Any change is better than pressure-cooker points race

ANY changes to reduce the pressures on students to perform well in the Leaving Certificate can only be welcomed.

It is not just the teenagers who complain about the strain put on them to get enough points for their preferred college course. Teachers and principals regularly speak about how eager they are to focus on other aspects of particular subjects but cannot because they are under so much pressure to get the Leaving Certificate course finished.

The same even applies to preparations for the Junior Certificate, meaning the children behind the desks are given little opportunity to develop their own skills of critical thinking, independent learning and ability to apply theories they are taught in practical situations.

These have been the concerns increasingly aired by employers and colleges in recent years, although it has been Education Minister Ruairí Quinn rather than the college bosses who finally got the ball rolling on looking at alternatives to the current points system.

Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland expressed confidence yesterday that third-level bosses will engage with the process, speaking of the mutual interests for students, educators and employers if graduates can emerge better equipped for the fast-changing work environment of the 21st century.

In the first steps of a well-choreographed public consultation exercise, the publication of professor Áine Hyland’s discussion paper is as significant in its context as much as for its content. As chair of the Commission on the Points System, which reported to former education minister Micheál Martin 12 years ago, she told the media yesterday how most of its recommendations have not been implemented.

She said: “One... was that there should not be such a choice of courses. On the question of having a realistic entry require-ment and then having a lottery, a lot of us [on the commission] supported that but we didn’t get public support for it in the consultation process.”

Ms Hyland also reiterated to the public — importantly given Mr Quinn’s acknowledgement that he did not always know it — that the points system is the property of the 41 colleges who enrol students through it — and not of the Department of Education or anyone else.

“It’s they who set up the CAO, it’s they who decide the criteria for selection and they are equally free under legislation to change the system at any time. That sometimes doesn’t seem to be clear, especially when we hear the higher education institutions themselves criticising their own selection system,” she said.

Apart from her own preference of some element of a lottery system with generic courses, which she had the chance to personally endorse 12 years after the Points Commission report, her paper also put forward a range of other options.

One is the idea that colleges might use other assessments in addition to, or entirely independently of, Leaving Certificate results. For example, some institutions might wish to set their own entrance exams, use aptitude tests, or written statements from applicants. References from their schools could be used to select entrants, as might be portfolios of relevant school work.

But Ms Hyland express-ed a personal dislike for the HPAT admissions test being used in addition to Leaving Certificate points for the last three years for entry to undergraduate medical degrees.

“The argument that you can’t coach for HPAT is disingenuous, you can coach for any test and the more practice you have, the more effective you will be at doing the test. My concern about HPAT is that it further disen-franchises those who can’t afford to have coaching.”

The Hyland paper also advocates widening rel-atively new systems under which many colleges have set aside fixed numbers of places for students with disabilities and those from under-represented sections of society.

Ms Hyland is equally expert on the question of addressing educational dis-advantage, having chaired a statutory committee set up under the 1998 Education Act to examine that issue. It reported during the tenure of Noel Dempsey in the education portfolio, but the axe fell on the group in the October 2008 budget.

Mr Martin, to whom the Points Commission reported in 1999, earned a reputation for starting reform processes, commissioning reports and then allowing them to gather dust on the shelves.

In his first six months, Mr Quinn has been praised for taking on sensitive issues like this one, and none more so than the question of Catholic control of almost 90% of our primary schools. The level of public input sought on these debates has been laudable; but his success may only be graded on how much has changed in our schools and colleges in the next five or so years.

The points system was dubbed the tail that wags the dog in our schools by the group representing second-level principals last year. They will be grateful for a chance to allow staff focus more on the development of students as critical thinkers and innovators, but teachers too can expect to be asked to play their part in some element of assessment reform.

Already, union leaders have raised concerns about the speed with which Mr Quinn is proposing reforms of the three-year cycle leading to the Junior Certificate against a background of difficult education cutbacks.

But they will gain no public backing if they oppose anything that gives students a chance to avoid the pressure-cooker points system that has burdened more than a generation of school leavers.


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