Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion with School Management Bodies
I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even while on silent mode. The minutes of the meeting on 21 September 2021 have been circulated to members. Are the minutes agreed to? Agreed.
We are meeting with the school management bodies. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. John Curtis, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Board, JMB, Mr. John Irwin, general secretary of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, Mr. Paddy Flood, head of schools, Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, and of Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, and Mr. Paul Crone, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. The witnesses are here today for a round-table discussion on the leaving certificate reform with reference to assessment options, key subject areas and digital learning, access, equality and well-being supports, and the Irish language and Irish-medium education.
The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Curtis to make an opening statement, then Mr. Irwin, followed by Mr. Flood and, finally, Mr. Crone. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a six-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following the meeting.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. They have already been advised of that. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by me, as Chair, to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with the direction of the Chair.
I call on Mr. Curtis to make an opening statement followed by the other witnesses as I outlined. Mr. Curtis has four minutes.
Mr. Curtis, if you could hold for a second, I will get them to turn up the volume here on this end. There are some technical issues on this side here. I apologise to the witnesses. I am sorry about this.
I ask Mr. Curtis to proceed, take two.
Mr. John Curtis:
I thank the Chair. We welcome this opportunity to present to this meeting on the leaving certificate reform process. In preparation for our submission to the NCCA on the review of senior cycle, JMB undertook an extensive consultation process with voluntary secondary school management across the country. This process identified a range of important themes which we referenced in our original submission to this committee, and we also identified some of the school-level conditions essential for the development of a new framework for senior cycle.
In this opening statement, I now address some of the specific areas the committee sought our views on. The first area was assessment options. Assessment, reporting and transition to other pathways are all closely aligned. At each stage of the senior cycle review teachers, students and parents identified the importance of the relationship between teaching, learning and assessment approaches experienced by students at junior cycle and those that could be in place at senior cycle.
Participants also identified the variety of assessment approaches currently used in transition year as possibilities. They cited school-based projects, portfolio-based assessment, end-of-year interviews and modular, credit-based assessment as offering rich experiences in the assessment and reporting on students’ learning.
Over the course of the review, students suggested that continuous assessment by way of assignments, tasks and interviews promotes their independent learning and offers them better preparation for further education. Our experience around assessment at leaving certificate over the past two years has given us much to reflect on in this regard and opens up possibilities some may never have thought possible.
I shall turn now to key subject areas and digital learning. Taking the very best elements of transition year, leaving certificate applied, LCA, and the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, offer the opportunity to build on students’ learning and create significant foundations for further progression. In addition, the wide range of second components already assessed for State examinations represents good news, in that we are not starting from scratch, and we can build on what currently exists in the system. Consider for example, the leaving certificate vocational programme, which was introduced in 1994 and which offers a curricular experience and an assessment schedule that reflects different learning modes, opportunities and achievement criteria. Course work, a case study and reflection on practice in work experience are all central elements of the programme. The opportunity for practice in the world of work is offered alongside the taught curriculum, and this could well be replicated in future.
Likewise, the best elements of the leaving certificate applied programme can be integrated into a new senior cycle. Inspectors’ reports recognise that LCA reflects students’ personal and social development during lessons and through their vocational education. Students are offered the opportunity to enhance their literacy, reflective skills, and personal and social development. They state that there is clear evidence that cross-curricular learning takes place in the completion of students’ tasks and that genuinely active learning, structured group work and assessment of and for learning is prioritised.
Digital literacy is now intrinsic to teaching and learning activity but if the past 18 months have taught us anything, it is that a high-quality digital infrastructure is essential, not an add-on or an expensive luxury. The digital divide is very real. Infrastructure investment and ongoing professional learning support are essential prerequisites to a reconfigured senior cycle.
Consider also the higher and further education requirements, vocational options and career paths. One of our schools in the south of the country has developed an apprenticeship pathway programme for senior-cycle students. They have developed links with Generation Apprenticeship and SOLAS, and this has supported the development of their project. Students from transition year through to leaving certificate have engaged. Local employers have been central to the programme’s development, as they have offered apprenticeship pathways for students at the school. Such models of collaboration in local communities integrate the best of the educational curricular provision offered at school with the opportunity for purposeful practice in a workplace setting.
There are significant synergies between the current national further education and training strategy, FET, and the work undertaken in the review of senior cycle. Both consider learning opportunities for senior-cycle students and look at pathways from school to further education and training. The learning pathways as described in the project in our school in Cork align completely with the aims of the strategy. Is there learning for us all in considering the FET strategy in conjunction with the development of senior cycle at second level? Could there be greater collaboration between post-primary schools and FET colleges? Could we consider recognition of prior learning and links between levels 1 to 4 on the national framework of qualifications with programmes offered at senior cycle at post-primary level?
Currently, there is no dedicated progression to senior cycle for students engaging the level 2 learning programmes at junior cycle. This gap needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, even in advance of the broader senior cycle review. These are just some of the possibilities we can explore, and I look forward to our shared conversation on this important national project. I thank the Chairman.
Mr. John Irwin:
The Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, ACCS, welcomes the opportunity to address the joint committee. The association has been engaged actively in the comprehensive review of senior cycle, which has been carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. The ACCS is represented on the NCCA council.
During that consultation, stakeholders from community and comprehensive schools have participated in school-based reviews and in national seminars on this topic as part of the consultation process facilitated by the NCCA. We will now take a look at the focus of those consultations, which talked about the pathways, programmes and flexibility for senior cycle going forward.
From those consultations, the NCCA published the Senior Cycle Review: Consultation Document July 2019. We very much concur with the purpose as expressed in that document that, "Senior cycle education aims to help every student towards fulfilling their potential." The document also says, "senior cycle equips students for diverse and sustainable futures so that they can embrace full, active citizenship and participation in society and the economy as they learn and as they make the transition to life beyond school." We must accept, however, that the current form of assessment, where we have examinations at the end of the two-year cycle scheduled over three weeks in June, has a powerful backwash effect on the way senior cycle is experienced by all stakeholders at present. We very much challenge the notion that this is the best system we can go with, or the notion that the current system is even a fair one.
Since the introduction of the junior cycle programme in 2015, we can see that there is a significant disconnect between the educational experience at junior cycle and senior cycle at post-primary education. At junior cycle we now have a range of different assessment modes, with a focus on skills and competencies, as opposed to the senior cycle that is still very much focused on content and recall rather than skills and competencies.
In considering the assessment options currently available at senior cycle, we believe there is an absolute need for a broader range of components appropriately spaced over the two-year cycle in module format, as my colleague, Mr. Curtis, described earlier, rather than on three weeks of examinations at the end of the senior cycle.
We acknowledge that there is confidence in the manner in which the State Examinations Commission conducts its business around the current examinations, but we argue that significant improvements could be made. There is a significant conflict in what we are trying to achieve with the examination at senior cycle, between recall and understanding. The focus should not be so much on recall and retention. The focus should move to understanding. In this regard, the place of technology and its potential to support greater diversity in approaches to assessment across senior cycle should be explored fully.
I fully agree with Mr. Curtis's statement that we need to invest significantly in the IT infrastructure in our schools. I am encouraged by goal No. 1 in the Department of Education Statement of Strategy 2021-2023, which looks at a new digital strategy for schools. We sincerely hope that this strategy will be a significantly funded strategy. We must use the opportunities we have gained over the past two years as opportunities to normalise technology in our schools.
I refer also to our examination and assessment systems in this regard. If we are to start looking at truly inclusive examination systems, we must question why we have the process for reasonable accommodation in certificate examinations, RACE, which brought in following the introduction of the examination, and significant numbers of students who have to avail of RACE? We should be trying to explore the opportunity of assessment that is accessible to all. The key and final point I will make is that senior cycle assessment must move to a system that is very much more concentrated on skills and competencies in a modular framework, and which is more consistent with the system now encapsulated in the junior-cycle framework and in third level education, when the students move on into further and higher education and apprenticeships in the future.
We have included other significant pieces in our previously submitted written statement, but I am conscious now of the time available for the committee members. I would be more than delighted to engage in our debate.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak at the committee today.
I am the director of schools for Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, ETB, but today I am representing the ETB sector, which has 250 post-primary schools, 48 of which offer education through Gaeilge.
With regard to assessment, we are consistent with comments made earlier. ETBI believes that the case for reform of senior cycle education in Ireland is compelling and that the methods by which we assess our students' learning in this phase of their education is dated. Summative assessments should better reflect the wider, richer variety of methodologies used in the junior cycle, as mentioned earlier, and such methodologies are also present in traineeships, apprenticeships, further education and higher education. Alternatives to examinations, such as project work, oral presentations, design tasks etc., as have been mentioned, are already included in the leaving certificate and applied leaving certificate programmes. However, these assessments are effectively overshadowed by examinations, with the process condensed into what can be a very stressful three weeks at the end of 14 years of schooling. We have confidence in the examination body that oversees this but it is the examinations process with which we have a problem.
The time is right now to develop a rich, multifaceted assessment process, as referenced by other speakers, that is not dependent on performance over a short window in time. Examinations may have a role to play but should not dominate the process. The assessment of learning for senior cycle students should reflect the student voice and capture the wide range of their abilities and knowledge and should not be a process of matriculation for higher education.
