It’s so wrong I can game system with money for a good Leaving Cert

The current Leaving Cert points system for university just doesn't add up, writes Victoria White

It’s so wrong I can game system with money for a good Leaving Cert

‘IF YOU don’t do well in the Leaving (Cert) you can just go over that hill and marry Farmer Brown!” my friend’s mother used to tell her girls. I’ve made up the poor man’s name. He wouldn’t want to wake up and find he’d been envisioned as the “nul points” option for the female Leaving Cert candidates in the area.

But myself and my friend love that story, in part because it’s true. For a girl growing up on a small farm in rural Ireland, a good Leaving Cert could be a magic carpet bringing her to Dublin to study for an elite career which would make her wealthy.

She did it all. In the US they would call her an embodiment of the American Dream. Here she’s just a simple example of what a highly intelligent, motivated person can achieve within the reasonable education admissions system you’d expect in any republic.

Such a system is vital, not just because it’s fair, but because we can’t progress as a country if we don’t ensure that people with the brains and drive of my friend succeed. Now our system is being gamed and the stakes are sky-high. I should know. I’m gaming.

I have two of my children currently in the Leaving Cert cycle and I’m throwing money at it. They’re both doing a maths grind which costs €70 weekly. One of them is doing a French grind which costs €20 weekly. The fifth year is booked for a hard core Irish College this summer which costs €950.

As things stand I’m spending at least €110 a week on grinds and that’s nothing like the real total of what’s been spent on their Leaving Cert course so far. They’ve both done French courses with a combined cost of about €3,000. One of them may require a history grind which will cost €820 for the year.

Everything in me rebels against trying to boost my kids’ chances like this but it’s not their fault the system is the way it is. The points for their chosen courses are all above 470.

These are insane points but because they live in a well-off area they are used to kids achieving this: the Higher Education Authority’s new study of the socio-economic backgrounds of college entrants shows that 27% of students who get between 405 and 600 points in the Leaving Certificate come from affluent backgrounds.

One of my kids is veering towards an elite profession and would be very suited to it. This writer, a vocal proponent of a rounded education, can be found of an evening working out where her kid’s potential points will grant entrance to this profession.

Money for accommodation in Cork, Limerick or Galway? It can be found. A paying student can sleep in my kid’s bed. It’s worth pretty much anything to set my beloved child in a profession I think the kid would enjoy and would be well paid.

My attitude is the monetary equivalent to my friend’s mother’s pointed finger as she told her daughters they could “get over that hill” or get a good Leaving. But it’s so wrong that I can game the system with money. The HEA’s new findings are the result of the first such systematic study of students who proceed to third level.

The economic status of new Irish students in 2017/2018 has been estimated from the kids’ home addresses through a series of sophisticated calculations. The results could hardly be more telling. Students from affluent backgrounds are still more likely to attend a third level institution than students from disadvantaged backgrounds but more importantly, affluent kids vastly outnumber disadvantaged kids in elite university courses.

In colleges such as UCC, UCD and the Royal College of Surgeons there are 10 affluent students for every one and a half who’s disadvantaged. Trinity College Dublin is not included in the study because of unresolved data protection issues but my guess is that their results would make the findings of inequality even more stark.

What’s most shocking of all is that high points courses such as medicine, dentistry, finance and engineering are chock-full of affluent students. In the field of medicine, traditionally the course requiring the highest points in the CAO system, there is one disadvantaged student for every 10 who are affluent.

In all, 3.5% of medical students studied came from disadvantaged areas while the figure for all Higher Education courses was 10%; 36.3% of medical students came from affluent areas as against 18.9% in all courses. It would be funny if it were not so serious that 14% of all Irish medical students in Dublin come from Dublin 4 and Dublin 6.

Do you honestly believe kids from Donnybrook and Rathgar are just naturally cut out to be doctors? It doesn’t stand up. There has been very little mobility in Ireland until quite recently and disadvantage is entrenched. It’s clear we will have to change the way we admit kids to colleges if we even want to pretend to be a Republic of Opportunity and if we want to exploit the country’s talent.

There has been a lot of comment on this in the last couple of days, with most saying we need to expand and resource the current Access programmes run by Third Level institutions. In my view that’s tinkering when what we need, instead, is a total rethink of Third Level entrance.

A brilliant report by Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education at UCC, which was published in 2011, suggests ways forward, none of which have been followed. One idea is to go to a US-style foundation year in the different faculties and let kids specialise out of it. The points for university entrance would automatically go down.

HYLAND quotes research which shows that our Leaving Cert results are in fact a good indication of future performance in college, with maths being the best indicator of all. Why limit the 25 bonus points for honours in higher maths to maths only, though? Why not extend it also to higher English, which is also a good indicator of future success, or Irish if it is your first language? In all of these subjects two papers are completed.

At least kids, who can’t afford the grinds which less gifted maths students often need to tackle higher maths, would have a game plan with English or Irish. A public consultation on Leaving Cert reform ends on November 1 and the consultation paper offers lots of options including greater use of technology in exams, “open book” exams and continuous assessment.

Nothing will fundamentally change, however, unless the universities, who set up the starting blocks for the points race, change how they award places. If they don’t we must conclude they like things just the way they are.

The Senior Cycle public consultation is open on www.ncca.ie until November 1st.

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