Prolonged talks with the unions, stand-offs and industrial disputes all highlight the wider difficulty in implementing change to an education system that is perceived by the wider public as doing a satisfactory job, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

WHEN students who start their Leaving Certificate this week get their results in August, it will be a landmark in Irish education.

While the papers themselves are in line with those of recent years, a new grading system will be in evidence in a little over two months’ time.

Instead of an A2, B3, or C2, for example, students will get one of 16 new grades, depending on whether they took a subject at higher or ordinary level, and what mark they scored. These will range from H1 to H8 and O1 to O8, with each from H1 and O1 to H7 and O7 representing a 10% banding between 90% to 100% and 30% to 40%.

How we teach our children: Myriad of difficulties hamper education system reform

The following week, students will use another new system when they find out if they have been offered a place on a college course through the Central Applications Office (CAO). Most the new grades will have a corresponding CAO points figure that is not one of the neatly-rounded points in multiples of 5 or 10 which have been used for over two decades.

The lowest will be 12 points for an O6 (40%-50% in an ordinary-level subject), up to 100 for a H1 (90% to 100% at higher level), but with intermediate points like 37 for either an O3 or a H7 and 88 points for a H2.

These are just some of the changes that were first put forward in autumn 2011 as part of a review of the school-to-college transition. But it has taken the intervening six years to come into effect — the time students doing the 2017 Leaving Certificate have spent in second-level schools around the country.

The pace of the changes is reflective both of the need to consult and to plan carefully any significant amendments to the education system. But the timeframe it has taken to introduce them also demonstrates how various interests can slow such reform processes.

The reservations come from both sides of the transition point — those in schools and those in higher education, but more particularly the latter.

Academic councils and governing bodies of third-level institutions have had to consider entry system changes, and amendments to the points system. Many of their considerations are understandable ones.

One is the possible effect of fewer grades for Leaving Certificate exams bunching far more students on the same CAO points.

That could lead to far more students being left disappointed by having the same CAO points as applicants offered a place on a course, but not receiving a similar offer themselves. Such “random selection” offers will inevitably still occur, but the occurrence is likely to be significantly reduced by the changed CAO points associated with each of the new Leaving Certificate grades.

But countering that balancing effect is the fact that colleges are continuing, or just beginning — some at a more rapid pace than others — to reduce the number of entry codes, or courses, for CAO applicants to choose from.

One consideration in doing so has been to allow students more freedom to choose general disciplines like engineering or science when choosing and beginning degrees. In many categories, this is seen as better than students specialising at the point of entry, only to discover a course was not what they expected and risk having to change or drop out.

Herein lies one of the difficulties at the other side of the school completion — the Leaving Certificate has long been the dog being wagged by the tail that is the points system. One only has to look at the effects of bonus CAO points being introdcued for higher level maths on numbers opting for that level, including the fact that growing numbers of students are overstretching by doing so, and failing the subject as a result.

And while the nature of Leaving Certificate exam questions has undoubtedly been altered in many subjects in recent years to get students to apply their learning and to rely less on rote learning, there is equally no question that teaching-to-the-test still dominates how thousands of teenagers are being educated.

If evidence were needed, a quick read of the most recent chief examiner reports from the State Examinations Commission on student performance in Leaving Certificate language subjects offers a perfect example.

Although many students were perfectly competent, willing and able learners of the respective European languages, learnt-off essays or passages of conversation were rattled off to written and oral examiners, but may have had little or nothing to do with the question asked.

The idea of pushing the boat out — and in thousands of cases, paying for grinds to get an edge on classmates — to maximise Leaving Certificate grades so as to maximise CAO points has become the focus. But, sadly, this exam-focused classroom practice is not restricted to students in fifth and sixth year.

A range of research, but particularly that done for the Economic and Social Research Institute over several years for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) points to students being geared toward preparation for the Junior Certificate from the earliest days of second year, when students are typically 13 or 14.

