Recent months have seen intense debate about the future of the Leaving Cert. Post-primary teacher Mark Walshe argues that while the process is seriously flawed, it is but one aspect of wider educational inequality in Irish society and of the deeper class inequality which causes it.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the inequalities in Irish society even more dramatically than the banking crisis of 2008. The stark contrast between an apparently booming economy and the sudden shutdown has shone a spotlight on the prevalence of poverty wages, the absence of a functioning childcare system, the lack of capacity in the public health service, the scandal of privatised nursing homes (which have accounted for more than half of Covid-19 deaths to date), and the inequality of access to education.
As the government debates how to return to the classroom, the experience of closing the schools in March and the shift to online teaching and learning brought the ‘digital divide’ and childcare issues to the fore. Many disadvantaged students lack the necessary IT equipment to participate in online classes and many struggled to find a quiet place at home to complete schoolwork.
Even where students happened to be well resourced at home, the ongoing uncertainty around whether the Leaving Cert would go ahead in the Summer was causing increasing anxiety and stress. Solidarity-People Before Profit was the first political organisation to back the student campaign for Leaving Cert 2020 to be cancelled, which brought real certainty for students. Other political parties soon followed and the momentum led to the Government decision to cancel the Leaving Cert exams for this year and replace them with a system of predicted grades.
The intense debate around the Leaving Cert among students, teachers, unions, and in the Dáil, put renewed focus on inequality in education. The use of ‘school profiling’ as a key component in the predicted grades process led to accusations that a school’s disadvantaged status could negatively impact on individual students, leading to grade suppression.
But, is scrapping the Leaving Cert the answer? What, if anything, should replace it?
Scrap the Leaving Cert
Before looking at the question in more detail, it’s important to draw some distinctions. The Leaving Cert is a course of study made up of at least six subjects which students follow at school over two years; the Leaving Cert public examinations are run independently by the State Examinations Commission during the Summer; and the points system is administered by the Central Applications Office on behalf of the third level colleges. Should all three be discontinued?
One answer would be to remove the points system and put in place a system of ‘open entry’ to third level. This was one of the more popular solutions proposed as an alternative to the Leaving Cert exams and predicted grades; simply allow all students who so desired to proceed to the third level course of their choice.
If such an open entry system became the norm into the future, it could dramatically reduce the stress on students as their future would no longer depend on the results they achieved in the Leaving Cert exams. It could end the cut-throat competition of the ‘points race’ and remove the raison-d’être of the grinds industry. Ultimately, students would still have to face high stakes exams to graduate from college but, at least, all students might have equal access to courses such as medicine.
The points system promotes an instrumental view of the Leaving Cert, encouraging students to think of their subjects chiefly as a means to an end, or in terms of what we might call their ‘exchange value’: how many points can my grade in each subject be exchanged for? 100 points for a H1, 88 points for a H2 etc.
Decoupling might encourage students to value the importance of an in-depth knowledge of History, Computer Science, Spanish or any other subject on the curriculum. In the absence of the points system, the Leaving Cert exams could provide a record of attainment in each subject, which could provide an indicative level of a student’s prior knowledge in a subject area as they start out in college, without prejudicing a student’s access to any course.
Would an open entry system simply move the problem around, shifting it upwards from second level to third level? Would the grinds industry re-open for third level courses rather than second level Leaving Cert subjects, enabling more affluent students to once again outcompete other students?
The question points to one of the fundamental problems for equality in education: the primacy of social class in determining who gains the advantage in terms of educational credentials and life chances.1
The evidence that social class plays a determining role is fairly overwhelming. Figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2014 reveal that only 15 per cent of students from Dublin 17 (Coolock and Darndale) and 16 per cent from Dublin 10 (Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard) progressed to college — compared to 99 per cent of students from Dublin 6 (Ranelagh and Rathmines) and 84 per cent from Dublin 4.2
The Irish Independent put it even more starkly: “Social class and postcode determine students’ access to highly paid careers.” The difference in earnings for those with a college degree is typically much higher in Ireland. According to the OECD, “Adults with a bachelor’s degree earn on average 81% more than those with upper secondary education, compared to 44% more on average across OECD countries.”3
The ‘equality of opportunity’ response
The traditional response of the Irish State to such educational disadvantage has been to rely on policies that promote equality of opportunity for students. The Delivering Equality of Opportunity In Schools (DEIS) programme, launched in 2005, is one of the main policy tools for tackling educational disadvantage at second level. At third level, the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019 seeks to increase participation from “a number of target groups, particularly students with disabilities and from socio-economically disadvantaged groups.”
Given the persistence of educational disadvantage as highlighted by the HEA figures, it would appear that such policies have done little to reduce social-class based educational disadvantage. However, this is exactly as we might expect. As Lynch and Crean argue, equal opportunities policies in education cannot undo social class inequalities.4
Equality of opportunity policies do not address the social-class based advantages that more affluent students can avail of to help them to out-compete students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. There are a range of ongoing costs associated with schooling including ‘voluntary’ contributions, uniforms, books, iPads, laptops, extra-curricular activities and school trips. Not only can more affluent parents readily afford these costs, they can also afford to pay for a plethora of services for their children outside school, from private tuition (grinds) to Summer camps (e.g. the Gaeltacht), language travel and many other educationally relevant activities. Some can even afford to send their children to private schools and, indeed, the economic recovery pre-COVID witnessed a surge in enrolments for private fee-charging schools.
