The End of the Points Race?

07:06 Mon 21 Aug 2006
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The Irish Times today has “‘Points race’ may be over as CAO requirements tumble” as its main headline. In Ireland, entry into university courses is determined by Leaving Certificate results. (The Leaving Certificate is a set of national exams that occurs after your final school year). Grades in the various Leaving Certificate subjects are worth points in this system, hence ‘points race’. Demographic changes have pushed the numbers leaving school (and competing for university places) down from about 70000 to about 50000, meaning a much higher percentage of students will get into their courses.

The ‘points race’ isn’t simply the comparison of exam results to available university places. It’s the whole struggle of preparation and schoolwork that begins two or three years before students take their Leaving Certs, and where they are at that point is determined by all kinds of factors going back a lot further. For at least two decades, the pressure on students in the Leaving Certificate cycle has been intense. It’s an extremely high-stress period, and this is increased by all kinds of hyperbole, including a great deal of press.

I have strong feelings about the system, having written a movie about it and having expressed my opinion to a Government commission on the topic. I strongly disapprove of the bureaucratic nature of the exams and the whole system, the narrowness of the subjects covered and the way in which skills are measured, the pressure placed upon students, and the fact that the entire system discourages innovation in learning because everyone involved is too worried that results might suffer.

If the current trend of less competition continues, and university places are not cut as a result, then hopefully the stress on students will lessen, and the focus on exam results will fade. I’d love for this to encourage alternative approaches to schooling, ones that aren’t predicated on the idea that everything you learn for years should be expressible in writing in a three-hour-long examination.

Hopefully it will also reduce the perceived importance of the results, and the insidious idea that the overall worth of students is determined by their Leaving Certificate points will disappear.

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