‘To Be or Not to be’, It’s a Cert for Leaving? By Paddy McMenamin
Well, that’s it over for another year, three weeks of Algebra & Geometry, French & German, Shakespeare & George Orwell, J B Keane & Sophocles, the Treaty of Limerick or the Treaty of 1921, and, of course Gaeilge, written & aural, the bane of most kids who don’t see it as our wonderful native tongue but just as a hard earned subject to get you to St. Pat’s or Mary I for Primary school Teaching with 500 brand new shiny LC points? Thirteen years at school seven at National school and another five at 2nd Level, possibly 6 if you take Transition Year, and it all boils down to seven subjects in chunks of three hour exams over several weeks, it’s hard not to feel for the young students, the general consensus is that their whole future depends on getting the points for University. The system has evolved over the years that has left young people struggling to cope with the enormity of it all, employers, the Universities, 2nd Level all feed into this notion that to make good in life you must achieve the magical points targets that the Universities contrive to make the annual carnival of CAO points as harrowing an experience that the students will ever face in their lives?
Is it fair, is it the only way we can deliver excellent young people to move into society and take up challenging occupations, is the education system working to deliver well rounded young people or in this modern technological era are employers dictating what subjects and the type of Graduates that society needs?
Education is the most important thing in any young person’s life. It goes without saying that to achieve in life it is vital to embrace education and try and be the best that you can be, but we also know that school isn’t for everyone to use an old cliché. Back in the day, very few people got secondary education and they, somehow, survived. Many left school at 14 or 15 and could hardly read or write but became millionaire businessmen employing hundreds. Guys who wouldn’t know Beckett from Beckenbaur but could build the World Trade Centre, some who had to count on their fingers but made billions, lots who wouldn’t know what the Constitution was but became political leaders, and others who achieved in the sporting world without knowing why there are 26.2 miles in a Marathon or why the penalty box is twelve yards from goal in soccer. Many were illiterate, dyslectic or numerically challenged, but back in the day before Donogh O’Malley brought in ‘Free Education’ in 1967, they were off to the bog or building sites and they survived the big bad world. Nowadays you wouldn’t get a job cleaning the loo in the hospital without more points than Man City had winning the League!
Ok I’m being a bit facetious in my observations of education back in the day, that’s the way it was but we’re in a whole new world, education really is everything, it’s just that the way of achieving it has severe problems for our young people, the stress and pressure that’s put on seventeen & eighteen year olds to get the 400, 500 & 600 points is immense, and we have to hold our hands up and say we all buy into it, pushy parents driving their kids on to achieve, locked in a room till ten at night studying, paying for Grinds or sending kids to Grinds schools to push them over the threshold, and then if they fail to get the required points sending them to places like Yeats College in Galway where it costs 10,000 euro for a year to repeat the Leaving Cert, because little ‘Johnny’ or ‘Imelda’ has to do Medicine, but did they ever ask the child what they want to do?
There are Grind schools in surburban Ballsbridge that are bringing in millions of euros from parents in leafy Rathmines, Rathgar & Ranelagh in a bid to get ‘Tiffany’ or ‘Jeremy’ to Trinity to preserve the family line of Consultants & Academic. Is there a fair system in education? No there’s not! It’s 50 years since O’Malley brought in the Education Bill which delivered so called ‘free’ education to every child, but the sad reality is that despite a massive uptake in 3rd level places and the majority of children finishing 2nd level, the stats show that in certain areas of inner cities in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Derry, there has been no major improvement in the educational prospects of kids from these working class areas whereas in Ballsbridge, for example, 99% of kids go to University while across the city in Ballymun it’s 9%.
In my opinion, Grind schools have actually exacerbated the situation and the division. In rural Ireland there has been a better uptake with young people going to 3rd Level, ironically stats show that West of Ireland kids are more likely to continue their education and the driving force ironically has been the ‘Irish Mammy’, the Mothers of farmers sons but mostly daughters, who understood quicker than most how to attain the Grants available to get the children to college. The stats don’t lie,
Be all that as it is, the reality is that education is the most important thing in our lives,
there are no two ways about it. Our children need to be helped, encouraged, bribed, whatever it takes to get them to embrace education and try and make the most of their time at school and hopefully make it to 3rdLevel and all that entails and then take their place in society and enjoy life. I firmly believe that every young person should get the chance to go to 3rd Level and not just a certain cohort, every young person should experience the hallowed halls of Trinity & NUI Galway, Queen’s & UCD, they should be accommodated whether they were early school leavers, Travellers, immigrants, inner city tough nuts or rural bog men, they should all have the chance to embrace the mystery of academia and not just the 600 point kids.
