Don O'Leary: Leaving Cert reforms ‘a missed opportunity’

Two new subjects will be introduced to the curriculum — drama, film and theatre studies; and climate action and sustainable development.
Don O'Leary: Leaving Cert reforms ‘a missed opportunity’

Don O’Leary, who has been director of the northside Cork Life Centre since 2006, said he was sceptical that any of the reforms would prove beneficial to young people struggling in the mainstream education system. Picture Denis Minihane.

THE director of the Cork Life Centre has criticised Leaving Certificate reforms announced last month, describing them as “reform of a system to keep the system going”.

The planned reforms were described as “a missed opportunity” by Don O’Leary, who is director of the Cork Life Centre, a voluntary organisation offering one-to-one tuition to young people failed by the traditional education system.

Under the reforms, announced last month by Norma Foley, the education minister, the Leaving Cert will be stretched across two years, with students sitting paper one in both Irish and English at the end of fifth year.

Two new subjects will be introduced to the curriculum — drama, film and theatre studies; and climate action and sustainable development.

Written exams will make up 60% of marks, while the remaining 40% will be based on additional components such as practical assessments, orals, and projects.

Mr O’Leary, who has been director of the northside Cork Life Centre since 2006, said he was sceptical that any of the reforms would prove beneficial to young people struggling in the mainstream education system.

“It’s reform of a system to keep the system going, it seems to me,” Mr O’Leary told The Echo.

“Where is the child in all of this? If a child is anxious in third year because they’ve done their Junior Cert, they’re not going to get any less anxious in fifth year because they have to do two subjects.

“It doesn’t address the stupid points system and kids could be in trouble as a result. Kids could decide in fifth year, ‘I can’t do this’.”

Mr O’Leary questioned the point of what he called “fiddling at the edges” of a system he felt needed fundamental reform.

“When you reform something, you shouldn’t just be reforming for the sake of reform. What has brought you to the idea that you must reform the Leaving Cert? I would hope that would be children, children deciding that ‘We’re not getting what we need to be able to follow our dreams’, whether that be on to academics through universities or whether it be on to trades through a technical college.”

Mr O’Leary questioned the introduction of drama, film and theatre studies, and climate action and sustainable development.

“Surely climate action is already covered by politics, which has a course on the subject for many years. Drama? Many schools provide drama,” he said.

“Be a bit more innovative. Offer them philosophy, offer them psychology, things that they can move forward with.”

He welcomed the introduction of continuous assessment but said the details of who would do that assessment needed to be explained in considerably greater detail.

Mr O’Leary said he saw no reforms that would benefit young people who were interested in getting a trade.

“If the Department of Education do this right, they need to be saying at Junior Cert, ‘There’s a separate route for you, you’re going into technological college where you can do all these trades.’ That’s not what we’re doing, though. We’re saying, ‘In three years, you’re going to be going to university to be a carpenter,’” he said.

“I know loads of young people that would love to do mechanics but tell me where they will go. You’re kind of hoping that a tradesman will come along and say, ‘I’ll take you.’”

Mr O’Leary said real reform would make the education system fit for all children.

“School should be somewhere children can grow and be confident in their own skin,” he said.

“If a young person has confidence in what they want to do for themselves and if they want to go to work, celebrate it. If they want to go to college and become a lawyer, celebrate it and if they want to go and get a trade, celebrate it. To me, there’s no difference. If someone is happy, then that’s where they’re at.”

Mr O’Leary said he feared these reforms were in the interest of keeping the Leaving Cert as the final State exam.

“What we need is something that allows children discover who they want to be. Surely that’s education. Isn’t that what all education is about?” he asked.

“What we need to do is look at the education system, evaluate what is needed, look at what’s needed to make it more attuned to what’s happening in the real world.”

The Department of Education said: “A revised transition-year programme statement will be available to schools from September 2024 through which the opportunity arises, in partnership with the further education and training sector, to allow students experience options such as apprenticeships.

“The enhancement of the senior cycle experience for students whilst they are in school includes better preparing students for life after school regarding all of the pathways available to them.”

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