Policymakers, Lynch and Crean (2018), use equality of opportunity policies such as back to school grants, the DEIS programme and university access programmes to provide a ‘fair’ basis on which to manage these kinds of social-class based inequalities. These policies strengthen minimal student entitlements while regulating the competition for advantage. However, the problem is that the concept itself is based on the assumption that there will always be structural inequalities between people in terms of their resources and that the best we can do is to work within the equality of opportunity framework to try to ameliorate the situation to some degree. To quote Lynch and Crean:
“… there is an assumption that a mixed economy of capitalism and voluntary effort, a developed system of social welfare, a meritocratic educational system, and a specialized and hierarchical division of labour – define the institutional framework within which any progress towards equality can be made. The task for egalitarians is to make adjustments to these structures rather than to alter them in fundamental ways…
“… Equality of opportunity policies do not address the underlying generative cause of social class based (dis)advantage, which is economic. In other words, if we want a more equal education system, we need to address the underlying economic inequality.”5
An educational, or a political, problem?
Inequality in Ireland has remained consistent. Not surprisingly, it worsened as a result of austerity policies during the economic crisis from 2008 to 2014.6 Research by the Think Tank for Action on Social Change (TASC) shows that, prior to social transfers, economic inequalities in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD.7
When parties like Fine Gael claim they are reducing inequality, they conveniently fail to mention that they were the party, along with Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens, that exacerbated the inequality they claim to be reducing.
Lynch and Crean (2018) argue that inequality is rooted in social structures, which include capitalism, patriarchy, racism and disablism. In a similar way to socialists, they argue that because these structures have changed in the past they can be changed in the future (just like feudalism was replaced by capitalism, so capitalism can be replaced by socialism).
The persistence of educational inequality in Ireland indicates that it’s a much larger problem than the Leaving Cert itself. There is a need to push for a radically more equal society to underpin a radically more equal education system.
This is primarily a political project rather than an educational one. It must involve left-wing political parties, fighting trade unions, social movements and other progressive forces pushing for an end to low pay, for workers’ rights, and for a massive expansion of public services including childcare, healthcare and, of course, education.
Like many public services in Ireland, the education service is chronically underfunded. In 2019, Ireland was “bottom of the class” in terms of class sizes and funding, with investment at the second level the lowest of 35 OECD countries. It’s clear that there’s a need for a major investment programme in the education service, from Early Childhood Care and Education right up to third and fourth level. Carrying through such a political project will inevitably challenge the entrenched structures of wealth and power in Irish society, including low employer social insurance, poverty wages, lack of trade union rights, low corporate taxes etc.
A major increase in investment could transform the education system. Modernising school buildings with hot running water, well-equipped Science labs, a PE hall and all of the necessary IT equipment would already be transformative in the Irish context.
Reducing class sizes to a maximum of 10 or 12 students per class, and consequently increasing the number of teachers in the system, would create the ideal learning conditions for students as well as working conditions for teachers. This would give much greater scope for teachers and students to interact and to engage deeply with each of their subjects. It would create the time and space for teachers and students to work together. Teachers would no longer be put in the position of having to ‘deliver’ education to large groups of 30 to 40 students, crammed cheek-by-jowl into overcrowded classrooms.
In such a context, the Leaving Cert would be a very different experience, as would access to higher education.
Apart from some acknowledgement of the problems with the points system, none of these proposals have featured in the ongoing review of the Leaving Cert, or rather ‘the Senior Cycle’ (which includes the one-year Transition Year programme, followed by the two years of Leaving Cert). To date, the review has only produced tentative suggestions which focus mainly on changes to learning activities, different modes of assessment such as project work, more ‘continuous assessment’, a focus on ‘life skills’ and soft skills such as resilience, as well as opportunities for work experience and alternative ‘pathways’ other than college. It is argued that such changes would help to make the Senior Cycle more inclusive.
Such tweaking of the existing setup at Leaving Cert, however, will do little to address the deep-rooted economic inequality that continues to generate social-class based inequality in education.
- Baker, J., Lynch, K., Cantillon, S. and Walsh, J. (2004) Equality: From Theory to Action (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
- ‘Some 99% of Dublin 6 students go on to third-level’ Irish Times, 20/8/2014
- OECD (2019), “Ireland”, in Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, pg.1, OECD Publishing, Paris.
- Lynch, K. and Crean, M. (2018) ‘Economic Inequality and Class Privilege in Education: Why Equality of Economic Condition is Essential for Equality of Opportunity’, in J. Harford (ed.) Education for All? The Legacy of Free Post-Primary Education in Ireland. Oxford: Peter Lang: 139-160.
- Lynch & Crean, 2018, pg. 15
- Lynch, K., Cantillon, S., and Crean, M. (2017). ‘Inequality’ in William K. Roche and Philip O’Connell (Eds) Austerity’s Poster Child? Ireland’s Experience of the Great Recession and Recovery (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 252-271
- See TASC (2015) Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland (Dublin: TASC: Think-tank for Action on Social Change); TASC (2016a) Cherishing All Equally 2016: Economic Inequality in Ireland (Dublin: TASC: Think-tank for Action on Social Change); and TASC (2016b) Cherishing All Equally 2016: Children and Economic Inequality in Ireland (Dublin: TASC: Think-tank for Action on Social Change).