Leaving Cert Results: Students being left behind in the race for CAO points

Picture, if you can, the public reaction to an announcement that all students who wish to study engineering need to have an honours grade in Irish.

It is not the case, nor is it likely to happen. But many college applicants hoping to enter academic disciplines with zero maths elements are being forced by the race for points to pursue the subject at higher level for Leaving Certificate.

The intentions behind bonus points for maths were well-meaning, and have yielded results in numbers studying for honours maths. But all such moves have repercussions.

Hundreds collecting their results yesterday — 764 to be exact — were disappointed to be left with zero CAO points for their efforts at maths. Because they failed the subject at higher level, their best results from six other subjects will have to be used by college and CAO officials to rank them alongside other applicants for their chosen courses.

We do not know, of course, the disciplines or faculties to which they were seeking entry. But points have gone up quite significantly across hundreds of CAO courses in recent years since colleges allowed 25 extra points for passing honours maths.

As principals’ group NAPD pointed out through its director yesterday, it is further evidence of just how much the points system that dictates college entry is responsible for much more as well. Young people are pinning their hopes — and investing a lot of time, stress, and perhaps even their parents’ money — on efforts to get a good grade in honours maths; in fact any grade at all above a D may boost their CAO scores. But is it worth all that sweat and tears?

In a press release on Tuesday, and in interviews yesterday, Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan and her department point to comparatively higher figures for proportions of higher-level candidates failing science subjects. But while it is lower than those levels, the 5.2% who failed higher-level maths represents a third consecutive year-on-year increase and is over twice the proportion with an E or lower in 2012.

More significantly, maybe, the numbers affected are three times those in 2011 and 2012. While relatively small out of a cohort of 55,000 who sat Leaving Certificate exams — with nearly 2,900 more taking Leaving Certificate Applied this year — it is a traumatic and worrying result for many if not most of almost 800 people concerned.

Whether or not they are unsuccessful in their college applications as a result should not be relevant. The fact that these are most likely teenagers who felt pressured to attempt honours maths because of the risk of being left behind in the points race is the responsibility of those who decided the bonus policy over five years ago.

The decision was ultimately one for college bosses, but they were strongly urged to make it by previous education ministers, who in turn had been persistently lobbied by industry figures to do something to improve maths standards of those emerging from schools and colleges.

Doubtless, measures to improve standards are always important, but the collateral damage that leaves behind or punishes students wanting to study something for which they will never need more than an ordinary-level standard of maths should not be dismissed.

Dublin City University president Brian MacCraith yesterday also played down the impact of bonus points on the rising failure rate, in an RTÉ News interview where he cited curricular changes and other reforms that have been taking place concurrently. They might or might not have an influence, but it is to be hoped that any entry reform plans announced by third-level bosses next month do not extend maths bonus points — or similar incentives for other subjects — unless they are restricted to counting towards applications for courses with related content.

While close monitoring of the situation is promised by Ms O’Sullivan, any review or changes will have come too late for hundreds of students this year and last whose maths demise may be attrib-utable to efforts to feed the knowledge economy at the expense of young people’s ambitions and confidence.

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