19 August 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The most important day of their lives? Hardly. It would open up a depressing vista indeed to contemplate the existence of the 58,000 or so Leaving Certificate students who received their examination results yesterday and perceive their futures as offering up nothing richer in terms of an occasion that will exercise defining influence on their characters and careers.

Examination performance has its importance in the scheme of things, but the fuss and furore that surrounds the annual revelation of the Leaving results has got completely out of hand. The valuable sense of perspective that young people need to bring to bear at the time of their lives when they will be making significant decisions about entering the worlds of employment or academe can become severely blurred in the blizzard of statistics on performance analysis, the intricacies of the CAO points race and the plethora of advice sources for crises real or imagined. Young people who have only just begun to flex the muscles of their maturity and taste something of the independence and richness of life beyond the margins of the schoolbooks can find themselves propelled back onto another pre-determined treadmill of panic and pressure before they know it.

Ourselves in the media are heavily complicit in the conspiracy that has turned the Leaving Certificate results and their aftermath into a Frankenstein’s monster of exaggerated importance. The results pop out at a highly convenient time for the Press, right in the doldrums of the so-called ‘silly season’ when many staple sources of headlines and copy are on sabbatical. It is all too easy to succumb to the temptation to inflate everything that goes with the issuing of the results and the following week’s first round of third-level offers from the Central Applications Office and mine as much mileage out of them as possible over the remaining weeks until matters political and criminal return to their accustomed place at the forefront of news editors’ thoughts!

In the process, though, there is the danger of some very wrong messages being sent out to school-leavers. Many of those who got their results yesterday will have gone through immense stress in the course of their examination year and been subjected to pressures which will have taken their toll. For some, this arduous experience will have yielded a reward commensurate with their input and ambition. But a lot of students will not have performed as they will have expected or desired. In addition to natural disappointment, some will have to revise their plans for the immediate future while battling against a tide of negative feelings about their own self-worth which the natural emphasis at this time on excellence of examination performance can cast over them.

But it is as well for those who have performed disappointingly – and for those who have excelled, for that matter – to remember that society in its practical workings does not esteem its members primarily, or even particularly, on the basis of academic performance. It might well appear otherwise at present, given the preoccupation of newsprint and airwave time with all things exams, but it is by strength and depth of character, compassion for and interaction with fellow human beings, integrity, and emotional and spiritual maturity that people tend to negotiate their way in the world and earn the love and respect of others. These are characteristics that can’t be learned from books or “hot-housed” to maturity in the crucible of an examination.

This is not to argue that knowledge and learning, or the qualifications that go with them, are negligible things. On the contrary, the acquisition of knowledge is a rich and wonderful pursuit, and those Leaving Certificate students preparing to enter third-level education are, potentially, poised on the cusp of great personal fulfilment and intellectual adventure. It is a great pity, however, that much of the emphasis of the learning experience they will have been exposed to at second level will hamper rather than assist them in entering the academic environment of the university or college. A curriculum, and practices and patterns of study and revision, geared to herding students through the Leaving Certificate gates, is not particularly well suited to bequeathing the skills of independent learning to those who wish to pursue a degree qualification.

It was extremely disappointing then, to hear Minister for Education Mary Coughlan set her face against any meaningful reform of the current points system that governs entrance into the college sphere when interviewed this week. Disappointing, but not surprising. Deputy Coughlan is not long in her portfolio and, like most Government Ministers, is not operating in an area of personal specialism. Her main function is to operate as ‘front woman’ and public face of her Dept, and she would have neither the experience nor the expertise to bring about the radical curriculum changes and points system overhaul that is necessary even if she had the desire to do so. That desire would have to be alive amid the ranks of the civil service in her Dept, and where government bureaucracy is concerned the mechanism to bring about change shifts through its gears very slowly.

But it will inevitably fall to a future Minister to institute the changes that will result in a less harsh, less inflexible system for evaluating the potentialies of our young people and pointing them along the future pathway most suited to their attributes and inclinations. It is ignoring the patent inequities of the status quo for Minister Coughlan to describe it, as she did this week, as “the fairest way”.

Perhaps the Minister has got caught up in the Leaving Cert rollercoaster and, like us in the media and a great many others, has lost the objectivity to make a balanced evaluation of where the examinations system and the points race stands, or should be put, in the whole scheme of things.

The young people who have obtained their results this week have gone through an important stage in the journey of life, but there are far more significant and far more fundamentally educative experiences ahead of them. Whether they have done outstandingly, middlingly or disappointingly by the examiners’ standards, they at least should be encouraged keep a sensible perspective on things.

From them and for them, the best is undoubtedly yet to come.

Full story in the Northern Standard

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