TERRY PRONE: Too often the result of the Leaving Cert is the infantilisation of students

WHEN you are asked ‘How are you?’ it’s a greeting. 

Not an invitation to offer a detailed personal health analysis. You can, without offending the questioner, keep to yourself that you haven’t been sleeping well, that the new medicine prescribed by the GP doesn’t agree with you, that you have doubts about your gluten tolerance and that you’ve gone off onions, because of symptoms nobody but you needs to know about.

It’s the same when someone asks you about your children’s Leaving Cert results. The questioner hopes for a brief answer because, to them, it’s a civil greeting; no more than that. It may, to you, look like an invitation to share, but it isn’t. The correct answer to the question is ‘Great. We’re happy.’ Or ‘All good.’ Once that chirpily brief response has been delivered, it’s time to change the subject, because no innocent bystander needs to hear a subject-by-subject points rundown. Even less do they need such a rundown if they haven’t asked you anything at all. Yet parents in the last few days have taken to texting their friends — uninvited — with the complete details of their Leaving Cert student’s outcomes.

If it’s done to parents of other Leaving Cert students, it’s for comparitive purposes, and comparisons remain odious. If it’s inflicted on others, it’s just boasting — because the one sure thing is that the mammies and daddies of students who are wearing a metaphorical dunce’s hat are not spreading that news right and left.

It’s all part of the gross disproportionality of attention given to the Leaving Cert. While I accept that it lands in the middle of a portion of the summer when public discourse dwindles to the threat posed to humanity, tunnels and sheep by seagulls, its coverage is still way out of kilter with its importance. The most irritating aspect of the coverage is when somebody pops up in the middle of a supplement exclusively devoted to the significance of the Leaving Cert and advises, without irony, that it really isn’t that important and that students and their parents should relax about it.

If that’s the most irritating aspect of it, the more serious skewing is the infantilising of the students who are taking the examination, which starts in late spring with them being advised to do basic things any teenager should know they need to do, like get exercise, eat something other than junk, and sleep a bit. It’s somewhat surprising, in this context, that the advisors don’t tell the students to visit the loo now and again, because the rest of the advice presupposes them to have failed to have progressed beyond toddlerhood.

Turning kids into passive dummies who need to be bottle-fed and groomed for exams is exacerbated by what happens, later in the year, when the results loom. That’s when the young people really get reduced to creche level. The majority of the voices on radio, in the 24 hours leading up to the heartstopping release of the results, are adult. Uniquely, an event that centres on a specfic age cohort is not interpreted by that cohort. Coming up to results day, the voices of the cohort are not heard at all. Instead, we hear from people in their 30s and 40s, most of them parents, with a sprinkling of semi-therapeutic experts. The items are flagged by broadcasters, with variations on this sentence: ‘Coming up, an expert on how to help your child cope with the Leaving Cert results.’ It would seem that the Leaving Cert is an almost unmanageable challenge for teenagers and that their parents must morph into therapeutic agents possessed of a skill-mix that starts with psychological counselling and works through to nutrition and pharmaceuticals. (They haven’t got to the toilet-training, yet, but give them time.) Mid-August has turned into Exam A&E. Nor is that the end of it. Not at all. As in medical care, A&E is the gateway to more committed treatment. Exam Intensive Care, for example, is reserved for the grievously wounded who didn’t get the results they had hoped for. These patients must be reassured, first of all, that they will live and, when released from the ICU, will have options other than the ones they had lined up for themselves.

This simulated hospitalisation of less-than-stellar Leaving Cert graduates is daft. Three reasons are possible for a student getting fewer points than they expected. The first, and overwhelmingly the most likely, is that they didn’t work hard enough. To which the solution is another spin on the roundabout and a shed-load more commitment. The second is that the student got marked wrongly. To which the solution is to appeal, with — if the student is not delusional — a good chance of an upgrade. The third is that the student is not as bright as they believe themselves to be, in which case the Leaving Cert has delivered a free reality check, allowing for speedy adjustment of their sense of entitlement. It’s not an issue for counselling, sympathy or takeover by a parent.

Takeover of the post-Leaving Cert actions by parents is a weird contradiction. On the one hand, you have a generation of young people that, theoretically, is ready to spring the coop, fly the nest and immerse itself in third-level education. On the other hand, that same generation, judged by the behaviour of parents, is incapable of filling in an online form or of making a choice. This infantilisation goes beyond parents. Way beyond parents. These helpless young things even have helplines devoted to them, as if they were victims of a medical misjudgement or passing tsunami. That’s not counting the newspaper supplements, the online seminars and the radio items devoted to, essentially, holding the student’s trembling hand as they undertake this terrifying task.

Perhaps the best example of this infantilisation surfaced on TV3’s Midday programme last week. The panel included an expert guidance counsellor, whose presence provoked text and phone-call queries, one from a student who had just got their results.

“I failed honours maths,” the text ran. “What do I do now?”

The absence of a thought-through plan B was bad enough. The fact that, having got their exam results, they were watching TV, was worse. The idiotic totality of the question worse still. Worst of all was the “tell me what to do next” passivity implicit in the question, speaking, as it did, to a complete inability on the part of the texter to do any kind of analytical thinking.

When ‘life skills’ are mentioned in the educational context, it tends to be in reference to students with learning difficulties or intellectual disabilities, whereas it now seems that, in order to do simple stuff like fill in a CAO form, teenagers who have no such disabilities have a complete life-skills deficit.

Any chance they’d take hold of their own lives, without parental fussing, and that the rest of us wouldn’t have to live through the Leaving Cert as an annual trauma requiring sympathy, empathy, garage flowers and counselling?

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