On the question of digital learning and key subject areas, we like the broad and balanced range of subjects available for the leaving certificate and the fact it is possible to assimilate new subjects with relative ease into our system. The flexibility to provide cross-curricular, skills-based and work-placed learning that currently exists in the leaving certificate applied and leaving certificate vocational programmes referenced by Mr. Curtis is something we commend. This breaks up learning from being in silos of subjects to being more cross-curricular.
The purposeful use of digital technology has a key role to play in developing safe, independent and digitally empowered global citizens. This is key in today's world. This technology offers boundless possibilities in enhancing the learning and assessment experiences of students and in some cases affords them access to a broader curriculum. Through technology, for example, at Cavan and Monaghan ETB we are able to offer Polish as a leaving certificate subject to students from a Polish background.
Access to education for learners with specific difficulties is enriched through the use of assistive technologies as a powerful force for learning. However, digital technology is equally resource-hungry. ETBI acknowledges investment made in recent years on the part of the Department of Education, yet digital inequity in schools and homes continues.
With regard to access and equality, inclusion and equality are certainly values we all subscribe to in our education sectors. A significant majority of DEIS schools are ETB schools and we commend the DEIS programme as a vehicle through which future focus on disadvantaged learners can be channelled. School meals, targeted supports, home school liaison and some additional funding provide many students with a platform to participate more fully in education. It is really important in keeping students in schools until their leaving certificate. Research from Trinity College Dublin on education during the pandemic highlighted the extent of the wealth and digital divide in Ireland. Students without access to appropriate accommodation, technology and support were the most excluded in this period.
ETBI supports a notion mentioned earlier, the development of special classes. We note that with level 2 learning programmes in junior cycle, for example, there is no continuity to senior cycle. This should be rectified as a matter of urgency in order to give proper access to education from 15 onwards for those students.
Finally, ETBI has a commitment to the Irish language in all our schools, as the other sectors do. We believe all students should have some opportunity to study the language at some level. We are proud to support Gaeilge as a first language in ETB schools and are concerned about the future of Gaeilge as a subject in these schools. If the current junior cycle model, with a more challenging specification, were to be extended to senior cycle, it is inconceivable that one group of students should be expected to perform at a significantly higher level of achievement without recognition for doing so. Bonus points in the CAO, or whatever form of recognition we have, may need to be considered for students who studied Gaeilge as a first language at a more challenging level.
We look forward to answering any questions in the deliberations that arise.
Mr. Paul Crone:
I thank the Chair and members of the committee for the invitation to present here today. I am the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD. The NAPD is the professional association for post-primary school leaders in Ireland and provides a united voice for principals and deputy principals on issues of common concern across all three post-primary sectors. I will speak briefly on the four matters that have been outlined.
On assessment options, research undertaken in 2018 by NAPD found 83% of students claimed that the leaving certificate examination in its traditional form was not the best way to assess their educational achievement. In the same survey, 55% of parents were in favour of their children being assessed by their teacher and 65% of teachers were in favour of comprehensive reform of the leaving certificate. This research was undertaken before the pandemic and since then we have significantly more evidence and experience to inform our decision making on student assessment.
We have learned it is possible for teachers to assess their students and that entry to third level must be decoupled from terminal exam results. We have learned that student anxiety and stress were significantly reduced when they had options. Students' voices were heard and they want flexibility. Going forward, NAPD advocates strongly for the student voice to continue to be heard. Give students a stronger say in their learning and assessment. We must recognise and embrace the professionalism of the teachers who have proven that they can impartially and fairly assess their students.
On key subject areas and digital learning, the provision of a comprehensive curriculum up to junior cycle places the student firmly at the centre of the learning and recognises the importance of providing a broad and balanced education as the basis for progression. As students mature, however, they become more self-aware and they become aware of their own strengths and passions. As such, they develop the ability to choose subjects that they like and that they are good at. This will in turn improve outcomes and engagement. Continuing to offer this wide subject choice at senior cycle is of critical importance to keeping students engaged with their own learning.
On the question of digital learning, embracing the newly acquired confidence and competence in the digital space facilitates student independent learning and student autonomy while giving students the digital skills and competencies to access the curriculum in a digital format. I agree with the earlier comments of colleagues. Investment in infrastructure and professional development support for teachers are vital to embed these skills in our schools.
On the question of access and equality, the recently published OECD report findings confirm the success of the Delivering Equality in Schools, DEIS, programme. The report states that 16% of Irish students from lower socio-economic backgrounds performed at the lowest level in standardised tests compared with the OECD average of 29%. In addition, participation rates for 15- to 19-year-old students in Irish schools are 94% compared with 84% for the OECD average. These achievements are outstanding, given that our spend on education as expressed as a percentage of GDP is much lower that many of our European counterparts, as was highlighted in the same report by the OECD. However, the stigma associated with DEIS schools remains a significant issue for many students and parents. Many schools report that teachers will not apply to teach in a DEIS school. As such, the current review of DEIS being undertaken by the Department of Education will need to address this matter.
On the question of the Irish language and Irish-medium education, in 2021 58% of leaving certificate students opted to sit the written paper in Irish, and this is a cause for serious concern for a compulsory subject. At junior cycle, the new syllabi for level 1 and level 2 have yet to be evaluated and their impact on participation rates has not been given time to embed. In particular there has been no review done to see if there is a consequent impact on participation rates at senior cycle. Having said all of that though, the severe shortage of teachers to teach Irish and to teach other subjects through the medium of Irish may be the limiting factor in any future planning for the development of the Irish language and Irish-medium schools.
I thank the committee and I am happy to answer any questions and participate in any further debate.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I was stuck by what Mr. Irwin said about how, particularly at junior cycle level, the focus has been on the development of skills and competencies, rather than on the traditional focus on getting through the leaving certificate examinations. The students who will sit their leaving certificate in the next number of years will probably not retire until the 2070s. We want to equip and prepare them for a period of digital and technological change that I do not think any of us has experienced. Even what we will see over the next decade will be phenomenal. Talking about that digital and technological change, how do we equip students? What skills and competencies do students need?
The traditional leaving certificate model has been broadly the same since 1925, except for the last two years where we have had a mixed assessment model. What is Mr. Irwin's view on the model used for the 2021 leaving certificate?
Mr. John Irwin:
With regard to the changes that we have looked at, there are key skills and competencies. Digitalisation has meant that content can be accessed from anywhere. Therefore, the ability to recall vast amounts of content is not the key competency or skill we need now. The key competency or skill we need now is the ability to analyse and evaluate that content and to distinguish between what is of value and what is not. We have to get to a situation where we get far more analytical thinkers among our students. We should develop those skills in them so they can recognise what is valuable content and what is not. There is a degree of that within it and that is a major challenge for students.
The world in which students are living is one where we are moving towards a far more globalised society. They have to become far more aware in the senior cycle of the global world outside. Many of them will travel and be leaders around the world, as has been traditional in Ireland in the past. We have the central theme of climate change and the area of a sustainable future, which needs to be mindful of the planet we live in now. All of these people will have to be equipped with these particular skills going forward. The first area is the idea of being able to analyse information, as opposed to simply being able recall it. By the way, I was initially trained as a mathematics teacher by profession. I am not against rote learning. Maths is all about learning tables and recognising and identifying patterns. We are not against content or rote learning. There are lots of good to be gained from those. However, we are not in favour of an assessment system that is totally based on recall and content.
The Senator’s second question related to what we have learned over the past two years. I agree with Mr. Crone that we have seen that we have a highly professionalised teacher body in Ireland. We fortunate to have it. We suddenly realised in the past two years that we can survive without the leaving certificate in Ireland. Who would have thought two years ago that we would be able to put together a particular process that would allow people to progress into other pathways in their lives?
Mr. Crone mentioned the idea of the student voice. Students were central at all of the stakeholder engagements on the processes that were brought in around calculated grades and, more recently, accredited grades. They will have an important role in the coming months and years in discussing and seeing where senior cycle goes. We will also see, through the student and parent charter, the parent’s voice and, more important, the student’s voice being more amplified.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
I am happy to comment on the reform and link with the junior cycle and the skills that are needed for the future. Digital skills are important to being a citizen. Mr. Irwin alluded to the ability to use the most basic tools to tell fake news from real news, and to analyse data that are relevant from data that are not. Central to that, in addition to what Mr. Irwin said, is safety and being safe online and as a digital citizen. We are finding a lot of the stresses and strains that young people are exposed to today come from the digital environment. Our philosophy across all schools is not bury our heads in the sand about this, but to educate and work with people to be digital citizens who are safe.
On the question of the 2021 leaving certificate, we welcome the fact that the leaving certificate took place. We commend all those in the education system who made this possible for students. We have concerns that a long-term system must have more robust moderation in place and gives support to both learners and teachers. I still think it is regrettable that at the end of the process, most of the fuss tended to be around points, who was getting into college and whether it served the purpose of getting to higher education. This does not fully reflect the wide range of pathways that are available to young people to progress through all of the options that are available to them in our system.
