Is the Leaving Cert in its current form fit for purpose?

President of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, Kieran Golden, Principal of Mayfield Community School, reflects on whether our education system is meeting the needs of all students
Is the Leaving Cert in its current form fit for purpose?

56,000 students will be sitting their Leaving Certificate exams this year.

STUDENTS returned to schools all over the country earlier this month. For approximately 56,000 of them, it will mark the final run-up to their Leaving Certificate exams.

A greater challenge in ensuring that our education system is meeting the needs of all students lies in the reform of the senior cycle.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), as the representative body for school leaders in our secondary schools, is contributing to this important conversation by exploring the views of key stakeholders in a new publication, ‘Senior Cycle Reform — What do you want?’

The report asks students, parents, teachers, principals and deputy principals, employers, and academics two key questions:

1. What is your experience of the Leaving Certificate?

2. Do you think the assessment process is fair?

The findings are significant. 76% of students say that they want continuous assessment for the Leaving Certificate. Only 4% of the same group feel that the Leaving Certificate is a fair and accurate assessment of their knowledge and skills, and only 28% of principals, deputy principals and teachers, and 15% of parents, feel the same.

All respondent groups categorically agree that the Leaving Certificate should create balanced, knowledgeable, and well-rounded school leavers.

As we approach the centenary of the foundation of our state, it’s a good time to ask, then, what experiences, opportunities and qualifications young adults need to carry forward with them into the labour market so that they will continue to learn, work and grow.

Ultimately, we are hoping that our senior cycle will ask students to apply knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts, to contribute to their continuing personal development, and to help them contribute to full participation in society and the economy. But what needs to happen now?

Kieran Golden, Principal Mayfield community school and president NAPDPicture: Eddie O'Hare
Kieran Golden, Principal Mayfield community school and president NAPDPicture: Eddie O'Hare


What we need, at the very least, is to discuss the possibility of the inclusion of practical assessment as part of the Leaving Certificate examination process.

The need for forms of assessment other than a terminal examination is increasingly accepted by educational bodies. NAPD recommends that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, in its current work of reviewing the senior cycle curriculum, gives precedent to the inclusion of practical assessments.

Our research shows that students, parents, principals, deputy principals, and employers would favour this move. Although we will need an increase in resources to realise this objective, its introduction must be prioritised.

Going to college is a wonderful opportunity for many students. However, it is not, and should not be, the only option. In 2010, we had approximately 10,445 young people in apprenticeships around the country. This figure increased by 24% in 2018 with 12,849 undertaking “learn-and-earn” apprenticeships. With this in mind, the NAPD strongly proposes that there is specific, allocated funding provided for a collaborative approach toward traineeships/apprenticeships.

NAPD recommends, as part of the National Training Fund, that specific funding should be directed towards employers in key identified areas (for example technology, manufacturing, engineering), to eliminate the current ‘prestige class’ evident in relation to apprenticeships.

Funding, provided to employers via a newly developed application process, would increase the uptake of apprenticeships and traineeships in key industries over the next ten years. This should be done in collaboration with guidance counsellors in secondary schools and with students in their first year of senior cycle.

The conversation around getting as many of current First Year students to complete their Leaving Certificate in 2023 or 2024 is open, the review will continue, and many ideas will emerge.

The NAPD’s final recommendation is the establishment of a new Senior Cycle Reform Forum. The organisation recommends that the Government establishes a Senior Cycle Reform Forum where all stakeholders can participate.

This forum will have a defined life cycle and be tasked with examining a number of key areas central to reform.

The forum will report back to the Minister and Department of Education and Skills on its recommendations, similar to the Citizens Assembly.

The current senior cycle system must become more inclusive of all young adults, including those who wish to go directly to the world of work, those with additional educational needs, those students who have English as an additional language, those from minority backgrounds, and those who experience educational and social disadvantage.

The challenges are significant. We need to start thinking, talking, planning and ultimately ensuring that what we are offering students ensures that they will cope and thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

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