In the first of a two-part article, Leaving Certificate student, Cian Parry, argues that the exams should be cancelled this summer – and for good. Instead, a socialist approach to education based on breaking down the false barriers between teacher and student provides inspiration for what education could be.
In line with recommendations from the WHO the majority of mass gatherings scheduled to take place this summer have been cancelled. Events ranging from the Summer Olympics and the Euro 2020 all the way to Twelfth of July marches have been either postponed or discontinued. Education authorities in the Netherlands, the UK (including the North), France, India and International schools have all cancelled end of year exams this summer, as schools in 192 countries have shut their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Astonishingly, the Leaving Certificate (LC) state examinations is one of few Irish events set to go ahead, with the Minister of Education, Joe McHugh, taking the decision to delay the beginning of the exams to late July/early August. Meanwhile, the Junior Certificate (for 15-year olds) has been changed to an in-house exam that will take place sometime in the future.
The decision to delay, as opposed to cancel, the state exams has provoked a serious backlash from final (6th) year students, many of whom feel that the delay will create a fundamentally unequal LC 2020. Over 20,000 students have already signed a petition on cancelthelc.com calling for Joe McHugh to scrap this year’s exams.
The Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) carried out a poll on over 46,000 Junior and LC students about their preferred option for the exams before the decision to postpone them was made. The poll found that 49% of LC students were in favour of implementing a system of predicted grades; 26% wanted to press ahead with exams in June and only 19% wanted to postpone the exams.
McHugh agreed to meet with ISSU about their survey and to discuss his plans for Junior and Leaving Certificate exams. It was reported that ISSU mooted the idea of a ‘no detriment’ policy, similar to what many 3rd level students have been campaigning for, as a compromise. This system would reflect added uncertainty and stress faced by many students by ensuring that their LC grade could not drop below the grade achieved in mock exams.
Meanwhile, other groups of students, such as cancelthelc.com, have proposed a system where predicted grades would be awarded, based on coursework throughout the year, while students who felt that predicted grades would not reflect their full potential could opt to take LC exams in August/September. However, these proposals were rejected out of hand by the Minister, who instead elected to forge ahead with the exams at the later time of August.
The delay creates inequalities
The decision to delay the state exams will ensure that the LC of 2020 will be a highly unequal exam. By the time they begin, in early August, students will have been out of school for 5 months which will prove detrimental for many exam candidates.
Much has rightly been made in the media about the heroic efforts of Ireland’s frontline and essential workers who are risking their own health to keep the country functioning. However, it hasn’t been recognised that many households in which the parent(s) are essential workers have LC students who are charged with looking after younger siblings during the crisis. Indeed, many essential workers are LC students – working in supermarkets and care homes – who have to manage difficult work conditions during the pandemic while preparing for their LC exams. The experience of students who have their own offices along with private tutors and online revision courses will vary greatly to those who live in smaller houses where they have to share study space with siblings and parents.
For other students, such as those living in abusive households or students with special educational needs, school provides an important form of pastoral care, even if it is in a limited capacity. Creating a school day and a study schedule along with maintaining the concentration to complete schoolwork will prove an impossible task for many, especially those with learning difficulties such as ADHD.
Access and stress
Students from rural Ireland have spoken out about the impact of the digital divide on this year’s LC. For households with poor bandwidth, LC students will have to compete with parents who may be working from home for Internet access. This means that direct tuition, which is already happening at a reduced capacity online, will be completely inaccessible for a significant proportion of those undertaking the LC.
For the rest, the decision will mean a gruelling 11-month 6th year, extending significantly a period usually associated with high stress and anxiety. It is deeply unfair to judge the entire academic performance of an individual student after 5 months of crisis and disruption.
Finally, there is the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic itself. It is likely that the Coronavirus will still be present in Ireland in some shape or form and this could still pose a huge risk for immune-suppressed students or those who live with someone who is immune-suppressed at home. Although the Minister promised social distancing guidelines will be adhered to, given the government’s uneven track record so far, as well as the widespread fact of cramped school corridors and facilities, there is reason to be worried. Many students will end up feeling anxious or guilty about potentially contracting the virus when doing the exams. This, in no way, should be a ‘choice’ that LC students are forced to make
The Leaving Cert is highly unequal – at the best of times
Socialists should rally behind students calling for this year’s LC to be scrapped. And we should go further, by calling for the abolition of the LC altogether. Many of the inequalities highlighted so far are inequalities faced by LC students every year. Access to study space, private tutors, grinds and having a healthy home environment have a massive impact on students’ success in the exams.
Most people are aware that there are significant levels of educational inequality in Ireland. Simple socialist demands such as free school meals, increased access to resource hours and free supervised study would go a long way when it comes to alleviating some important aspects of it. However, educational inequality is ingrained; it persists at a deeper level, through Ireland’s elitist education system. Professions such as law and finance are notorious for the existence of old boys’ networks from private school like Blackrock College and St. Mary’s College in Dublin.
A study carried out by the UCD School of Social Policy about entry into higher education in Dublin found that only 15% and 16% of students enter higher education from Dublin 17 (Darndale; Riverside; Priorswood and Clonshaugh) and Dublin 10 (Ballyfermot), respectively. This compares to 84% and 99% of students from the affluent Dublin 4 (Donnybrook; Ballsbridge; Mount Merrion and Sandymount) and Dublin 6 (Ranelagh; Rathmines; Rathgar and Sandford). In Dublin 4, four out of seven secondary schools are fee-paying; while, in Dublin 6, six out of seven secondary schools are fee-paying. Furthermore, according to league tables, 16 out of the top 20 schools in the South are fee-paying.
There is no doubt that the main source of educational inequality is wealth. Students who come from affluent backgrounds simply have greater access to resources than those who don’t. The Leaving Cert ingrains this dynamic.
A Note on the North
It is clear that even before the COVID-19 crisis our education system was failing both the students and also wider social needs – for example, education acting as a stimulus for social mobility. We need to think differently about the role of education, and that means we need to understand how the existing system works. With that in mind, Part 2 will look at the the work of Paulo Freire and the alternative liberatory education he proposes.
Before then, it is worth noting the situation in the North. Because while the education system is different North and South, the teaching methods and outcomes of the GCSEs and A-Levels do not differ hugely from the LC. Educational inequality is widespread in the North, and it is maintained through the Grammar school system. A huge issue is the continuance of academic selection as an entry requirement to Grammar Schools. Far from being more equitable or fair, the 11-plus reinforces social and class inequalities. In 2019, the Right to Education group published a report which concluded:
The ability of powerful institutions benefitting from the maintenance of academic selection – Churches, grammar schools, boards of governors – to exercise an effective veto over academic selection is perpetuating social and economic inequality and exclusion across our society.
Stormont as a whole has failed to remove this source of inequality. The current NI Executive Education minister is from the DUP, and Sinn Fein held this ministry from 1999 to May 2016, including Martin McGuiness as one of the ministers. While the 11-plus was abolished on paper in 2008, academic selection, transfer tests and the grammar school system is still firmly in place.
Overall, it is clear that the education structure and school curricula both North and South ensure that educational attainment runs along class lines.
We are long overdue a radical change. But for this summer, at the very least, the Education Minister Joe McHugh should do as is being done in the North and cancel the Leaving Cert.