Mr. John Curtis:
What we will strive to achieve over the next couple of years is balance. There is much in the traditional leaving certificate that is good. It is valued and can be built on but, in essence, we need to change. We need to reflect on what happened educationally in the last 25 years in this country. In the mid-1990s, we had fundamental reform around the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and transition year. That brought great fruits to the system. In actual fact, in the early 2000s, we engaged in a process in which Professor Anne Looney was involved, whereby we looked at the leaving certificate and reform in that instance. However, people felt it was too early to progress it at that stage. We went into incremental change in the junior cycle, which has been successful. The time is right now, especially given the learnings of the next couple of years, to reinvent, recalibrate and to reimagine what are our future will look like.
We need to get a balance by retaining what is good in what we have. Knowledge is important. I think of knowledge and the disciplinary grounding we get in subjects as being key for us. However, skills are a deployment of that knowledge. That is what we need to equip students for in the time to come. We are on a journey. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, documentation talks about "evolution not revolution". We are all in a space with our respective groupings of consulting people on the ground. We are trying to determine what might be best. It is a great place to be. We are looking at a fruitful process and a rich future for the students in our care.
I thank the witnesses. This meeting has been excellent and there has been so much interesting content. I have been interested in how there are been many similar topics that have been raised, across the board, between all of the groups that have presented before us. From what I can tell, some similar topics that have jumped out of me are around the digital section. I must admit I was impressed. I think it was Mr. John Irwin who mentioned that students can do Polish as a first language. Online access meant teachers were available to those students, which is excellent. It is interesting to note that the new Irish, the people who have come to Ireland and whose mother tongue may not be English, are being accommodated.
I am curious about the digital learning content. We heard about equality in access, inequity and people who may not have digital devices in the home. I am interested in that because I understand between 20% and 25% of adults have literacy difficulties.
We are also looking at the digital divide. It is incredible to think that maybe 50% of adults over the age of 18 would have a lot of difficulty trying to manage this new digital world in which we find ourselves and which has definitely ramped up big time in the past two years.
I have a question for whoever spoke about the ETBs and the links I think he mentioned with further education and training. We spoke about not only different types of stigma to do with DEIS schools and so on but also the stigma surrounding the types of careers one can have after school and what satisfaction and well-being look like. We really need to tackle those things hard. When it comes to DEIS, children should have access to education and be able to achieve their maximum potential. That will be the goal of what we deliver here when it comes to a reform of the leaving certificate. We should allow students to achieve their maximum potential such that we also prepare them and our society for the world that lies ahead of us.
One witness spoke very well about analytical skills. I apologise - I am trying to remember who mentioned them. It was Mr. Crone, perhaps. History is my background. I think he mentioned that his is maths. Analysis and analytical skills are extremely important. I ask the witnesses to give just one or two points as to which areas we could look at to achieve that in a senior cycle.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
A question about ETBI was asked, so I am happy to lead out on that. To link the digital skills and the real world, there is the little pilot we have with the Department's Post-Primary Languages Ireland, PPLI, initiative on Polish language as a subject. That is replicating work that has previously been done with island schools where physics through Gaeilge has been provided in Irish schools. We still advocate the real connection between the teacher and the classroom. The role of digital technology expands the possibilities, particularly in rural areas with smaller schools, to give students at senior cycle access to digital learning and probably to prepare them for the learning of the future.
I will comment briefly on the vocational pathways, etc. It is really about us as a society giving value to those pathways. It is possible today to become an accountant using the apprenticeship route. It is possible to follow the new apprenticeships into all sorts of areas, but we still probably have an over-fascination with leaving certificate points, the CAO and particular courses. Any reform of the leaving certificate into senior cycle must value knowledge and the skills, as referred to by Mr. Curtis. If there is a vocational pathway, for example, it needs to be of equal value and treated and seen as such by all institutions across the State. That has not been the experience to date. As for the value placed on traditional academic learning, it has real value to us but cannot be the only form of learning.
The experience of junior cycle tells us that it is possible to apply skills. That is the key lesson from junior cycle. It is also a matter of taking the knowledge and applying it. When we see young people studying, for example, English or business studies to do their projects, find out what it is about a business in their community and then present to their peers, we know it is possible to have a more interactive form of learning. A key part of that is to recognise that senior cycle takes place over two years. There is such an emphasis on the end of term at the end of sixth year but there are possibilities within fifth year to focus on what assessment practices can be introduced there. We would guard against over-assessment. There must be time for learning and research. Fine balances are being established all the time, but all our evidence suggests that is possible.
Mr. Paul Crone:
Regarding the digital divide, when lockdown happened first, many students from disadvantaged areas tried to access shopping centres to get access to free Wi-Fi because they did not have it at home. Schools invested a lot in dongles to try to allow students to get access, and that was a hugely important initiative. I have heard from those principals going forward to the leaving certificate exam that approximately 40% of students opted for the accredited grades only, whereas 1% of students opted for the exams only. Anecdotally, I hear that in DEIS schools way more than 40% opted for the accredited grades. They have chosen with their feet. In the absence of those direct data, which we need to get, the question is whether or not the current leaving certificate exam format is truly fair. A point was made earlier about reasonable accommodations at certificate examinations, RACE, and why we would need RACE if the exam were truly fair.
Yes, I was unfortunate enough today to get two questions to the Taoiseach, a bit like the buses, so I apologise. If any of the questions I raise have been answered, the witnesses should not worry about answering them again as I will be able to pick up the responses in the transcript of the meeting.
I am delighted the committee is having this session and I thank the witnesses for their statements. I think we are all on the right track here as to where we need to be regarding the leaving certificate. I have a couple of questions as to what the witnesses think the key characteristics are of the current leaving certificate system that perpetuate educational disadvantage. How do they see the leaving certificate next year panning out? Obviously, people who are doing the leaving certificate now or who are in their leaving certificate year are really concerned about time they will miss because of being close contacts or having to stay away, and time they have already missed in the leaving certificate cycle. Are the witnesses happy with where things are in that regard? How will we tackle grade inflation for next year?
I need to say something about broadband because I come across students all the time who face disadvantage upon disadvantage regarding broadband. Have any of the witnesses had input into the broadband plan and the choices that are made in that regard? I look at County Mayo and see the areas which already have certain speeds and which seem to be prioritised again whereas certain geographical areas continue to be left out. Second level students are now being told that it will be 2026 and 2027 before their households get included. That is a real, serious problem for us in the context of the digital divide and disadvantage. I would like to see the witnesses having a key role in decisions that are made in that regard.
I welcome that computer science has been mentioned as well as the subjects that are available in the curriculum matching up to what is needed in our workforce and for our future development. What concerns me, however, is that while computer science is available in some schools, it is not in others. I have a particular interest in this because my son wants to do computer science this year but has to do it all on his own. A student in a school in Dublin or in another more highly populated area than mine may be able to do computer science through the curriculum. My son is at a severe disadvantage in trying to teach himself computer science, and I am sure that is the same for many youngsters across the board. I ask the witnesses to address those points first.
I really believe in DEIS schools. I do not see any stigma whatsoever surrounding DEIS schools. I have seen the brightest of pupils come from DEIS schools. Those supports are really important. I find it unusual to hear there is a stigma attached to those schools because that would never have come into my psyche at all.
Mr. John Curtis:
Even before the Deputy mentioned DEIS schools, in my reply I was going to refer to them because, certainly from my point of view, over the years, in the context of educational disadvantage, I would urge the State to invest in the DEIS scheme because it is the best way in which we can help the disadvantaged students in our system. I have seen the work that has been done in DEIS schools over the years, especially in urban DEIS schools, and it is marvellous. We need to make sure we invest properly in DEIS schools over time. It is key for us and hugely important.
We are going back to a more traditional model of assessment for next year's leaving certificate, all going well. We certainly learned from the accredited and calculated grades processes. We are obviously not sure what is going to emerge. We are all very concerned about the grade inflation and what happened with regard to the CAO this year. That is something we will have to engage on as partners in the education sphere. At the moment, we have been so intent on finishing the leaving certificate process for 2021 and managing the appeals process that it is only now that our minds will turn substantially towards what is going to happen next year with regard to the leaving and junior certificates. The point the Deputy made about grade inflation is very valid and is something we will have to wrestle with.
With regard to broadband, we are in touch with the Department of Education all the time with regard to ensuring that broadband facilities around the country are as good as they can be. We will continue to pursue that because, as the Deputy has said, there were issues around that in the period when the schools were closed. There was progress on certain areas in that respect but there is certainly work that could be done.
I will make one general point, if I may. When we have so many people here from different political parties, it is incumbent on us to mention the frustration we feel as education partners, which was mentioned earlier. Our education system is highly valued. The OECD report on education that was mentioned earlier is fulsome in its praise of Ireland. We are introduced in the report as "Ireland, one of the high-performing education systems across OECD countries". However, we have a difficulty with regard to the proportion of GDP that is invested in education in any given year. I would ask the members present to reflect on that. We have a marvellous education system. We want reform and change but we need to be able to develop our infrastructure as we do so.
