Submission to the Points Commission

00:00 Sat 31 Jan 1998. Updated: 21:59 19 Mar 2006
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In 1998 the Irish Government, in response to mounting criticism of the somewhat one-dimensional Irish system for determining college entry, created a 'Points Commission' to discuss how the system could be improved. The Points Commission requested public comments, and this essay was our response.


Our purpose here is not to detail in depth what we consider to be the problems with the Leaving Certificate/Points System, but rather to suggest constructive ways to eliminate problems. Pure critique is available in our feature film ‘How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate’.

The problems with the Leaving Certificate are not superficial. They are fundamental. Therefore, radical solutions are necessary—tweaking and nudging will not be sufficient. The education of a society is of paramount importance, and we have no excuse for complacency or the avoidance of difficult changes.

The failing of the Leaving Certificate and the points-based college admissions system which accompanies is not due to limited resources or limited opportunities: the problem is that the Leaving Certificate and the Points System assumes that there is only one type of intelligence, when in fact there are many different types. ‘If you are not intelligent in our way’, the system says to each and every student, ‘you are not intelligent at all’.

While claiming to aid the development of academic intelligence the system in fact doesn’t even do that. It focuses on the ability to do three things only: to read, remember, and regurgitate. This demands a restricted degree of literacy and does not demand critical thinking, understanding, or analysis. Clearly, this discourages personal responsibility and initiative. Students are made simply to listen and accept, or to read and accept. This inevitably has serious ramifications for third-level education, employment and, of course, society as a whole. The system doesn’t even function properly as a selection process; measuring only a narrow bureaucratic skill means that it simply cannot work as a means of determining the suitability of applicants for University courses which is supposed to be its primary role.

This submission presents the following suggestions designed to deal with these various problems. We have divided this submission into three parts: the first deals with changes we believe are necessary in schools themselves, in terms of their educational structure and the role of students within that structure. The second deals with the role of the Government through the medium of the Department of Education: practices we feel should be introduced or abandoned in order to make the Leaving Certificate and points system more equitable and less intimidating for students. The third part deals with what we consider to be the social and theoretical ramifications of the present system, and the benefits which we feel would follow on the implementation of our suggestions.


The development of critical thinking, innovation and creativity is feasible only with increased student participation in the classroom. The prevalent assumption that true learning can only occur when 30 students are working silently at their desks is a false one. Learning is an active activity, not a passive one, and Irish classrooms must reflect this. This is well known-the problem has always been how to implement a dynamic learning system. Two major problems stand in the way. One is the current state of Irish teacher training. This must be altered so that student participation becomes a basic premise of that training. The other problem is class size. It requires a truly gifted, extremely energetic and dedicated teacher to foster participatory learning when the class contains thirty pupils. We are aware that it is simply not possible to hire twice as many teachers to rectify the situation. Our suggestion is this: halve the size of the classes in Irish schools by halving the school day. Teach half of the country’s school population in the morning, and half in the afternoon. The higher quality of education that would result more than makes up for the time lost—and it is quality, not quantity, that matters.

One might argue that this would lead to a chaotic and unproductive environment; we would argue, however, that these qualities are exactly those which are most in evidence in modern working environments. A teaching model based on discussion and participation is the only one which will enable students to develop initiative, articulate expression, creativity and critical thinking. This model reflects the modern business world much more accurately than the traditional classroom. Success in the business world relies on the ability to work well in teams, to come up with creative solutions, to express oneself well, and to show initiative. The participatory classroom model obviously encourages these qualities far more than the traditional one. Not only would students become more confident and focused within the school setting itself, but they would learn also those qualities which will be essential to them in their future lives, such as clear, creative thinking and initiative.

Halving the school day in order to halve class size is obviously a radical proposal, but that is not important. What is important is that its benefits would be enormous. The disadvantages are mainly logistical, and would primarily involve the transition to the new system. Accompanied by new emphasis on participation in teaching methods, the new system would help students become more confident and focused within the school setting, and students would more rapidly learn valuable, essential skills. Given these benefits, any reason for not implementing such a system must be a far better one than unwillingness to change.

(Note that we are not advocating the abandonment of traditional teaching goals such imparting literacy and numeracy to students. Those skills are completely essential. What we are suggesting is a far superior method for giving students those skills as well as many others.)

As well as this overhaul of teaching methods and class structure, we believe that students themselves should have a greater say in the administration of their education. In third-level institutions all over the country the problem of student apathy is acute. Only a small number of students involve themselves in the political aspects of their education, having never in their lives been consulted as to syllabi, course materials or teaching methods. Increasing the interest and participation of students in school can only be a good thing, and so we suggest: that students be given meaningful representation on school boards; instituting staff-student committees; instituting widespread and meaningful liaisons between student bodies and the Department of Education. This development would be most useful at post-primary level, and it is at this point in their educational development that we believe students should be involved in the structure and content of their learning.


The impetus for change in this area is clearly going to have to originate with the Department of Education. We see a number of key aspects of current Departmental policy that should be addressed as a matter of priority:

State examinations, if they are intended to test writing speeds and ability to memorise, should stay exactly as they are. If they are intended to test the degree to which the student has assimilated and understood the course materials, and the student’s ability to apply that understanding under examination circumstances, those who design them should recognise that students’ ability to write quickly and call strings of facts to mind is only one aptitude of many differing aptitudes, and varies hugely as between individuals. Why should a student who understands a course very well and could give an excellent oral presentation of what he/she has learned have to write 20 to 25 pages of essays in three hours—which students often find they must do, for example, in the Higher Level History paper for the Leaving Certificate.

