Colman Noctor: The rise in CAO points has sent shock waves through the educational system

I got a place to study psychiatric nursing in 1995. I would not have got next nor near the points required to do the course in 2021
Colman Noctor: The rise in CAO points has sent shock waves through the educational system

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When third-level college places were announced last week, my social media was quickly flooded with images of excited young adults about to embark on the next stage of their education. Like most years, these images came a week after a stream of news stories on the ‘600-plus points’ students who were rightly celebrated in the national media.

Predictive grading was one of the silver linings of Covid, leading to significantly higher Leaving Cert marks than usual. But the jubilation was quickly diminished by the realisation that the CAO points for many courses had increased as a result. 

I posted a tweet last week stating: ‘If you didn’t get what you wanted, remember, when you miss a turn on a sat nav, the destination doesn’t change, only the route, and sometimes the scenic way is more craic’. Admittedly, this is small consolation to the devastated young person, but it is important to be reminded that most people in this situation find a way to continue their educational journey and go on to have successful careers.

Huge pressure to achieve 

In over the two and a half decades of working with young people, I have seen an exorbitant rise in the expectation of points that young people want to achieve. Fifteen years ago, 350 points was considered to be a decent Leaving Cert result, whereas now most young people I speak to seem to be aiming for over 500 points. 

There are perhaps many reasons why this is happening. We have seen a huge increase in the percentage of young people who currently continue onto third-level education, and perhaps a subsequent academic snobbery has emerged alongside this acceleration. Discussions around attending a NUI university rather than an institute of technology, not to mention, a PLC (Post Leaving Cert College) or an apprenticeship have only added to the stress.

This year saw an exponential rise in the points for certain courses. I heard psychological, medical and nursing colleagues discuss how they would not have been able to get onto any of these courses if they were applying in 2021. The progressive increase in CAO points required for these programmes seems to have ruled out many suitable candidates. This is not because the course content has become any more difficult, it is because the demand for places on these programmes has become greater.

I have had numerous conversations with young people over the last week about the impact of the higher points needed for third level courses. Most of these conversations were not with the Leaving Cert class of 2021. Instead, they were members of the Leaving Cert classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024. The rise in CAO points has sent shock waves through the educational system. All of a sudden, the huge pressure to achieve, or what their parents expect them to achieve, is much greater. These conscientious, driven and ambitious young people are already under phenomenal stress and the pressure to get higher points doesn’t help.

I found a subject that excited me

There are some who will say that these young people are ‘soft’, others talk about the concept of ‘millennial entitlement’, but this is often not the case. They are not ‘softer’ than the generations that went before them, they are negotiating a significantly more stressful environment, with cultural and societal pressures far greater than ever before. Of course, we can say previous generations had to walk six miles to school with no shoes and others were sent down the mines or off to war, but the pressures of contemporary society are different. Long before Covid, there were unprecedented numbers of young people struggling with anxiety and mood issues.

When I left school in 1995, I went and did my psychiatric nurse training in St John of God Hospital in Stillorgan. The entry requirements were two Cs in honours subjects and to pass the other four, or about 210 points in today’s money. I cleared that threshold, but not by much and after that, the decision went down to an interview. I would not have got next nor near the points required to do mental health nursing in 2021, circa 442 points. Yet as a university assistant professor I will be teaching those same students for the next four years of their degree programme. I did not become academic until I started nursing. Finally, I had found a subject that excited me. I was not a fan of Peig Sayers, but I was fascinated by Sigmund Freud.

We need to take stock

The young people I speak to are under so much pressure, but who is creating this pressure? Is it schools, universities or families? In my view, it is all of us.

Take the example of how the uptake of grinds has changed in the past 20 years. When I was doing my Leaving Cert, you went to grinds if you were really struggling with a subject. But grinds were expensive, so if you went to them, you put in the work. That is not the case now. I see young people going for grinds for everything, not because their teacher is poor or because they might fail, but instead because they have to get a H1. This pressure is the result of schools, parents and society over-identifying with success and forgetting what's important - a well-rounded individual.  

We need to take stock and realise what we are doing. This culture of anxiety is related to and influenced by the culture of expectation. We have lost all sense of what is enough, and I worry about where this will end.

Yes, we may have impressive league tables of students achieving record amounts of H1s and 600 plus points, but we are also seeing record numbers on waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services. We need to reset our values and consider a return to some degree of balance.

As parents, we can control the way in which we prioritise and measure success in our families. If we are mindful of this and try not to fall foul to the exorbitant societal expectations, it may well rub off on our children.

And we need to be careful what we wish for. In my practice, I have found that the number of young people wanting to drop out of a PLC, is proportionately far less than those who want to drop out of college.

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