Mr. John Irwin:
If I may come in, with regard to the DEIS schools, I agree and disagree with the Deputy's comments. There are fantastic people and fantastic performance in the DEIS schools. Both Mr. Flood and Mr. Crone have referenced how the programme has been generally very successful. However, there is a difference between the DEIS programme in rural areas and in urban areas. In certain urban areas, if there is a DEIS school which is very inclusive, it is significantly more likely to carry a greater burden and to serve a greater range of students than other schools within the area. There is still a little bit of an issue with soft barriers in certain schools irrespective of admissions policy. Some schools are seen as the school that you would attend. There is still a little bit of that. Mr. Crone mentioned stigma. There is still a little bit of that, particularly in larger urban settings. However, there are also tremendous successes. We have 96 community and comprehensive schools. Of that 96, 30 are DEIS schools. We are a great proponent of supporting the DEIS programme, as Mr. Curtis has said.
With regard to grade inflation, we have to really look at what the purpose of the senior cycle is. We are married to progression to third level. That has a great backwash effect on the entire senior cycle. This is a particular problem at a particular time because of a particular crisis. I agree fully with Mr. Flood that, when we bring in new systems and an extended and far more diverse range of assessments, including in-school assessment, we will have to have more robust moderation systems in place to ward against that type of inflation and to ensure consistency over and across years.
Cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna. I thank them very much for being here and for their presentations. I will just ask a few general questions. I am glad to let people answer as they see fit. I will also play devil's advocate to some degree because, while a great deal of good work is being done, people do have questions about the quality of our education system. I will jump right in and address the phrase "grade inflation". For years now, we have been told we have a wonderful education system and that it has given us our competitive edge economically. Can we, with hand on heart, still say that is true? I am not sayng it is not, but is it? Do we still have a competitive edge over other countries in the EU, over Britain or over other countries? Have we lost the competitive edge in any area? What do employers say when we ask them? When the witnesses, as educational experts, speak to us, do they feel they have to tiptoe around the teachers' unions? Can we get honest answers to these questions? Can we talk about leaving certificate reform in a manner that takes these questions into account? People are asking them. I am not making statements. I have the easy job of asking questions and throwing them out there, as I said I would. That is the chéad cheist I wanted to put to the witnesses.
The second question I want to ask is, how valid is the student perspective when we come to talk about the way things should or should not be done? Clearly, there was a time when students were to be seen and not heard and nobody agrees with that any more. However, everywhere I look now I hear education experts like the witnesses telling us what students say. When the ACCS states that students say the oral examination process was much less stressful when the oral examination was facilitated by their own teachers and that they believe "language competency is best assessed by the class teacher across the two years of senior cycle rather than in stand-alone oral examinations", is it not a case of, as the woman famously said, "they would say that, would they not?" Nobody wants students to be overstressed but are we getting overly therapeutic to the point where we only talk about what the students are telling us? Does there come a point at which we have to say, sorry, the oral examination is more stressful but it is part of what the students will have to deal with because it is not going to be their friendly teacher facing them in a job interview? I want to put that question to the witnesses, with great respect to the students and to everybody involved.
I know I am getting into the minutiae of one particular issue but we, quite rightly, spend most of our time here talking about the Irish experience. However, I read earlier this year that the Chinese Government appears to have interfered with the Department of Education with regard to how Chinese is assessed at leaving certificate level. I am talking about the use of the simplified script, which is mainstream in China. Students who use the more traditional heritage script used in places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, in which China has a certain interest, would be marked down for doing so. The worrying thing was that this appears to have come from external interference in our assessment system. Does that concern the witnesses? Do they ask themselves what other interests may be seeking to influence our assessment system in a way we do not hear about? Is iad sin mo cheisteanna.
Mr. John Irwin:
I will come back to Senator Mullen briefly on those points. I thank him very much for his questions. Mr. Curtis has already referenced the most recent OECD report which speaks about the high-performing Irish education system. That is external and involves comparison across OECD countries. If one takes a look at any of the literacy monitoring that goes on, one will see that we are among the top performers in the world. These are independently verified tests. If one takes a look at the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS, which is used to assess numeracy, one will see that we are fifth in the world. As Mr. Curtis pointed out earlier, we have a very poor record of investment in our education system but by the same token, we are getting a very good return. The teacher unions are very valued stakeholders in the educational process. Do we agree with them on every single element? No, but we would not be expected to. However, by the same token, we all have a common goal. We want the best possible outcomes for the students in our schools. That is what we want. As Mr. Flood referred to, we are developing young citizens who are going to go out and become not only leaders in their own communities, but global leaders.
The Senator spoke about student perspectives. I encourage him to look at the Laura Lundy model. Laura Lundy speaks about the importance of the student voice. It is not that you do what the students ask you to in every case but that you listen to the students' voices and evaluate their perspectives. This becomes a very important perspective in making informed choices. It is not the deciding factor, but it informs decision-making. I encourage the Senator to take a look at the Laura Lundy method.
When you talk about orals, it is the educational perspective we are looking at. A 15-minute interview for a two-year subject area is a very formulaic way of assessing it, rather than assessing it over the two-year period when students develop language competencies that are being witnessed on a daily basis in classrooms by language teachers. There has got to be a focus on that oral competency in language agus i nGaeilge. I return to what Mr. Flood mentioned about ensuring that when we move to that type of assessment - if that is the way we go, which I would strongly support - we must have robust moderation in place to support and validate that process.
Those are just my observations. I will leave the question on Chinese to somebody else, if that is okay. I thank the Senator for his question.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
My major concern, if I may make the briefest of points, is on the student voice. The reality is that the student voice was not heard and the Laura Lundy model was not recognised in Ireland in the past. Now that it is being heard, the other part of hearing is to respond. Do we respond to students? We greatly welcome the fact that the student voice was responded to last Christmas in the model that was used for the leaving certificate of 2021. This is linked to Deputy Conway-Walsh’s comments about the group for the 2022 leaving certificate and the issue of disadvantage. I have significant concern that the most disadvantaged students have missed parts of two consecutive years of education. They are now in sixth year. These are the students who probably have experienced the digital poverty and digital divide and have been disadvantaged most during lockdown. That has been reported on by Trinity College Dublin. Their voice needs to be considered in the context of what model is going to be used for 2022. I would not rule out some form of improved accredited grades system being used and welcomed by those students. It would be interesting to hear their voice.
Mr. Paul Crone:
I would like to come in on one point, please, around grade inflation. I agree with what Mr. Irwin and Mr. Flood said. Grade inflation speaks more about how we select students for third level than the actual grade inflation issue itself. This is something that needs to be reflected by the CAO. Allowing a mathematical algorithm to calculate things is going to cause issues going forward.
Mr. John Curtis:
I concur with some of the points that have been made. I am firmly of the view that we have one of the best educational systems in the world. I would go as far as to say that this country managed the pandemic in the education sphere better, probably, than any other country in the context of the amount of time students spent in school and the way in which we managed the leaving certificate accredited or calculated grades process. I cannot speak highly enough of the teaching cohort we have in our country. We have difficulties on occasion with the teaching unions and, obviously, we have had difficulties in the past with our voluntary secondary schools. The way in which teachers have risen to the challenge of the past couple of years has been exemplary and gives us something very important to build on.
The orals issue is very interesting because the JMB has been of the view for a number of years that we should be changing things around in the orals and in how and when we conduct the examinations. We have asking that the Easter break might be used for a number of reasons.
We are reflecting on what has happened this year. There were a number of pluses. The student voice might concur with our voice in the context of many aspects. As we are discussing the leaving certificate cycle reform, the NCCA has used the phrase revolution not revolution. We are learning as we go through this process. We have learned a great deal in the past couple of years and the next couple of years will be a time for us all to reflect on what we want for our pupils as we move forward.
I thank the Chairman and the witnesses, also, for coming before us today. It is important to point out that the purpose of these hearings is that we will be producing a report on reform of the leaving certificate. We should not shy away from any questions, irrespective of how basic they may seem.
I will start by asking a very simple question of Mr. Irwin, if that is okay with him. Is it absolutely necessary to assess students at the end of their school experience in order to say that they have received an education? I am conscious, as he stated, that we cannot decouple the leaving certificate and end-of-school experience from access to third level education. How important is assessment as part of education, however? Is it integral and necessary or is it something that we overemphasise?
Mr. John Irwin:
This is because we have to try to promote learning. In order to try to promote and support learning, one would have to have formative assessment. The latter is used to assess competencies and skills, what a student has learned up to a particular point and how we are going to support that learning into the future. As a result, if there is anything that we need to amend in our styles of education, we can assist in that particular area. If we even take a look at the accredited or calculated grades which we have had in the past two years under the two systems, these are all forms of assessment to be able to provide accreditation and acknowledge the efforts students have made in the final two years of senior cycle in school. That is important.
From the committee’s point of view, nothing should be left off the table. Unquestionably, however, Mr. Irwin’s evidence is that assessment is essential for education. It is important for the committee to hear that and that all of his colleagues would agree.
Mr. Crone mentioned that we should try to decouple entry to third level from leaving certificate results. How would we go about doing that? It would transform the type of assessment we would have at the end of second level. It has now become very much linked with who gets into what institution and what they get to study in those institutions. How do we the decouple them? Do we put responsibility on the third level institutions to decide who gains entry to their courses or is that too vast an issue for us to consider?