The problems with getting to University are many fold and the biggest one is the
Leaving Cert itself. Instead of preparing our young people for 3rd level with a rounded education, we have created a monster of a system where it is just rote learning driven by Grinds schools to get the points. There is no preparation for the adjustment for 3rd level, the kids who can memorise the most for a few hours on any given day sweep up the points but if you asked them a month later they wouldn’t remember a thing about the exam. That’s not ideal preparation for the most important 4 years of your life doing a Degree or a Postgrad. The present system creates virtual robots of students who find communication difficult whether in 3rd level or later in the workplace and it’s no wonder 30% of students drop out of college places after 1st year.
3rd Level is so different from 2nd level. Students are meant to think and work outside the box, there is no place for rote learning at 3rd Level yet that is what the kids have had for the last two Leaving Cert years. They are entering a whole new world and need to understand how society works, cramming and copying notes and material from dodgy educational websites isn’t the way to achieve in academia.
Is our system better or worse than other educational systems throughout Europe? The French & Germans have very different systems, the Germans especially. They have a more vocational edge to their programs as well as academic possibly as a result of a similar pattern to Ireland back in the 70’s where they found that all parents wanted their kids to attend University and, as a result, the Trades suffered to the extent they were in short supply within the economy. Now, the Germans, practical as always, have a more balanced approach to education. The French have the Baccalaureat, which stems back to the time of Napoelean, a form of the LC, but results not a necessity for getting into University. Ironically, only one other country on the planet have adopted the Irish Leaving Cert and that was Ghadaffi’s Libya. They saw the Irish system as the best educational style although not sure in the current mayhem in that suffering country is the LC still in place. The British, of course, have ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, similar to Junior & Leaving Cert although I don’t think they are an exact analogy. English students only study 3/4 subjects similar to Scottish Highers, and can specialise in particular area and also continuous assessment plays a big part. In recent times there have been problems with pass rates being inflated in response to Tory ideas for grading schools, which has caused problems in educational circles. We don’t want to go down that route.
On a personal level, I went to Primary school in Belfast where we were divided academically at the tender age of eleven (11). They had and still do after 50 years an exam called the 11+, if you passed you went to a Grammar school and qualified for ‘free education’, if you failed you were on the road to the local Secondary school just up the road! Ironically, the 11+ is one of the few things that unites the Unionists and the Catholic Church, both prefer to continue that elite form of education. I was lucky enough to pass the 11+, the only one of my mates to do so and as they trooped off to St Teresa’s in Andersonstown I just wanted to go with them but I was dispatched to St Mary’s down the town, one of the leading Catholic schools run by the Christian Brothers and a path to Queen’s University, a path that increasing numbers of nationalists were beginning to take advantage off, courtesy of the new Education Bill après WW2. My peers at St Mary’s included Gerry Adams TD, John Cushanan, former leader of the Alliance Party, Pat Finucane Solicitor, murdered by the UDA, Martin Lynch former Official IRA & well known Playwright, Eamonn Holmes Host of Sky News & ‘Morning TV’, not sure if the rest went to Queen’s but big Gerry and myself became Barmen in pre strife Belfast before ‘Graduating’ at the University of Long Kesh in the mid 70’s.
I had left school at 15 in 1969 after ‘O’ Levels just as the 6 counties imploded. It was a decision that I always regretted but c’est la vie. 35 years later after 20 years in a
German light engineering factory and many years working in Bars, Hotels & Nightclubs, voluntary redundancy gave me the chance to return to education which I grasped with both hands. It was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. Six years later with a BA in History & English, PGDE (Hdip) & a Masters in History I graduated as a Secondary Teacher, receiving the Parchment from Iggy O’Muircheartaigh (Micheal’s brother). it was a special occasion with children, grandchildren & Mary present, but something I should have done 50 years earlier. So, I understand the value of education and what it means to young people including my own Grandchildren who have already undergone the stress & tension or will do so in the near future.
Both George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde apparently suggested that ‘Youth is wasted on the young’, maybe it could be paraphrased, ‘Education is wasted on youth’. It’s hard to know, for many young people, the LC years fly by and then 3 years at College and it’s over before they’re 21 and they still don’t know what they want to do in life. The Education system needs a makeover, rote learning is not the way forward, Grinds schools are a money making racket, the Junior Cert has seen changes in recent times but needs to be a stepping stone and coordinated with the Leaving Cert. At the moment there is no clear pathway between them. University is a different ball game, it’s become big business as much as centres of Learning, the income from non EU students is an attractive inducement for College Heads. Research is driven by finance with the top Universities across the world, especially in the US, focused on attracting massive educational funding and top Academics to their colleges which is then reflected in their rankings in the centres of educational excellence worldwide.
To all the young people out there who have experienced the most difficult few weeks of their young lives in June, whatever points you acquire in the LC won’t define you. As long as you’ve done your best, what you do with your lives from now on will be the reason you become the success you all deserve. Always remember in the present era there are many ways to progress in academia. You’ll be fine. Comhgairdeas!!
*Paddy McMenamin is a debut author. The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the Publisher. We welcome responses to this blog.