the outside in, yet on we go with the Leaving Cert despite the emotional dangers it places on children. Needless to say, this is in addition to the emotional stress of actually sitting the exams, which for some children is extreme.The lead up is incredibly stressful and some kids just are unable to cope. Many children I know a year ahead of my son went to counselling because they were unable to cope, some children I know dropped out of school altogether because they couldn’t face the stress. It’s not surprising to hear some parents I know going as far as to call it state sanctioned child abuse.
Leaving cert and higher education
So our kids will go through all this in the next three weeks. And the end game? When its all done and dusted and most of them arrive in a 3rd level course. What then?
For 10 years I lectured in Trinity College, University of Dublin in an Associate Professor’s position and I saw the first year student entrants that the Leaving Certificate produced. The students had all done well in the LC else they wouldn’t have gotten to Trinity, but the capacity for insight, for analysis and for independent thinking was disappointing and lagged significantly behind students that had done the A level exams in the UK. I would regularly get asked if they could use their LC crib notes or if I would be providing revision notes. Answer no and no. The first months of their university career was really about de-schooling them from spoon feeding, from shallow learning and rote answers! I am not saying that some of the facts they learnt were of no use, just that the way those facts were learnt did not serve them well in further education where the emphasis is on analytical thinking, not mindless regurgitation.
Leaving cert and shallow learning
Shallow learners have to become deep learners and that can be very hard for many students as the LC does not really expose our students to that. There is a very limited focus on deep learning, instead the focus is on shallow learning and beating the system to gain points eg “rewrite the maths question and you will get a point”. Then of course there is the memory game aspect of it. The exam favours the short term shallow learning of the facts re-expressed in a way that will maximise marks. The result: a nation of shallow learners all of whom hated their Leaving Cert experience, and many of whom still have nightmares about the stress of it years later during those first few weeks of June!
To all those parents supporting their children in the Leaving Certificate Exams over the next few weeks, I hope that you will be supporting yourselves. More on that in my next blog. Good luck to all those facing into their first exam. Nothing else in life will be as hard or ask so much of you.
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