It may be little wonder, then, that the recent responses from almost 1,200 teenagers to the Examiner study showed four-out-of-five voluntarily proffered school or exams as a cause of stress in young Irish people’s lives.

How we teach our children: Myriad of difficulties hamper education system reform

“There is too much stress around exams and teachers make it much worse,” one wrote in reply to the open question asking if participants had anything they wished to add about teenagers’ mental health.

“They don’t realise that students are dealing with their own problems and doing good in an exam is not the most important thing in their life at that moment!” the same student continued.

Most people will acknowledge that the school system is often seen as the solution to all of society’s ills, without necessarily questioning what is the purpose of education in Ireland.

Is it to produce a population of homogenous work drones for the economy — an important consideration if we want jobs to be created and filled? Is it to foster creativity and spark in young people, who can then go on to be the ones innovating, not just in science, but in the arts and culture, and in political or business thinking?

Or should it be somewhere in between?

The politicians who help to form and inform policies were given a sharp reminder of the limitations in 2010, when the NCCA addressed the Oireachtas education committee.

“Although we have great expectations of the school system, it is important to be careful that we do not transmit the message that through curriculum reform, we can produce a nation of thin and ethical Irish speakers. That will not happen,” then NCCA chief executive Anne Looney told TDs and senators.

“The education system has a certain set of limitations. The American historian, Larry Cuban, said that if society has an itch, schools get scratched, which is a great phrase,” she said.

So, if the system is being seen by many experts to create robotic learners, instead of curious independent thinkers that colleges and employers claim to want, what needs to be done? What are the alternatives?

The range of reforms considered for many years by the NCCA to overhaul the three-year junior cycle seek to remove the emphasis from the Junior Certificate to focus more on student-centred learning. Short courses giving students a taste of some disciplines, or an opportunity to get recognition for their artistic or performance skills are being encouraged.

It is partly a move toward the kind of autonomy given to schools in Finland, much vaunted as the optimum education system.

The Scandinavian country surprised many by emerging as the one whose 15-year-olds did best in reading and maths when international tests were first administered for the OECD in 2000. Since then, the Finns have continued to perform above the rest in these subjects and science in the tests conducted every three years since then.

The wider autonomy around subjects and courses offered to students through Finnish schools is one example of the kind of change envisaged in junior cycle.

But its progress is being slowed by industrial action by the larger of two second-level teacher unions. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) is holding out since the Teachers’ Union of Ireland accepted the reforms in 2016, with uncertainty up to March of this year whether ASTI teachers’ students would be able to compete for the full marks in their Junior Certificate English exam.

The principles behind the changes appear well-intentioned and aimed at giving students a taste of a range of subjects, but without the requirement to prepare for 10 or 12 final Junior Certificate exams.

There is some understandable, although somewhat misplaced, concern about the perceived downgrading of subjects. History, for example, has never been compulsory for all junior cycle students anyway and yet the vast majority are still taught and examined in it.

The 2011 initiative of Ruairi Quinn, aided by a number of education agencies and their leaders, to start the wider reform process with a review of the college entry systems was a welcome move.

Although overnight changes are never a good idea, there is some distance to go to achieving the intended results — and, then, to assess their impact on students in schools and in colleges.

It is equally long since the same minister began tinkering with the work of several years by the NCCA, when he went significantly beyond its junior cycle reform recommendations with a much different plan in late 2012.

The upshot was the revolt of the ASTI and, up to relatively recently, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland. Prolonged negotiations, stand-offs and industrial disputes eventually brought things largely back to what was proposed by NCCA, but most second-level teachers still remain outside the tent.

These patterns are a sign of the fragility of relations between policy makers and education staff, or perhaps the wider public service; but also of the wider difficulty in implementing change to a system that is generally perceived by the wider public as doing a satisfactory job.

Today and over the next two days, the Irish Examiner will hear from experts and interested parties about how they see things need to be done, what happens in other countries, and what principles should underpin reforms of Irish education.


What other countries do, with a focus on Finland.

Also, students and stress — about 75% of teenagers describe pressure to excel in exams.

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