Irish Teacher: The Leaving Cert just isn't fair

Jennifer Horgan calls for reform to the Irish exam system. We have to think about all our students, especially our most vulnerable.
Irish Teacher: The Leaving Cert just isn't fair

The Leaving Certificate is the stuff of adult nightmares - and needs to change for our young people. Pic: iStock

Calls to change the Leaving Cert are getting louder. What would a better system look like?

For me, it would be kinder to everyone – especially our most vulnerable.

Students have diverse needs, abilities, and talents and they come from a range of contexts. That central truth should be written into the system, part of its design. We need to offer subject choice in the final two years, and we need to value career choices that don’t require university degrees.

Something close to fairness can be delivered through choice.

The first problem with the current system is that we conflate success and acceptance to university. 

The second problem is that we make it harder for non-neurotypical children, or poor, or abused children by forcing compulsory subjects on everyone.

The first problem is destructive. The second is immoral.

I’ll begin with the second by way of an example.

Meet John. John is autistic. He finds the school day tiring. He’d like it to be shorter and needs more breaks than most. His school doesn’t have room for him in their already over-subscribed support space. He has access to an SNA, but the SNA works with four other students in his class.

His school doesn’t run the Leaving Cert Applied as the Department won’t give enough hours to run the course adequately so it can’t be timetabled. John wouldn’t suit it anyway, though many assume he would. It could suit a few of his friends but John has a passion for chemistry. 

He skips classes but gets in trouble for truancy. He struggles in Irish and English, but he can’t access his course without them. The Leaving Cert makes him feel bad about himself every day.

John’s mother fought for years to get his diagnosis, but the diagnosis offers very little by way of supports. There’s no school psychologist. There’s nothing until he self-harms or attempts suicide and even then, there’s a waiting list. His mother becomes anxious when he seems sad or despondent. She expects the worst.

John is not dyslexic, so is not entitled to an exemption in Irish, but he’s overwhelmed and miserable. His mother is traumatised by all the paperwork she fills out. She’s tired because John rarely sleeps.

People say the Leaving Cert is fair because it’s anonymous. To be anonymous is to imply that you could be anyone from anywhere. To be anonymous is to have ‘no outstanding, individual, or unusual features; unremarkable or impersonal.’ John is remarkable. He has individual features. Anonymity gives no room for broader societal and individual differences. It increases their influence by ignoring them.

It’s impossible for any system to meet every need fairly. All we can do, all we must do, is provide choice and flexibility. Give everyone a fighting chance.

Society and education go hand in hand. Most secondary schools in cities like Cork and Dublin that welcome autistic children like John also serve less affluent communities. 

Privileged schools consistently win the points race – avoiding such students by not investing in supports. The Department of Education never demands they open a support classroom even though they have the power to do so.

John’s lucky that his school is more democratic, but it’s under-resourced and when his Leaving Cert results get marked on a bell-curve, when they get adjusted to meet the usual trends before the pandemic, none of the particulars of his situation will be considered. Because his handwriting is fine, he will handwrite. John has low energy levels. He will not get any added time or access to a scribe. It is to be anonymous.

Students like John could thrive if they could choose their preferred subjects. But our system, claiming meritocracy, as if society and individuality ends where the classroom begins, seeks to pretend that we can be anonymous, all the same.

Last week our country reeled when students with perfect results failed to get their chosen courses. How could students do everything asked of them and still not succeed? The meaninglessness of the CAO process was highlighted.

Who knows what those students went through to get 625 points? Perhaps they spent the pandemic avoiding their father’s fists or contending with mental health problems. We should not be without sympathy for these top performers. Every student has a story. Even those with ostensible privilege can be living a nightmare.

But we’d be wrong to assume that only top performers are hard done by in our current system. It has always been unfair. And for much longer it has been most punishing to students like John.

Perhaps we pay more attention to these students because we hold them in higher favour. This comes back to the first problem I mentioned. Our obsession with university.

We should have students sitting the Leaving Cert Applied, accessing further education routes, becoming plumbers, carpenters, plasterers, and electricians. We don’t. Out of 61,000 students this year, just over 3,000 took the Leaving Cert Applied.

Everyone wants to go to university because that’s all we shout about even though some courses have drop-out rates of over 80%

There’s a reason we have no one left to build houses.

Irish students exist in a rigid system that seeks to keep everything anonymous and directs everyone towards university. It’s high time we paid attention to students as individuals. We need to see them. They can’t be anonymised.

A fairer system would address their diverse needs and circumstances.

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