Secret Teacher: The CAO is not the only route to take after school

We have the highest rates of progression to university in Europe, but we also have unacceptable levels of dropouts
Secret Teacher: The CAO is not the only route to take after school

Many students in Ireland decided against the CAO system this year.

My eight-year-old daughter is brave. She shows it in small ways. Like last week, when I told her she could have a magazine and a treat in the shop. Her younger sister sprinted to the kids’ section, grabbing some tat with free plastic within seconds. She stood back, scanning the shelf. Then she walked away, selecting a modest packet of crisps by the till.

‘I just want these.’

‘Are you sure? You can have two things.’

‘I’m sure.’

Her little sister eyed her magazine again, checked in, and satisfied with her choice, scampered to the sweety aisle.

At the tender age of eight, my older daughter made her decision based on what she valued rather than what she could have, what I’d directed her towards. It takes bravery to act against the most obvious instruction. It takes character, knowing who you are and what makes you happy. This is no small thing for anyone, never mind for an eight-year-old. I hope she keeps it.

My column this week is dedicated to the students in Ireland who decided against the CAO system this year and any other year. I see you as brave and inspiring and I see your parents in the same way. You are doing what you see value in, not what you’ve been told to do by the State and its media. Just like I don’t judge my five-year-old, this is not a criticism of those who go down the traditional route. I certainly did. It’s just a pause, a recognition of you and your character.

What has it been like for you, these past few weeks? You must read newspapers and hear the radio, the nine o’clock news in the background of your life. Everyone is discussing the class of 2020, your class, your year. But nobody mentions you, or the further education you have chosen. Do you feel left out? Do you feel like you’re not good enough, that we don’t value you?

I hope you don’t because it’s not true.

Too many of us forget that the CAO system is a traditional, academic route to college. It is a system tied to a rotten culture of league tables and snobbery — because it’s all we talk about. Naturally, we have the highest rates of progression to university in Europe. But we also have unacceptable levels of dropout.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris TD and  Mary-Liz Trant, SOLAS, at the announcement of winners of Generation Apprenticeship Campaign 2020 and  highlighting the Apprenticeship Incentivisation Scheme. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris TD and  Mary-Liz Trant, SOLAS, at the announcement of winners of Generation Apprenticeship Campaign 2020 and  highlighting the Apprenticeship Incentivisation Scheme. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Like cattle drovers herding cattle onto a boat, our national obsession is to get young people into college. What comes after is less interesting. It’s the equivalent of my five-year-old kicking and screaming once the magazine has been bought, opened, and discarded. Of course, she should have got crisps. Nobody’s interested in that part of our shopping trip, are they? Like any socially conscious parent, I bundle her into the car and drive.

But there’s a pattern when it comes to college dropout in Ireland and it deserves attention. Tellingly, these students often enter courses with lower CAO entry points. Could a possible explanation be that they should never have gone to college in the first place? And this is not meant in a demeaning way. There is plenty of education and countless skills available beyond our college walls.

A longitudinal study completed by the Higher Education Authority highlights that the higher the CAO points a student receives, the less likely the student is to drop out. This is because further academic study is not for everyone and there should be no judgement in that. But in Ireland, there is exactly that — judgement, and it comes in the form of silence.

This isn’t a small problem. According to recent statistics, some engineering courses at IT Blanchardstown have had drop-out rates of up to 89%, while some computing courses have non-completion rates of 83%. We need to reflect on why this is happening. How much support is given to these students at home, by their guidance counsellors and by the system itself? None of us is blameless in this. We feed the media frenzy around the Leaving and the CAO. We allow it to happen.

This is a cultural problem and changing culture is a notoriously slow process. It calls for a total overhaul of our thinking. As it stands, our Leaving Cert exams are designed for further academic study. Representatives of universities are involved in designing and discussing them.

Is this really all we want to assess?

Surely, we need a broader range of assessments in schools, to reflect the possibility of progressing from the leaving cert to other types of education in a meaningful way.

We also need to invite women into apprenticeships. Bodies like SOLAS have done wonderful work to promote an ‘earn and learn model’ and their numbers have doubled in recent years, though we never hear about it. However, their Pathways to Apprenticeship and Training Review shows that the current make-up of the available apprenticeships is 85% men under 25 years and only 2% are women.

Making the wrong choice after school can have a very damaging effect on a young person’s self-esteem, their mental health, and productivity. We need to stop making those decisions for them in how we speak and how we define success.

Likewise, If I had said nothing about the possibility of two treats, both of my daughters might have come away with what they really, genuinely wanted.

Happiness has nothing whatsoever to do with the price tag.

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