Mr. Paul Crone:
I thank the Deputy for his question. There are two elements to this. I will reverse the bus up to when I applied to be a teacher many years ago and was brought down to Thomond College of Education as an aspiring woodwork teacher. I was interviewed by the college to determine my suitability for the course once I had reached a certain level of educational achievement. I also had to undertake a level of competence assessment in Irish to determine that competence because at the time one needed the Ceard Teastas Gaeilge. At that time, there was a whole parallel entry.
If one looks at the international models such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, system in the UK, that is a model where students go through a process of applying to the third level institution. Many of our students here are availing of those opportunities in England because of the competition here. Just because a person is able to get 625 points does not necessarily mean that they will make the best doctor. At the same time, we should try to select the students based on their aptitude, interests and abilities and there is a process there that needs to be engaged in. Many of our students who apply to colleges abroad will come back to us in our schools in April or May and say that they have been offered places subject to their gaining certain levels of academic achievement. It is a dual process. At the moment, we rely solely on the mathematical algorithm which has led to many media reports of people not getting the courses that they wanted because it is down to random selection, whereas there could be a process around suitability and this area, administered, perhaps, by the colleges and universities. That process exists in further education but does not yet exist in higher education.
I thank Mr. Crone. One of the points Mr. Curtis made relating to the benefit of school-based projects. How do we ensure that better resourced students do not have a significant advantage as a result of resources they may have at home, or privately, over other students when it comes to such projects?
Mr. John Curtis:
It is a very valid point, and it is an issue that has come up. It is something that we have to be very aware and conscious of. One of the assets of the current model is that it is deemed to be very fair. The leaving certificate is fair for everybody and when we bring in a second component such as coursework, we must be able to determine that the work is done in a proper fashion and supervised properly in the school. It is a valid point. While it may not necessarily stop us going down that path, we have to consider all the ramifications of coursework. All of us in the room are very happy with the State Examinations Commission, the way it handles the examinations process and the probity and essential fairness that is involved in the process. I used the word "balanced" before. In moving forward, we have to balance and keep the best of what we have. In the context of the new modes of assessment that we all hope will come in, we have to make sure that they are moderated in a fair way. The Deputy made a valid point and asked a good question.
Irrespective of what level of reform we advise or the State decides to implement, does Mr. Flood agree that no matter what we do, we will have to retain some form of competitive environment when it comes to assessment at the end of second level? Is it possible to have assessment without there being a competitive environment?
Mr. Paddy Flood:
The honest answer is that it is probably not possible. However, the key area is the level of that competition. A reference was made to medicine. Far be it for me to talk about all the options that are available in higher education but we have seen lots of example of options being narrowed for students, with small, short courses requiring high points being created and a diversification of programmes. Others have taken the route of having general courses that give access to a broad range of subjects, for example, in the sciences, with options to move into other specialised areas after year 1 or year 2 in a degree programme. That is key.
In terms of the competition around assessing the various levels of competence, the game changer here is that the dominant form we are talking about is the ability to perform in examination conditions. It is interesting that when students are asked to complete school-based learning project work, such as oral presentations, through further education and training programmes, traineeships and apprenticeships, this has not caused issues. This is happening all the time. It seems to be successful but it does not get the same day in the sun. We have a lot to learn from the leaving certificate applied and the leaving certificate vocational programme.
I thank the witnesses. I also thank the Chairman for bringing forward the work we are doing on leaving certificate reform. It is critical and fits into a broader conversation about reform in general in the education system.
I will return to the topic raised by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan on assessment. On one side of the equation, we could have no assessment and, on the other side, we could continue with the kind of assessment we have. I am closer to the view that we should have no assessment and see what we can do to achieve that, and that only in extreme cases should we use the kind of assessment we are doing at the moment. From talking to young people, my experience is that they switch off when something is forced upon them. That is what I see. I do not know if that is the experience of witnesses. What are their thoughts on self-assessment and doing something that is based purely on the needs of an individual course and the individual interest of a student?
The next point I will raise may not, strictly speaking, be related to leaving certificate reform but it is critical to it. I refer to the workload young people have and the stress and pressure they experience, which carries home from school. There is an argument for not having homework. Children are in school for a long period and I sometimes wonder why there are not enough hours in the school day for them to do the work in school and to provide some kind of respite outside of that away from academic work. I would like to know the thoughts of the witnesses on ending homework.
I completely agree with the kind of approach that has been talked about based on project work. That is what happens in other jurisdictions. Rather than having homework and ticking off each subject, it is about having a more holistic kind of project that might bring everything in and the learning is done in a holistic way. That is the way learning happens in the real world, so why not have young people learning in that way as well?
Mr. John Irwin:
In terms of some of the assessment, I would go back to the difference between summative assessment, which is the examination at the end, and formative assessment, which is ongoing. Formative assessment does not necessarily involve a grade or a mark. It is very often observational, where somebody has observed the work of the student, commented on it and has invited the feedback of the student on the work submitted. It is a feedback situation, where both parties, the teacher and the student, reflect on their learning. That is essential.
The Senator's point on homework is interesting. The concept of having no homework would be very popular among the student population. However, we must also realise that with the current system in particular, which is strongly content based, doing a review of what has happened during the course of a class later in the evening helps to ensure that a student takes on board the content that was covered in the class. Homework does have a purpose and it is worthwhile as long as that is the case, rather than just given for the sake of giving it.
That is an interesting point. Our system is very content based and perhaps that is what we need to look at. That is the reason students are under pressure. Content changes. Something we learned to be definitive when we were in school may no longer be definitive, so we are talking about learning as a way of thinking. That is the reason I believe there is a place for that.
Mr. John Irwin:
We do. We agree with the Senator on the point about content changing, but we cannot have a curriculum that is totally devoid of content. We must have some content. I agree with her that the current system for the leaving certificate is based far too much on content and recall rather than analytical skills. I will stop there and allow other speakers to respond.
Mr. Paul Crone:
In terms of moving on and having individuality, we need to have flexibility within the system so that students who realise at 15 or 16 years of age that maths, for example, is their passion will be able to focus their energy on maths. Other students might be focused on languages or linguistics and they need to have that flexibility built in to be able to do that. Any new senior cycle needs to be able to respond to the needs of students. We learned very clearly in the past two years that principals reported that the stress and anxiety levels virtually disappeared among students in June. Parents could tell us the same. We need to learn from that lesson. Students trust their teachers. There is a positive learning relationship there. Teachers are guiding the learning of students and that must be built on.
Like all of us of a certain age, I can still remember my leaving certificate such was the trauma of it. That is a scar we need to be mindful of in any changes made to the system in the future.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
Senator Pauline O'Reilly used two fantastic words, namely, "individual interests". If anything, the junior cycle programme has shown us we can have assessments but we can allow teachers the scope to position those assessments within individual interests. Homework can be thought of as a drudge but when individual interests feature in it, the work sometimes becomes a joy rather than a drudge. For example, with the new business specification at junior cycle, the student focuses on a business. I remember my young lad focused on a shop in the local GAA club, Truagh Gaels, as being a small business and what that means. Another example, was when my daughter focused on local history in the context of Castle Leslie and where the castle came from. With such individual interests issues are brought to life for students. Individual interests make a major difference. That scope was there. Obviously, with senior cycle, learning must be brought to a further point. It must be challenging. Learning is never fun if it is not challenging. There must be bite in the learning for the student. We certainly would not in any way condone any form of dumbing down of the specifications. When we can tap into the individual interests to which the Senator referred, it is a much richer form of learning. It is to be recommended. I commend the Senator on making that point.
Mr. John Curtis:
I concur with the points made about assessment. One of the issues that compelled us all to examine the junior certificate and the changes made at that level was the assessment for learning model of education that was developed in the previous decade. It was a model that sought to get students to assess their own work. It sought to get teachers to engage in different forms of assessment. It has been key to the progress we have made in education at junior cycle specifically in recent years. We can build on that very much at senior cycle level. A key consideration is balance. In the context of homework, the world is changing. Some aspects of what we do in school are still quite Victorian in ways but subject by subject, we need to have that disciplinary grounding All the studies show that knowledge is extremely important. What we have to do is to work out how that knowledge is deployed properly in the modern world. I used the word "balance" earlier. As we move forward, that will be key to our conversations.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance. I want to refer to what Mr. Curtis and Mr. Irwin said regarding our investment in our education system not being where it ought to be and yet our learning outcomes as a country being good. The reason for that is the quality of teacher we have and are attracting. Teaching is still a respected profession in Ireland. We should hold on to that. It is extremely important. Certainly we are getting better bang for our buck than most countries, which is not a reason to continue underinvesting in education but it should be mentioned.
I wish to refer to what Deputy O'Callaghan said. The purpose of these hearings is to move towards producing a report on how we move forward with leaving certificate reform. A few elements are a given in my view. A three-hour examination is not a good way to test learning across a two-year cycle. We end up testing people who are good at doing examinations. We would all have to admit the emphasis of teaching moves away from teaching and learning as we move through sixth year and more towards examination performance. We would lose a certain amount of learning if we were looking at more of a summit process. Mr. Flood said it is a matriculation to third level. That is not a good enough reason to maintain the system we have. It is only fair on the surface. There is a whole host of socioeconomic factors that affect a student’s outcome. We need to rebalance in terms of critical thinking skills and content. We do not know what jobs we are preparing these children for. A previous speaker spoke about education out to 2070. We simply do not know what the workplace will look like then but we do know that people will still have to think. We need to open out our thinking on post-leaving certificate pathways. We are much too focused on the leaving certificate being a directional point in terms of third level achievement. We have to rebalance and revalue our practical skills, as they will become massively important. We like the broad and flexible nature of the current leaving certificate. That is not something I would like to be taken out of it.
