Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion (Resumed)

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Chairman for inviting me, my Department and agencies of my Department to attend today. At the outset I want to commend this committee on the work it is undertaking in this area, which is hugely valuable. The way in which the committee is going about this work, in a very public and transparent way, is really helping with the important discourse that needs to happen now in relation to the lessons emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic in the context of transition pathways and opportunities for our younger people in school and, from my perspective, crucially, when they leave school; the way in which we present those options to them; and how we prepare them to best avail of those options. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused huge disruption, challenge, stress and anxiety but it has also presented opportunities. When it comes to the area of education, including further and higher education and the entire spectrum of education, there are many opportunities presenting and we will not be forgiven by future generations if we let this moment pass and decide to just go back to the old way of doing things.

Something much better and much bigger is demanded by our younger people, by the next generation of leaders within our community, society, economy and our political system, arising from their having lived through and endured a global pandemic. Consequently, I encourage all of us, that is, myself, my Department, our agencies and all Members of the Oireachtas, to take this opportunity and be bold in the policy response we consider. This committee is very much united across the political spectrum in wanting to explore those opportunities.

Any reform of the leaving certificate process must be considered in the context of broader senior cycle reform. Sometimes the conversation can be only about the terminal exam but we must also consider the programme, subjects, skills and objectives in the round. I will pose some questions. Does the senior cycle prepare all our students equally well for pursuing their future paths, be they academic or vocational? I really want to hone in on the latter point. Where are we at with respect to a student who wishes to pursue a vocational course within our second level system? Does the leaving certificate capture a person’s capabilities in the round or does it choose to focus only on certain capabilities and assess those very well, thoroughly and objectively while ignoring many other capabilities or skills a young person may have? Do the leaving certificate and the points system hinder a person’s potential or help them? There has never been a better time to have this conversation.

When we talk about the leaving certificate it is really important we not just talk about half the issue. We should not have a conversation with one arm tied behind out back. We should have a fully-rounded conversation. It cannot just be a conversation about the leaving certificate examination. When I talk to young people, their parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, principals and colleagues in these Houses, people also want to have a conversation about what happens after the examination. The process the Department of Education and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, the Government and the Oireachtas ultimately ends up putting in place is important but it needs to be joined up with the pathways that happen after that process of assessment.

How do we move beyond what I believe has been a very narrow view of options post school? We have huge success in this country with rates of university and higher education uptake. We should be proud of that but we must also be big enough to admit we have, perhaps unintentionally, narrowed the conversation about all the options much too early in a young person's life. We have narrowed, in many ways, the definition of what success is and how it is perceived by society. We must ask ourselves how we move beyond the points race and all the stress and worry students and their families feel every year and how we create additional and alternative pathways to further and higher education. The leaving certificate route, whatever that might look like, can be a pathway but it is not the only show in town. What are the other pathways to get a person where he or she wants to go? I want the committee to know that is where my energy is going to be. It will be placed in ensuring school leavers have as many ways as possible to progress to where they want to in terms of careers, as opposed to just one way. There are far too many conversations around kitchen tables or on couches about what university a person wants to go to and not about what does he or she want to do with his or her life and here are three, four or five different ways of getting him or her there. That is leading to huge challenges, to huge anxiety and pressure and a warped sense of what success and fulfilment can look like.

We must also be honest. The current leaving certificate system does not equip a student in respect of many life skills. Members may wonder why I should interfere in that space. I do so because it directly impacts on the ability of a young person when he or she leaves school to make the successful transition to further education, higher education or to the world of work. It does not always teach students about financial literacy or digital skills. Bizarrely, it does not teach students properly about sex education and consent. We in the higher education system then find ourselves having to play catch-up. We all know the huge difficulties around sexual harassment, sexual violence and consent. Why do we bury our heads in the sand on these issues when students are at a much younger age? Furthermore, in the week in which COP26 is taking place, why do we not teach our kids about climate skills? Mr. Brownlee, who is seated in front of me, is leading a massive programme in SOLAS to train people in green skills. That is great. Let us go back and train the people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who never had an opportunity to learn green skills. However, are we satisfied that kids today, who care more about climate than any generation before them, leave schools with no understanding, in a formal sense, of the green skills or no ability to be assessed in relation to that as well?