If the ability to understand material, analyse it and criticise it is what is desired here (as it should be: most adults who have passed the Leaving Certificate will have long forgotten most of what they wrote in their examinations), then there is no reason why students should not be permitted to bring certain materials with them into examinations, and why they should not be given as much time as they need. If the ability to understand, analyse and criticise material is what is being examined, then surely open-book examinations would be superior. Also, there is no reason why exams should have three-hour time limits-speed is less important than overall understanding and ability.

The Leaving Certificate marking system should be more accessible. The marking scheme has already been made available to students and teachers, therefore there is no reason why the marking system should not be available also. Also, students should be able to get their papers back. Transparency and accountability should be encouraged at all stages of the Leaving Certificate process.

We believe that the syllabi for the Leaving Certificate are outdated, and do not give students the tools they will need in order to interact with the world in which they will find themselves after school. Successive Governments have decried the huge incidence of school-leavers being unemployed and on the dole very soon after leaving school, but have failed to look at concrete ways of dealing with this situation. One way would be to give students the option following the Junior Certificate to become involved in professions of interest to them, through placement schemes with different professions. While in school, these students could attend courses relative to their interests (business management, media production) etc.) and learn skills relevant to those interests. If thousands of students are sitting Leaving Certificate examinations every year in subjects which are of no use to them in their everyday lives, the Department has to recognise and address this.

We would welcome the establishment of an Ombudsman for Education to deal with problems students encounter in their educational lives, with the same far-reaching influence and reporting obligation of the current office of the Ombudsman.


The points of reference speak of the impact of the points system on the selection of third level courses.

Selection by individual students of courses they would hope to follow at University is characterised to a greater and greater extent by snobbery in respect of different institutions. Many students feel that, rather than decide which third-level institution best caters for their needs or interests, they should first decide which college to attend and then decide what courses to apply for. This is most marked as regards Irish universities, which attract large numbers of applications from students who will take almost any course in respect of which they can secure a place, regardless of their interests or aptitudes. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the points system, which immediately sets students against one another for the highest results, and which also causes students to believe that courses with the highest points requirements are the most prestigious.

Following the publication of the Leaving Certificate results every summer, thousands of parents all over the country speak about their children ‘getting into’ certain courses, such as Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, Actuary, etc. The impression that this gives is that the system is a game: you are on the outside, and the object is to get in. This aim becomes the focus of the student’s efforts, and is often used as a benchmark of his/her performance in the Leaving Certificate. And so students will choose to do courses for which they are ill-prepared, and in which they may have no interest and little aptitude.

This has its most profound effects on students ‘who have experienced significant educational disadvantage’. The effect of treating the university admissions system as a game where the most successful are those with the highest points is to load the dice in favour of certain sectors of Irish society. Supplementary education, usually in the form of ‘grinds’, is now a common feature of second-level education in Ireland. For students sitting the Leaving Certificate, it is not uncommon to attend grinds in almost all of one’s subjects; the question is not often posed, however, of what this tells us about our schools.

Most students attending grinds are not doing so because they are being inadequately educated at school. Rather they are doing so because they, and their parents, believe that any extra advantage which could give them the edge over their fellow candidates on the day of their examination is worth the time and money which they invest.

Students suffering educational and financial disadvantage are thus one step behind such students, in terms of how they well they will contend with the points system, before they even start the Leaving Certificate syllabus in Fifth Year. Firstly, they cannot afford to attend expensive grind schools; secondly, even if they could afford grinds, they are competing with students who would probably do excellent Leaving Certificate exams without grinds.

The reason for grind schools is not to deepen the understanding or appreciation of the student for the subject, but to give them the tools that they need to beat the Leaving Certificate system. These institutions are set up in order for business interests to capitalise on the Irish college admissions system. The way that this is done is that these schools specialise in teachers with an encyclopaedic knowledge of part Leaving Certificate papers and marking practice, who teach exam practice and technique.

Students with financial disadvantage have long been recognised as being systematically excluded from University education in Ireland. It is extremely expensive for a student to attend and complete a full-time University course, and the youth of this country’s students means that it is normally the student’s parents who support him/her financially during this time. Consequently, only a tiny percentage of University students are from families without the resources to support them while in college. There are schools in Dublin where the it is expected that most students in any Leaving Certificate class will attend some third-level institution. There are also schools within a few miles of them where it is a significant event for any student to go on to third -level education. For such students, the Leaving Certificate is totally inadequate and does not prepare for them for what they must contend with once they leave school.


Our argument is that the Leaving Certificate values and examines only one kind of intelligence: academic intelligence, and even that only in a narrow and rigid way, which involves memorisation and the ability to produce what one has memorised with almost mechanical skill. The Leaving Certificate / CAO system focuses on a far too narrow range of aptitudes, and also precludes the expression and development of the individual student’s own conclusions, opinions or ideas. While the Department of Education may wish to encourage students to think for themselves and be innovative, such attempts are doomed to failure in the current system.

The current system is too narrow, too rigid, and has a negative, inhibiting effect not only on the students who pass through it, but also on society as a whole. For these reasons, radical change is absolutely necessary.

Submitted by:

Tadhg O’Higgins
11 Trimleston Gardens,
Co. Dublin.
tadhg at tadhg dot com

Deirdre Ní Fhloinn
205 Barton Road East
Dublin 14.

Graham Jones
17 Windsor Court
Stradbrook Road
Co. Dublin.

graham at jonesy dot com

With thanks to Orla Ní Chuilleanáin.

This document is copyright © Graham Jones, Tadhg O’Higgins, and Deirdre Ní Fhloinn 1998.

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