To focus on the big picture and what it is that we are trying to do, we want to look at how, at the end of this process, we assess the learning that happened. Are there exemplars to which the witnesses could point me? Which countries are doing this well? Who is doing a good job of balancing the need to focus on learning and skills with the need for an endpoint and an endpoint assessment? Are some countries doing that well? If we are talking about evolution and not revolution, as a previous speaker referenced, we need to set out that vision first. Otherwise we will get mission creep or a drift as we try to do it piecemeal. Is there something on which we should focus, something we should put in front of us as a vision we want for the end of the leaving certificate and how would we drive towards it? That leads on to the big question, namely, what is education for? A previous speaker spoke of education as a pathway to work. If we view education only as a pathway to work we miss a major part of what it is to be an educated person. I have not used any of my physics in my working life, nevertheless, I am very happy I have a leaving certificate grounding in physics, although not tremendously. I believe there is a suspension of the laws of physics in Leinster House at times. My point is not all learning is necessarily pointed towards a labour market outcome. Those are wide questions. I am not sure which of the witnesses wish to respond. My basic fundamental question is which countries could we look to in this respect, who is doing a good job of this and from where can we learn?
Mr. John Curtis:
The Deputy has made a number of interesting points. When the NCCA started this process a number of years ago we had a meeting in Croke Park at which we had educationalists. We examined models in different countries. Every country is different and has its own culture and education systems have developed differently. We have bits to learn from many jurisdictions. Obviously, Finland and Australia are often mentioned with regard to certain elements we could borrow. I have great trust in the NCCA and the process in which it is currently engaged. What has been evident in the process is the way it has been going into school and reaching out to all the partners, namely, ourselves, the parents and the students. There is a recognition that what we are doing is fundamental and extremely important. Therefore, it might take us some time to tease out the ramifications of everything. A criticism we have of the junior cycle reform is that while it has delivered many pluses, aspects of it were rushed. There are still some issues related to assessment and meetings at school level that are causing difficulties because some of the partners were not brought on board fully enough. What is extremely positive about the process now is how people are being engaged with, how the NCCA is engaging with it, how we as education partners are talking to our stakeholders about what it might entail. For, instance, we in the JMB have an education conference coming up in November on pathway possibilities with respect to the leaving certificate. We will have speakers from the NCCA and the Department attending. The Minister, Deputy Harris, will join us also as we tease out the implications of where we are at. While we are not at the starting point of the journey it will take us some time to tease out the full ramifications of what is needed as we move forward.
Mr. John Irwin:
I would like to briefly respond to the question of who is doing it well. Mr. Curtis referenced international research the NCCA is investigating as part of its process, which we would greatly encourage. However, we have to examine what we have done at junior cycle. That must be continuity between what we are doing at junior cycle and senior cycle and on into further pathways afterwards.
We also have to look at what we do in the leaving certificate ourselves. As to some of the changes that were brought in during the 1990s under the LCA, a number of the assessment approaches are actually very good. They are in-school assessments and although they are not perfect, they work. There is a lot that we do quite well. However, as Mr. Crone has mentioned, it is hard to imagine that we will ever be able to decouple the leaving certificate from the CAO points. If we really want to try to look at an assessment model which focuses on senior cycle as opposed to leaving certificate and that piece at the very end, then we have to try to make sure of the process. We basically go from a content and recall system to skills and competencies, which we have developed at junior cycle and which does work successfully, even though Mr. Curtis would still point out that there are still things we need to engage in trying to tease out fully. I know Mr. Flood was very involved in that whole junior cycle reform piece and he was very involved in Junior Cycle for Teachers, JCT, so I do not know if there is anything he wants to add to that. That is what I think.
I am happy for that debate to continue because it covers what I was going to start with. I apologise for missing the first half of the debate. I was in the Chamber, but I have been listening. To reiterate what Mr. Curtis said, we have an over-fascination with leaving certificate points and league tables. We all acknowledge that the system we have at the moment is not perfect. At the same time, when I was in the Dáil Chamber earlier, a Member of the Opposition was speaking to the Taoiseach about education and suggested that we just throw out the leaving certificate. For all the failings that we acknowledge within the current system, we need to be cognisant of the fact we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to take the best of what we have and incorporate it into a newer model.
Before I was elected to the Dáil, like Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, I had the luxury of teaching the new junior certificate model for a couple of years. I see where the trend is going, and I saw the advantages of that. Coming from my own particular perspective, I have several questions. I was an Irish teacher but I did not start with a BA in Irish; I had a degree in history and geography. I subsequently went to a school where my principal essentially told me that I did not have a hope of getting a history or geography teaching post, not just in that school but in many schools, such was the oversupply. He noticed I was a fluent Irish speaker and had done first-year Irish, and he asked me would I mind going back to college and finishing my degree. Of course, I was delighted because the prospect of a job was waiting at the end of it. Two hard years going up and down the road to Galway was ahead of me but I was happy to do it.
That was 15 years ago. My concern is that I am not sure of the current position. I often read about the shortage in the supply of Irish teachers, home economics teachers and teachers in the sciences and many others subjects. What have we done in the last 15 years to address that? The prospect facing me at that time, as a teacher returning to education, was fairly hefty fees and the fact it was very time-consuming at the weekends. Granted, I did not have a family and children at that time, and it was something I was happy to do. Initially, I would like to ask what we have done, particularly in subjects like Irish, to address the shortfall in the number of teachers in the last few years.
Mr. John Curtis:
It is a complex question and something we are all wrestling with because we certainly have issues around teacher supply in some subject areas. The Deputy mentioned Irish and it also affects home economics, physics, maths and guidance, and there are issues in that regard. We are hoping it is a temporary blip because, fundamentally, we all believe in just how rich a profession it is. As I said, we are blessed with the teaching cohort that we have in the country. There are plans in place and I know the Department is doing substantial work on trying to improve the issue of teacher supply.
It is causing difficulty for us. We will have more courses, such as the ones referenced by the Deputy, whereby people might upskill from one subject into another subject, such as Irish, and there have been successful examples of that in regard to maths as well. There are a few challenges there for us but work is ongoing. I know the Department is going to engage in a survey of all schools very shortly to try to determine where the shortages are. It is incumbent on us all to applaud the profession and the professionals we have, and to try to enlist people to work and engage with our schools. One of the pluses of our system that has not been spoken about here, and which is something we need to watch and protect, is the voluntarism that is in play in schools among teachers, in that so much that is given in our schools is given freely and without pay.
There are issues in respect of supply in a number of subject areas. We hope we will be able to address that. Fundamentally, all of us have to try to support teaching as a profession. It is a marvellous profession, a marvellous vocation, and we are blessed with the people we have engaged in it.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
To be specific to Gaeilge, the attitude towards the language is particularly important. We have a new and expanded role for the Gaelcholaistí and Gaelscoileanna throughout the country. The students who graduate from there and who progress to become teachers bring new and rich perspectives to the language back into our schools. Certainly, in my own ETB in Monaghan, we are seeing that reality happen, day in, day out, although that does not mean we do not have a shortage of teachers. It begins with the interest at post-primary level in terms of motivating people to want to progress. Many of us would traditionally have associated the Gaeltacht with being almost part of our rites of passage through post-primary education. Unfortunately, the expense and everything else means that is beyond many students. Anything that can be done should be done to encourage students to attend Gaeltacht courses. There is a lot more that could be done to motivate and to provide that opportunity for young people to experience the language in the Gaeltacht colleges, and we would certainly encourage that.
The University of Limerick is working on courses for teachers teaching other subjects with a view to them being able to take up that interest in teaching through Gaeilge and, indeed, to move them towards teaching the language as Gaeilge. That initiative is particularly important and the more widespread that can be, the better. There are many teachers out there who would have a real interest in engaging in teaching through Gaeilge or adding Gaeilge as a qualification, but it is a question of the pathways involved, and the Deputy described his own journey up and down to his course. Perhaps now, in the era of digital technology, it could be much easier for somebody to practise that.
There needs to be some sort of real building out of what is already happening and a proper review of what we can offer the current teaching profession to move towards Gaeilge, either to teach through Gaeilge or to teach the subject itself, although there are obviously different requirements depending on which way we go. It is okay to find a qualification but the proficiency and love of the language comes first. That is why I referenced initiatives that will encourage a deeper engagement and love of the language. We have such a huge resource in our Gaeltacht communities.
Thank you. I have a couple of questions before I go back to the other speakers. In all of this debate on the reform of the leaving certificate, the most important people we have to take into account are the students as it is about what they want. From the witnesses’ experience, what do they think the students want out of a reformed leaving certificate? Mr. Crone said that those on the highest points do not always make the best doctors. From the time a person goes into secondary school, it is all about having to go to college, the CAO and the leaving certificate. However, when we listen to the radio in recent days, it is all about the haulage sector, the hospitality sector, paramedics and the shortages in all of these areas, including apprenticeships. I do not believe every student has to go to college or that every student has to have a fantastic leaving certificate to get the best out of life or to get the best job in life. Common sense is probably one of the best things for them to learn. What do the witnesses believe students need?