I should acknowledge that we have brilliant schools, teachers and principals. We have people who are passionate about doing the best by their students. That is not the point I am making. The point I am making is that the structured leaving certificate we have now ignores all these areas that I have spoken about but life does not ignore them and citizens in this country do not ignore them. I believe that these skills being provided in a broader sense within our education system would help our students transition to third level, to employment and, quite frankly, to life. We need a fair and consistent assessment system, one that can give our students feedback and a clear understanding of their strengths and talents in order that they can make reliable choices.

I will share with the committee some figures regarding transition rates from DEIS schools to higher education. In 2018, the overall transition rate was 63%. Of course, behind headlines there is a lot more detail and behind that overall transition rate there is a rate of 40% in DEIS schools and 69% in non-DEIS schools. The aspiration of a child from a disadvantaged community is no less and should be no less than the aspiration of a child from another community. We have to recognise that. When we boast about how well we are doing as a country in terms of educational attainment, and we have every right to be proud of that, we should not forget that we are still leaving kids behind today and we are failing collectively to put in place enough policy interventions to close that gap between 40% and 69%. That is not the equal republic that we all want to build post Covid. Two babies born side by side need to have the same opportunity as they go through the education system at every phase and their dreams should not be dampened or lessened due to the area in which they grow up.

We also have to acknowledge that we live in a very fast-changing world as regards work, the skills we require and how we work. We have all seen that accelerated through the pandemic. Our third level system exists to allow learners to develop and specialise their knowledge, skills and competence. Ireland’s future sustainability depends on the achievements of these learners, on their specialised knowledge, expertise and development, as well as on their collective capacity to widen and deepen social, economic and cultural development. We must ensure that there are sufficient numbers of students who are equipped to work in areas of specific skills needs. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education, ICT skills and the development of language skills are some of the key areas where we must ensure post-primary students are given a chance to explore their talents. In other words, let us not begin the conversation about how we address these challenges when a student turns up at the door of a university or college of further education at the age of 18. Let us embed that in the school system.

An unintended consequence of the leaving certificate has been that it has decided that some skills matter and, therefore, by implication it has also decided that others do not. As a result, we are narrowing our view of what success is. We also have to be honest. I am also the Minister responsible for skills. There are skills shortages in this country in relation to housing. We all want to build more houses and we need 27,500 more people to get to our target for housebuilding. We all also want to retrofit homes. I was listening to media commentary about retrofitting this morning. It is a really important issue for saving our planet, which is on fire and which we all care about. We have to ask ourselves who is going to do it. No one here in this room is going to retrofit a home. No one in this room is going to build a home. We have to make sure that our younger people in school realise that there are pathways, careers and rewarding jobs in the trades and crafts and that it is not all just about a narrow view of the world. I would make that point very strongly.

That is why I am not just talking about it as this Friday, with the co-operation of SOLAS, the CAO and the education and training boards, ETBs, we will launch a new updated CAO website. Every leaving certificate student will be able to log on to the website and see the button for the traditional CAO options but, for the first time ever, they will also see a button for the further education and training options and a button that they can click to find out lots more information about apprenticeships and the supports and the pathways there as well. Why hide these issues and not talk to people about apprenticeships at a younger age? Why not look at allowing people the opportunities to sample and experience apprenticeships in our secondary school system and perhaps even earlier? In our sector we are going to bring about that cultural change, where the conversation around the kitchen table or on the couch will be broader. We are going to start that on Friday, with all our partners, with this revamped website.

Does cultural change not need to begin much earlier in the post-secondary school student's life? It does. The way one achieves that is through a broader and more inclusive curriculum. I look forward to working with my Government colleagues, especially the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and to reviewing the forthcoming report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, on priority areas and goals. I wanted to share with the committee the view that the skills needs our country requires depends on getting this right. The definition of success and what success is has been unintentionally narrowed by a leaving certificate system that applies a focus to some skills and ignores others. In addition, the successful transition to other options post school requires a broader ranges of issues being assessed and a broader range of life skills being considered. Crucially, we will begin this week by showing people all of the options available post school and not just some of them.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.