FERGUS FINLAY: CAO is elitist and unfair and has nothing to do with education

Too many lives are damaged each year by the rat race that we have imposed on young people, writes Fergus Finlay

LAST week, the Leaving Cert results. This week, the CAO points. It’s the peak of achievement for some young people, and it feels like the end of the world for others.

And for thousands of young people, it will go on for quite a while yet. Already, some have been on tenterhooks for a week. Their Leaving Cert figures may be enough to get them their college choices, or they may fall just short. They may have enough points based on last year’s numbers, but the points may have gone up this year.

If they’re disappointed in round one, they may have another chance at the end of the month, in the second round of offers. Or, they may feel that some unfairness was done to them in the Leaving Cert, in which case they can appeal before the end of the month and wait until October for the results. Then, they may (or may not) get a better offer.

And what if they get no offer at all, after years of hard work?

Here’s what one expert wrote in a newspaper, the other day, in answer to that question: “Parents or guardians should stay calm and supportive. Whatever happens, don’t despair. There are many alternatives. An offer may come in round two. They can look at studying abroad. Check out the option of taking a vacant college place; many of these are in the private-college sector. Consider repeating. Or look at one of the many excellent post-Leaving Cert courses, which are valuable qualifications in themselves and may also lead to a college place.”

What did our young people ever do to deserve all this?

The CAO is, no doubt, a fine and estimable institution. But what it runs has nothing whatever to do with rewarding academic achievement or effort. It is just about rationing places in third-level education. Nothing else. It used to be a requirement in Ireland that if you wanted to continue your education, you had to work. You had to reach, and maintain, a certain academic standard — we used to call it matriculation. If you matriculated, you got in.

Now, matriculation gets you into the race, but doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get over the line. Once you start accumulating points, you start being measured in a rat race.

And for what? I have no doubt whatever that the young people who got a bag of A1s in their Leaving Certs have every right to be proud of themselves. But does that mean everyone who didn’t should be ashamed?

Some years ago, I was asked to sit on mock interview boards for Leaving Cert students, along with other parents, in a particular school. The idea was to give them a better feel for what they might want to do with their lives and how they might go about it. One of the girls had written that she wanted to be a hair-stylist and beauty therapist. Not one of us was equipped to help her. In fact, we asked her “would you not consider doing a degree first”?

I often think about her, and wonder if she achieved her ambition, without any help from us. She could have ended up like Andrea Donoghue.

You may not have heard of Andrea Donoghue, but you should have. She spent the last week representing her country — us — in a World Skills Competition in Brazil. As an apprentice beauty therapist. I’m not sure how she got on, but I know full well that she will have done herself, her family, and her country proud.

Andrea is one of a team of 14 Irish apprentices in a range of disciplines in this global competition. They’re all under 25. They’re young carpenters, plumbers, electricians, trainee restaurant workers, and hotel managers. And a beauty therapist.

They’re competing against 1,200 highly skilled young people from 50 countries, and by the time you read this they will have added to the haul of gold, silver, and bronze medals Ireland has already won in this competition. They’ll have done well because they’re brilliant and hard-working.

They will deserve at least as much publicity as the young people who got all the A1s. I wonder will they get it.

These young people are being sponsored, in part, by Solas. Solas is one of the alternatives to the rationing race.

It may not exactly be a household name, just yet, because Solas has only recently been established. But it has a simple, and vital, remit. We’re all familiar with the concept of primary, secondary, and higher education. In fact, it’s how we tend to think our education system is divided up. Solas’s remit is to develop further education in a coherent way — a different set of options.

We need to get used to the concept of further education. It needs to be a real, and proud, choice for thousands of people.

Solas is charged, not just with developing a strategy for further education, which has always existed on an ad-hoc basis, but for coordinating and planning its delivery and implementation. It has a small staff, and provides most of its education services through 16 education and training boards (they used to be the VECs).

This year alone, they’re planning for more than 130,000 full-time places in further education and 9,000 apprenticeships. They’re building principles of access and inclusion into all their work — with an emphasis on areas like disability, literacy and numeracy. In other words, they have a real interest in breaking down barriers — you can see it in the strategies they’re seeking to develop.

Right now, on the Solas website, there is information on hundreds of courses for young and not-so-young people — including opportunities for those who might feel they’ve missed their first chance at education, or who want to find a path back to higher education. I’ve a feeling the only thing that stops us steering more young people in that direction is snobbery.

But I won’t get started on the subject of snobbery and third-level education — if I did, I wouldn’t stop. Too many lives are damaged each year by the rat race we have imposed on young people — a rat race that can often result in people choosing careers only because they have the points, or being denied a career because they’re just below an arbitrary line that has nothing to do with their ability. If we’ve set up a system that is all about rationing, we are ensuring that a significant proportion of our children get disappointed and disillusioned each year for no good reason.

There are real, meaningful choices out there for everyone who wants them. I don’t believe, and I’ve never believed, that it’s necessary for us to force the next generation into living in fear of the pressure of CAO points. It’s the opposite of what education ought to be about.

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