We look at the people who do not want to go to college but find themselves in the points race and the CAO because their friends and everyone else are doing it. I will begin with Mr. Crone and I ask all of the witnesses to make their own points on it.
Mr. Paul Crone:
I believe the students want choice and flexibility. Our students are clear and they have good boundaries on work-life balance. They are good at recognising this. Progression, new technology apprenticeships, new pathways and the further education and training strategy are addressing these issues and giving students choice and flexibility in leading their own educational journey and their own path. To keep it simple, they want choice and flexibility.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
The students of today need to feel they have the independent learning skills and knowledge to survive after school in whatever chosen environment they wish to move into. There can sometimes be a high dropout level when moving into third level from post-primary education. Progression is important. At present, as was mentioned earlier, we have a disjoint between the junior cycle experience and the world of college. They tend match up better than with the senior cycle. The senior cycle could better reflect the junior cycle and the world of college, traineeships or whatever type of work, study and engagement people go into. It is also important for students to have an ability to navigate life during school and after school. In today's world there are areas such as digital safety, which was referenced earlier, financial management and being able to navigate the complex issues that young people face in their lives. In particular, I reference their well-being, sexuality education and an appropriate awareness of themselves and their own impact on the world. This needs a focus throughout the senior cycle. It is about being better able to participate fully, healthily and enjoyably in the environment and world around them.
Mr. John Curtis:
What we all found out over the past couple of years about students is that fundamentally they wanted to be in school. It was not just for academic reasons but for the sense of community they have there. This is hugely important and we should not underestimate it or the work done by all of our school communities in accordance with their own ethos in looking after the welfare of the students in their care as best they can. This community dynamic is hugely important. This is what pupils missed most during the pandemic.
I concur with some of the points my colleagues have made. Students want choice and flexibility and for their own skills sets and enthusiasms to be catered for in what we offer in schools. We spoke about this earlier. They are keen on continuous assessment and it seems to work. This presents us with issues we need to think about in the context of what we do with continuous assessment and how we might bring it about and how we borrow the best from the leaving certificate applied, LCA, the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, transition year and second component course work. When we need to reflect on how best to do this. Certainly an element of continuous assessment is what students want. We have to be careful that we do not create more stress points in the senior cycle. At present we have one huge stress point, which is the leaving certificate examination. We do not want to have a load of mini stress points scattered during the leaving certificate cycle, which add more stress. We have to keep an eye on this also. What does continuous assessment mean? We have to bring it in in a way that is cognisant of the well-being of the students. There is plenty to think about. Mr. Flood has done a lot of work on the junior cycle. What is key as well is that UL is doing a review of the junior cycle. We need to reflect on this and try to translate the learnings from it and from the new methodologies and assessment methods in determining how best to manage senior cycle reform.
Mr. John Irwin:
I agree with the first item Mr. Curtis came to. Students enjoy the social aspect of school and it is an important element of school. They also like the extracurricular aspect, where they feel they have the opportunity to engage in particular aspects of school life where they can flourish. These may not be part of the strict curriculum in its own sense. They want to belong. They want a community in which they feel reflected.
The other witnesses have mentioned that students want flexibility and options. In this line, we very much support the second and third components and more diverse forms of learning. An interesting statistic that Mr. Crone brought out at the beginning is the NAPD survey, which found that 83% of leaving certificate students said the exam in June, and the leaving certificate as it is currently, is not the way they want it. We have to take this on board. I agree that some form of assessment, which is far more diverse and will recognise a greater variety of skills and components to allow students to flourish and succeed and to demonstrate their skills rather than just the academic rigour of the exams in June, is important. Hence we will look at second and third components.
Something we have found with a number of students is that the LCA is siloed. This pillar is completely distinct from the traditional leaving certificate. There are students doing the LCA who would love to be able to do some leaving certificate subjects and get a qualification in the leaving certificate. The LCA is completely undervalued. People can progress into further education through the post-leaving certificate colleges but the pathways are restricted. The option should be available to do components of the LCA and components of the traditional leaving certificate. The vocational groupings in the LCVP have to go. They restrict those who access these particular programmes and the practical life skills involved in LCVP. Students want options, choice and a sense of belonging in their own schools.
I will not be able to allow you in when you are not on the precincts. I have to be fair because I stopped a member a number of months ago. I want to be fair to everybody. My apologies. I do not make up the rules. I am only going by them.
I am verifiably on the grounds of Leinster House so I hope I am safe enough to continue. I am very taken with the idea of decoupling the senior cycle and leaving certificate. If we put it in front of us as a guiding star for the discussions we have from here on out as a committee, it would be well worthwhile. Mr. Crone spoke about this and the scarring effect of the leaving certificate that we all still feel. To revert to what I asked earlier, I wonder whether there is a system we could look at in which this is done, whether UCAS or something else.
I accept the point made by Mr. Irwin that we should not necessarily always look abroad for examples of good practice. The LCA has great potential. As Mr. Irwin said, can we somehow break down the barriers between these two things and allow people to sit subjects in the leaving certificate while doing the LCA? I would also like to see it to stigmatised. I would like the leaving certificate applied to be regarded as highly as the traditional leaving certificate. It feels a little bit frustrating to be having this hearing blind of the NCCA report and the UL review of the junior certificate reforms. The other question I would like to ask is what junior certificate reforms we see positively mapping onto a senior cycle reform but perhaps we are being previous. Perhaps the witnesses have an insight on it that I do not.
Something raised at the coiste Gaeilge quite often is the proposed changes to the Gaeilge curriculum for the senior cycle. Do the witnesses feel they should be paused for the moment? Should we go ahead with the review as proposed?
I was not aware of the University of Limerick, UL, carrying out that work. There might be merit in the committee inviting UL representatives in to see what lessons the university has learned from the reform, even though it has nothing to do with the leaving certificate, although, in a sense, it does. The two play into one another.
I did not expect to spend all of my time earlier talking about Irish so I am glad to be able to come back in on two further questions. One relates to apprenticeships, which were mentioned. Many of my friends and family members went on to do fabrication, plumbing and so on because we grew up in a highly commercial area in which such businesses were literally on our doorstep. People were attracted to them. However, for some reason, we do not see the same level of attractiveness to students in other areas. What are the witnesses' opinions on that? Do we need to do more in promoting them in schools through guidance counsellors? Should representatives of these industries be invited into schools? I know many do attend exhibitions and so on. How can we make those courses more attractive?
Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned the difficulty in attracting teachers to disadvantaged schools. As somebody who has taught in a private school and who subsequently spent more than ten years with an education and training board, ETB, I personally never came across that. I would be interested in teasing that out. I think of a colleague of mine, who might not appreciate what I am about to say. When I first started in an ETB school, I was told to lower my expectations as a teacher. I took a bit of offence to that. Perhaps that was there 15 or 20 years ago when I started out teaching but, having grown into my career and having spent ten years in a school which was transformed by the staff, students and parents, growing from 300 students to 800 and becoming the main school in town, I find it hard to marry the comments made to me 15 or 16 years ago with reality. I have seen the example of my own school, which went from strength to strength. Will the witnesses say a word on that, if they do not mind?
Mr. Paul Crone:
I am delighted to hear that the Deputy was outraged by those comments. I was the director of schools with the ETB in my previous role and I have heard that too. I take grave offence at it because I am of the opinion that the students with the greatest need need the best teachers and should always have them. That is true equality. To refer back to something Mr. Irwin said earlier, it may be a particularly urban issue. Disadvantaged schools in large urban areas are in close proximity to one another and some schools are DEIS schools while some are not. In that case, there are sometimes difficulties in attracting students and teachers. It is an issue we are going to have to continue to address. It is very clear that the DEIS programme is succeeding. It needs to progress at a rate of knots and probably a little bit quicker than it is.
The idea of apprenticeship is being reimagined. Traditionally, apprentices would have been seen walking around wearing a pair of Snickers trousers and boots with steel toecaps whereas there are now very attractive high-tech apprenticeships in further education and training, FET, colleges. These are attractive to both sexes. A lot of money, support and publicity has gone into that. The attitude towards apprenticeships is changing and will have to continue to change. That will involve us all. It will involve guidance counsellors, companies, SOLAS, which is doing a lot of work in the area, the ETBs and all of the schools.
To go back to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, the changes to the primary school curriculum put the student at the centre. The junior cycle reform followed on from that and also put the student at the centre. Students get a great shock when going into the leaving certificate cycle, where the assessment is at the centre rather than the student. We really need to keep the skills, the collaboration, the working together, the autonomy, the student responsibility and the student flexibility. Students must be in charge of, and have responsibility for, their own learning journey. We need to keep those elements of the junior cycle as students move on to the leaving certificate cycle.
