2020: The year that exposed the cracks in the Leaving Cert

Finding a truly equitable system may be idealistic, but a reformed senior cycle is not
2020: The year that exposed the cracks in the Leaving Cert

It's time to work together to develop a new exam system, which doesn't cause nightmares for young people, says Katie Halpin-Hill, from Gaeltacht na nDéise in Co Waterford.

My pencil traced the outline of the child’s shoe that I was drawing for my Leaving Cert art project.

The room was warm and still, and there was an air of concentration — until my teacher’s phone rang. The sound cut through the classroom and the small class of eight waited with bated breath. She hung up the phone: “The school’s closed for two weeks.” 

We just sat there in disbelief as the implication of this closure hit us.  

We were sent to collect our books and coats. We were meant to be doing our practical and oral examinations in two weeks; what was happening now?

We gathered for an assembly. The sixth years sat in silence. Our principal, Gráinne, told us to be brave, to work hard,and to email her if we needed a chat. 

Watching a maths teacher reassure panicked students, I walked out of the hall — the hall in which I was meant to sit my Leaving Cert.

We all know the story of the next eight weeks. The stress was immense — online classes with teachers that were doing their best in a trying situation.

Some did not have a strong internet connection and were unable to contact us — locked out of their own classroom.

The closure of the schools highlighted an array of underlying issues in the current senior cycle. 

Some students received high-quality grinds in all six subjects, with a range of new technology at their fingertips in a quiet, relaxed place to study. Others had to look after brothers and sisters during the day. 

Some worked long hours to earn money for the family. Some had no access to the technology and missed hours of their education. 

The Leaving Cert is an outdated memory test, with students judged on their ability to recall facts and figures in intensely pressurised exam halls. File picture.
The Leaving Cert is an outdated memory test, with students judged on their ability to recall facts and figures in intensely pressurised exam halls. File picture.

I was lucky: an only child with a quiet bedroom for study, an internet that may be slow but works, and a phone and laptop. 

I started the race with a head start. What about those who were not so lucky?

Getting grinds and spending money to get higher grades is not new, neither is the digital divide. These have affected the Leaving Certificate for years — the pandemic has just highlighted these issues.

A form of examination is necessary —  university places need to be allocated fairly and it provides an incentive for academic diligence. Finding a truly equitable system may be idealistic, but a reformed senior cycle is not. 

The Leaving Cert is an outdated memory test, with students judged on their ability to recall facts and figures in intensely pressurised exam halls. It has never, and will never, be a fair game.

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year that exposed the cracks in the system. We need a system that does not favour one student over another — a system that does not cause nightmares for our young people as they progress into their adult lives.

There was no perfect solution for the Class of 2020 — but we can do better for future generations of students.

Katie Halpin-Hill, from Gaeltacht na nDéise in Co. Waterford, is on the national student executive of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up