Let’s talk about…The Leaving Cert

Return of traditional Leaving Cert a missed opportunity for exam reform

Over 131,000 students began their Junior and Leaving Cert exams this week, marking the first time that the traditional written June exams have been held since the beginning of the pandemic.

Unlike last year, this year’s Leaving Cert students do not have the choice to opt for accredited grades in place of written exams. Instead, the academic challenges faced by students in the past couple of years will be accommodated with a ‘tailor-made’ exam paper that gives students more question options and covers less material.

But this return to traditional exams flies in the face of the resounding consensus voiced by students in the past couple of weeks, who have been advocating for a hybrid examination model to be implemented. They feel that the proposed hybrid model (giving students the option of sitting the paper, doing predictive grades, or doing both) would better account for the disruption done to their education as a consequence of the pandemic – especially in the case of marginalised and disadvantaged students, whose education was disproportionately impacted.

Students en masse feel that the format of the Leaving Cert fails to make adequate accommodations in light of Covid’s impact on their education the past two years, and it’s hard to discount that view. As it stands, the set-up of the traditional Leaving Cert is inherently flawed. There’s no accounting for previous academic performance, there’s a greater prioritisation of rote memorisation over actual application of knowledge, and sit-down exams themselves – as opposed to alternatives such as continuous assessment or a hybrid format – put students under an inordinate amount of pressure. And this is without considering the impact of a global pandemic.

The toll that the Leaving Cert exams take on students’ mental health is irreconcilable; a six-year grind towards one make-or-break exam period is a recipe for burnout and anxiety. This rigid kind of set-up, the kind without any real person-to-person accommodations, is not going to be one that showcases the true aptitude of students, and the necessity to cram in order to succeed won’t serve them either.

Over the past couple of years, there has been such a shift in societal values, such a stress put on the importance of ‘learning from the pandemic’. Significantly, one of the inadvertent consequences to arise from people’s negative experiences of living through lockdowns and isolation is a renewed focus on mental health, and on maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Following on from the pandemic, we’ve learned to accept a blended/hybrid working model, one with flexibility that accommodates different people and what suits them best. Surely then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a hybrid model for Leaving Cert assessment would not just be the best option for 2022’s students, but the best option in general?

Best of luck to everyone sitting exams this year.