Mr. John Irwin:
Mr. Crone mentioned apprenticeships. Apprenticeships have been undervalued as a form of further learning in this society. The media are probably the worst proponents of this view in many cases. They look at schools and create these so-called league tables. A student who progresses to an apprenticeship and who undertakes that form of learning is not valued. That apprenticeship is not considered further learning. That is a societal reflection on a valid and excellent form of learning. Our society is losing out from not having enough people entering the myriad different apprenticeships available. I remember that, when I was a principal in a town in the midlands, the ESB was prominent in the area. The most valued and prized progression for many of our students was an ESB apprenticeship where they would receive excellent training and fantastic career opportunities, both within Ireland and internationally. However, if one speaks to the media they say they are not including apprenticeships. It is a dreadful approach by certain media outlets. They completely undervalue a valid and excellent form of continued learning. I am sorry; that is my little bugbear.
I will come in on what Mr. Irwin said about the media and league tables of the third level colleges students go to. That frustrates me so much because it undervalues people and says they only did an apprenticeship and are only a plumber, painter, electrician or whatever. On occasions, these electricians and plumbers are making an awful lot more money than the guys who went to college for three or four years. That is definitely the case at the moment. I apologise to Mr. Flood for cutting in there.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
May I suggest that this is like an episode of "Columbo"? Both of the Deputies came in with some great questions at the end. What can we learn from the junior cycle? I will declare an interest in that I worked as part of the junior cycle reform team. I will share two experiences. The new methodologies around assessment, which are school-based and of interest to students, are equally as robust as any other form of assessment. These are very welcome. They provide focus for students over the various years of the junior cycle rather than just at the end. We can learn a lot from the methodologies of assessment used there.
On the negative side, if we look at the original plans for the junior cycle and the final product, we see that final product is quite diluted. There is many a slip between cup and lip. An example of that would be that, when students spend all of their time and energy on a classroom-based assessment, there is also an additional written document called an assessment task. This is slipped in along with the examinations. It is beyond my comprehension how that could in any way capture the wide variety of practical learning that has gone on. It betrays the real purpose of what is going on. We should be careful of dilution. The reform is well thought-out and needs to be implemented as intended.
On the questions Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked about disadvantaged schools, we have talked a good deal about DEIS but, as the Deputy mentioned, the reality is that things have changed very much. Reflecting the Deputy's experience, the numbers in the Cavan and Monaghan area have increased by almost 50% over the last five years. We are proud that our schools are offering a really good service in the ETB sector but it is not just about that because there are DEIS schools everywhere. There are also poorer students everywhere. There are students from disadvantaged backgrounds in all schools. One recent initiative of the Minister in response to Covid provides for additional resources to be offered to schools but the schools have been given significant flexibility, allowing them to target the most vulnerable students and to provide them with those resources.
That to me is welcome. If that were to be multiplied, schools would have flexibility, rather than being overly burdened with conditions, to use resources flexibly for students who need them most. Part of that, and I ask the committee not to lose sight of this, is the importance of home school liaison as part of DEIS, the contact between home and school, how much that improves the lives young people, the importance of school completion, and the importance of meals to those students who need food to navigate the day. All of those are important.
The last thing that underpins everything we have talked about, because we are proposing a radical departure from what we have, is the role of guidance counsellors. This must be key right throughout the educational process. If this reform is to be realised, we would require to look again at the volume, quantity, quality and everything to do with the role of the guidance counsellor. It has to be key because a student voice needs support to articulate it and to think things out. Guidance counsellors have a very important role in that.
I will ask Mr. Flood to conclude there. We will have guidance counsellors coming before the committee at a later date.
I will finish with these questions. Does Mr. Curtis believe there is a willingness and an appetite for reform of the leaving certificate with the Minister for Education and within the Department of Education post Covid-19 and what we have learned from it? There is no doubt there has been a long-lasting effect on every student, particularly in secondary school, because of Covid-19. For those who are now in fifth year and sixth year, in the present structure of the leaving certificate, how do we assist those students who have been affected by Covid-19? These students have lost seven or eight months of school. It will be difficult for them to make up for that. We cannot say that Covid-19 is finished and so we will put the leaving certificate back to normal in June 2022 as it was back in June 2019. Maybe Mr. Crone would like to come in on that as well.
Mr. John Curtis:
I believe my colleagues would concur when I say that from my experience, the Minister, her predecessors, a number of whom I have worked with, and especially the Department of Education officials are adamant they will do what is best for students in the country. I have no doubt the change will be embraced. As I said earlier, I have great confidence in the people who are involved in the NCCA who are undertaking the research on this process.
As the Deputy rightly said, Mr. Flood, in a previous incarnation, was involved in doing stellar work around junior cycle reform. We are blessed in this country, and this is not patting ourselves on the back, with the quality and the calibre of people we have involved in the educational sphere. This speaks of the value we place on education in Ireland. Certainly, the discussions around reform thus far have been rich. We are all engaging with our own constituent bodies as to what that reform might entail. I believe there is going to be a richness in the conversation that will take place over the next few years around reform.
I have every confidence that the Minister and her officials will bring this about. I have one caveat to that. I mentioned there was a move towards reform of the leaving certificate back in the early 2000s. The political opinion at the time was that the leaving certificate as it was then suited all but 14% of the student cohort and therefore it was decided to leave it as it was. What was looked at as a possibility then was not proceeded with it. However, we are now in a different space. We have learned from transition year, TY, from the leaving certificate applied, LCA, from the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and from junior cycle reform. As well as this, we have learned from the experiences of Covid-19. We are all intent on bringing about something substantial and fundamental. I have confidence that the people with whom we work in the Department of Education will be of like minds in that respect.
I take the point about the difficulties pupils who are currently in fifth and sixth year might have with the leaving certificate because of time lost. As with all things during Covid, all we can do is manage this as best we can. There have been adaptations to the curriculum for students doing their leaving certificate examinations this year. Mr. Flood reckons the class hours have helped, the hours the Department and the Minister have allowed schools this year to help pupils who might have been caught up in the pandemic and who were not able to avail of teaching and learning in the manner in which they or their schools might have wished. There are, therefore, a few things in play. We will do our best, as we always do, in that regard. We all know it is not a perfect situation. However, I have to say that, collectively, we have managed the past couple of years well. I have no doubt that whatever happens this year, we will manage it in a relatively successful fashion. However, I take the point that certain pupils have lost out on teaching and learning in the course of the past two years. It is something that concerns us and something we have to try to remedy as best we can.
Mr. Paul Crone:
This reform of the senior cycle is huge. It has been going on for a long time and it is not something we are going be able to rush. Best practice would tell us we are not going to be able to rush it and we should not rush it because there are an awful lot of bits and pieces that need to be in place, including supports, training and all those types of things. We have learned from the embedding of the junior cycle. It is done over a number of years.
The answer to supporting the current students who will do the leaving certificate in 2022 is in how we managed over the past two years. We need to look at how we managed through the calculated grades and the accredited grades to put some sort of a holding pattern in place, to be fair to these students, before we can land the jumbo that is senior cycle reform, which is going to be embedded over the next number of years. It would just not be fair to those students to return to a 100% pre-pandemic leaving certificate and say, "There you go, lads; go in and do your exam." To be fair to the students, we need to look to the learning of the past two years for a holding pattern rather than try to rush this senior cycle jumbo to the ground.
Mr. John Irwin:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to be involved in today's debate, which was rich. Again, we have to keep the students at the centre of what we are trying to achieve, what is best for them and what is best for their outcomes. We have to ensure whatever we put in place will eradicate that disconnect between junior cycle and senior cycle and on into further opportunities for students once they leave schools. We have to focus on a system which moves from a content-and-recall basis to a system that is based on the acquisition of skills and competencies. Those competencies must be strictly matched to the competencies our students will need out in the new world they will face where they will deal with issues such as globalisation, digitalisation and climate change.
Mr. Paddy Flood:
I have one comment on the experience of Covid-19, where we are going and where we will go, and this is linked to our conversations. The leaving certificate class of 2022 faces particular challenges. That is articulated when it comes to those who are most disadvantaged. The decisions made for the future must include not just the student voice but also the voice of the poor and the voice of the most marginalised, how they are experiencing the leaving certificate, and all of the components that lead to that.
I refer to Mr. Irwin’s point about progression, which is important to the learning process in the sense of cohesiveness and continuity from junior cycle right through to creating learners for life. That progression piece is very important.
The other thing that is important is to make learning as exciting as possible for the student. Giving them more chance for individualisation, giving choice and flexibility to them to customise their learning and to allow them to localise it within robust units of learning that will motivate them most, is very exciting. It is to be hoped we will be stellar in sticking to the reform journey ahead.
I thank Mr. Curtis, Mr. Irwin, Mr. Flood and Mr. Crone for their contributions and for sharing their insights and expert knowledge on the issue of reforming the leaving certificate. The discussion has been of enormous assistance to members of the committee in our examination of the issue. The committee is very grateful to the witnesses and commends them on their obvious dedication and commitment to assisting young people in the senior cycle and enhancing their educational experience. In all of this, it is important not to forget the students who do not want to go to third level but who want to pursue apprenticeships and become plumbers, plasterers, lorry drivers, ambulance paramedics or hotel workers. We have to remain cognisant of what they want as well. I know the witnesses represent a huge part of that community. Again, I thank them very much. I know the committee members very much appreciate their time.