As the question of how to ease pressure on students competing for points in the CAO college entry system was discussed, many speakers at a conference yesterday raised concerns about ensuring any new system is equitable.
But the Transition or Transaction conference at University College Dublin also heard that the current system confers benefits on those who can pay for additional help ahead of their exams.
Dr Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth, said the primary issue is that Leaving Cert assessment is predictable and rigid. “Predictability and rigidity are the enemies of creativity,” he said.
“And paradoxically, they increase pressure on students because the potential for error at the margins is so significant.
“If we make the Leaving Cert unpredictable, if we present unseen problems and unseen difficulties as part of the assessment, we will face a significant outcry because such a system is much more difficult for those with resources to gain.”
Stephen McManus, the registrar of Dundalk Institute of Technology, said references to the fairness of the system should be challenged, because Leaving Cert outcomes are partially determined by children’s background and the assets their parents can use to influence their education.
Professor Áine Hyland, the author of a paper looking at various options for revised entry methods and new Leaving Cert assessments, said the first test of public attitudes to changes will be the first examination next June of all school-leavers in the new Project Maths syllabus.
“The questions will be unpredictable, there will be an outcry, but we need to hold our nerve and make sure this works,” she said.
National Parents Council-Post Primary president Jim Moore asked how parents could be convinced to move away from the system that is putting so much pressure on young people.
National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals director Clive Byrne suggested the planned move from the focus on the final written Junior Certificate exams should show the benefits of doing things differently.
Aidan Farrell, the chief executive of the State Examinations Commission, said 19 of the 34 Leaving Cert subjects now have components other than “pen and paper tests”, and that strides were being made with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to introduce more technology into assessment.
Another proposal to the event, organised by the NCCA and the Higher Education Authority, has been for additional testing to be counted in addition to Leaving Cert results.
But Dr Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute said this is more likely to enforce social inequalities.
The latest phase of the ESRI’s extensive research with second-level students revealed that almost half were taking grinds in January of sixth year, but they are mostly from better-off backgrounds.
Dr Smyth said that, while the debate about grinds has raised questions about bad teaching, more middle-class and ambitious students know what they need to do to “win the game” and their view of learning becomes dominated by the rules of that game. This has increased the attractiveness of grinds that are exam-centred.
Pádraig Ó Murchú, Intel Ireland’s education manager, said Leaving Cert assessment methods have hijacked recognition of taking part in events like the BT Young Scientist competition, which promotes the teamwork and communication skills that employers seek in college graduates.