Our education system is no longer fit for purpose

Anyone reading this who had a child doing Leaving Cert 2023 – send all complaints to the editor of the West Cork People for what I am about to say – I don’t believe there was anything wrong with the much-maligned maths paper 1, the hot topic on the airwaves in June. Let me come clean first: I know little or nothing about maths and took ordinary level maths as far back as when Jesus was a baby. But I am an educationalist with 30 years’ experience of the highs and lows of teaching. 

Let me start with something that will hopefully assuage some of the parents’ concern about the ‘ruined’ chances of their child after doing poorly in the maths test. To quote an experienced principal friend of mine, – the ‘Bell Curve’ solves everything. In other words, all leaving cert results are artificially manipulated so that results from previous years are ‘evened out’. That means essentially that those charged with overseeing the exams will adjust marking schemes to inflate or deflate certain answers to keep results within a ‘bell curve’. Therefore, there isn’t the slightest chance that the maths results will be drastically different from other years, as it’s a prisoner to our ‘bell curve’. I never liked the principle of it, [because I think if you merit a ‘grade’ you should get it and not be subject to manipulation] but I do see how it can protect students from being radically out of sync with other years. One of the main gripes was that it was more difficult than the last two years. According to some maths teachers I know, that wouldn’t be difficult, as the last two exams were reduced, in response to the student’s education being disrupted by Covid. No one on the airways was complaining then about how easier it was in perspective to other years. [I’m sure honours maths is never easy to be fair] Consequently, paper 2 maths was by all accounts a lovely paper. Don’t be fooled kids, if you all do well, the system can deflate your grade too. Now you can see why I’m not a fan of the bell curve. What is the answer to all this inconsistency? Make it difficult all of the time! 

I can imagine the disgust amongst some readers as they read this. But let’s reflect on a few things which I believe are wrong with our system. Firstly, there is the hard reality that honours maths is bloody difficult. Teachers often give extra classes in their own time and still barely get it covered. It consumes time that could be used for study in other subjects. Why torture yourself? Therein lies the next problem – awarding honours maths extra points. The temptation for the extra points has meant an increase in students taking higher level maths. On paper it looks good. We can boast of an education system producing more ‘maths’ kids. The bell curve means that even with increased numbers taking the higher paper, students will be protected from falling off the cliff completely. What the bell curve won’t show is the damage done to their performance or lack of commitment in other subjects, or the effects on a kid taking honours, who otherwise may not have done if the extra points were not on offer, and who spends two years in a heightened sense of stress. We offer children 400 hours of wellbeing in their school curriculum, yet perversely we have a generation of children whose mental health has never been so frail. [Mainly down to the ills of social media, that puts huge pressure on teens to be part of everything, look amazing all the time and feel degraded if you don’t. Social media is the perfect forum for hurlers on the ditch, who can criticise from the safety of their phones or screens]. This was captured graphically with the outpouring of grief after the 2023 maths exam with, according to the airwaves of a national broadcaster, ‘one girls’ school reduced to handing out tissues to the crying students as they exited early from the exam’.  Perhaps if these kids and parents knew about the bell curve, calmness and mature reflection could have prevailed, but many parents spoke about the knock-on effects on the next exams and how their kids were caught in the whirlpool of bad vibes from the maths exam. This illustrates the validity of my previous points. Some kids should not take it because of the effect it has overall. As it was always very difficult each year, then those who need it to progress to their career where maths is pivotal, let’s face reality – you need to be challenged at that level. Indeed I would argue for a three tier maths paper, because many courses require ‘honours’ to do their course, as long as you pass it or get a modest minimum entry grade. Perhaps a paper in-between the maths required for rocket science and heart surgery; one that need not be the maths levels required for those who need it for a certain courses, but that demands a proficiency higher than ordinary?

The main line of argument besides the paper being too challenging was that it did not resemble previous leaving cert maths papers. The emphasis was on ‘problem solving’. Now call me old-fashioned but isn’t that a central tenant of mathematical intelligence? If having honours maths is a prerequisite of so many courses that centre around our technological and pharmaceutical driven society, then I’m guessing we must produce a level of students that can adapt to problems that come their way? One of the biggest criticisms that has been launched at the Irish education system over the last few decades is that it is exam-orientated and revolves too much around the points system. I agree on both counts. No paper should be too similar to another, otherwise we confine our teachers to teaching for exam because that’s what the pupils and you the parent want – success in the exam. Dare I ask what about actually educating them? The result is, we now have grind schools, private school and hybrid ‘schools’ that teach for exam only. Naturally the current system is set up to look for patterns, get the kids versed in those patterns and God help us when those patterns don’t emerge and a student has to think outside the box. This is not just a maths thing. Year in year out, students in the English paper obsess about which poet will come up in the Leaving Cert. It’s worth a mere 50 marks out of 400. The other 350 marks revolve around material that is definitely going to be asked! Yet it dominates the media and post exam gossip. The solution: have a question on every poet, make them all difficult and different, so kids have to ‘work out the answer’ rather than recall and rely on one ‘practiced’ version. The paper is too long already, so you can’t give them more time, but you can revamp the system where our kids do less subjects, but more papers or exams within the subject, to test their depth, but not their ‘stamina’, that presently demands our children to be knowledgeable about seven subjects in what is an exhausting marathon with overlong papers. 

Continuous assessment is no longer the magic solution thanks to Covid and Artificial Intelligence [AI]. The former gave us inflated grades which has had longterm effects on the exam system. Assessing one’s own students clearly is not the way forward. The emergence of the AI, ‘ChatGPT-4’ has jeopardised any take-home work and projects, until we find a solution. This new technology can produce answers or solve problems at the click of a button, with remarkable accuracy. It will kill creativity, if compositions can be procured with a command, rather than one’s imagination. My brother-in-law who works in a university in the UK said his college cannot use counter technology to ‘call out’ artificial essays because they only have to be wrong once for the whole system to collapse and start a stampede of law suits. There are those who argue that AI is a good thing for education. Perhaps it will be, but AI is developing a lot quicker than our antiquated and outdated education system, that even when it changes, it is standing still or moving backward.

There is hardly a teacher I know that considers the Junior Cycle adequate preparation for the demands of senior cycle. I don’t believe the kids are challenged enough. The bridge between the JC and LC is like night and day. There are no choices within the paper, in the subjects I teach, history and english, so kids can’t play to their strengths. [and I repeat – make it challenging but with choices]. They do a two-hour watery JC paper, and then three years later, they have to sit for six plus hours and do two papers. I don’t see the joined-up thinking. Senior cycle reform is promised but what we need is a radical overhaul of education. Twenty years ago, with the dawn of the internet, I heard an educationalist on the radio declare that every child will have knowledge about everything at the tip of their fingers – what we need is a system where we can challenge how they use and understand the knowledge. Twenty years on – memory and factual knowledge still dominate. We must design oral exams in everything, where expression, interpretation of knowledge and communication is rewarded. Allow open book tests so kids can respond to the challenges of the question, rather than the recall of their memory. Ask them to take less subjects, but give them more and shorter, written exams, within their reduced subject choice. Throw down the gauntlet to them, build resilience and acceptance that we can’t be good at everything and that failure is as much a valid part of life as success is. To quote an African proverb, ‘when elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled’. How much longer will we accept our children being crushed by the powers who are running the current education system?

Kieran Doyle

Kieran Doyle is a playwright, a historian & author, and the produce of the History Show on http://westcorkfm.ie

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