The Leaving Cert. and Good Outcomes: Hard Work, Good Luck or What?

Written by Cathy Molloy on Sunday, 29 June 2003. Posted in Issue 43 Juvenile Crime: Are Harsher Sentences the Solution?, 2002

Cathy Molloy, a part-time worker at CFJ, considers some issues behind the annual Leaving Cert. hype.


Every year at this time the newspapers and media in general invite us to share in the immediate drama of the Leaving Cert. Even if you have no student in your house, or have not been in contact with school books for decades, you cannot be unaware of the annual wave of hysteria that seems to have to accompany the final public examinations of the nation\'s school leavers.


The annual media hype.
The hype has been going on for months. Newspapers have carried pages of information on the third level courses on offer, instructions on the filling in of application forms, and dire warnings about the consequences of getting it wrong. There are radio programmes devoted to the various papers and the best way to approach them; there is a web site for Irish; small advertisements in shop windows offering extra tuition in this or that subject; other small notices from those desperately seeking grinds or extra help with their problem area. There are newspaper supplements and articles laying out the form and content of various papers, phone-ins discussing the tension in households, or the best balanced study and living timetables for the over conscientious student; emergency strategies for the one who has come to realise late in the day that extra effort is needed for a good outcome.

Then there are the experts - parents, teachers, doctors, psychologists, advising on how best to see your student through - take this much exercise or that much vitamin supplement; there is advice on aids to concentration and aids to relaxation - relax more and watch television or go for a walk; or is it forego television and go to bed early? And then there are the good-luck cards, prayers and novenas, and the pale-faced young people and worried looking parents who turn up at early morning Mass, and St Jude for hopeless cases and so on. And finally, whether all or none of the above is availed of, there is the examination itself and the fact that each student must face the same exam whatever her context, whether he has family support or not, whether they feel confident or fearful, sick or well, psyched- up or weighed- down.

An unacceptable discrepancy in outcomes.
With all of this you would be inclined to assume that every household in the state was directly involved in this annual event. Not so. About a quarter of young Irish people leave school with no more than the basic compulsory education, which is in itself a highly significant predictor of unemployment.i
But, let us return to those young people who do complete second level education and so are the ones who are addressed by the media hype around the Leaving Cert. You might assume that the expected outcome of their years at school, and study for the examinations, would be more or less the same, allowing for the obvious range of difference in intelligence, ability, aptitude, application and so on, that would be present in any group of young people. Not so. 52.9% of students from a higher professional background gained 5 or more honours at Leaving Certificate level compared with 4.1% of those from an unskilled background.ii Are we then to assume that large numbers of people from one kind of background are considerably less able, at some fundamental level, than those from another? If not, then what are some of the hidden factors that contribute to this unacceptable discrepancy?

Unacknowledged supports can make a big difference.
Obviously there are many factors at play from the very start of involvement in education, with some students having access to layer upon layer of privilege while others must struggle continuously simply to stay with it. The negative effects of cutting back Community Employment Schemes in schools, for example where breakfast was provided helping an environment conducive to improved concentration for young children, will be reinforced when these children come to school leaving age. Looking at some of the often unacknowledged supports available to some students in the run up to the Leaving Cert. illustrates this. The benefits of a peaceful atmosphere for study, of regular breaks, of aids to concentration and so on, are well recognised. Think now about the advantage to students in schools that offer supervised after-school study, perhaps with a meal and some quiet time as well. This of course costs money, whoever pays for it, but the study is done in a quiet atmosphere, for the most part distractions are excluded and the bulk of the homework or revision is completed, without interruption. No over-concern, or indeed under-concern, on the part of parents or others has to be part of it. The financial costs have to be covered by someone, but the pressure is off - no need to be distracted by what is going on in the family, or outside in the street, or the sounds of people outdoors and the various crises that can occur until the end of the daylight hours and beyond. Think of a student who avails of this and who, tired at the end of a long day may be collected -driven home by a parent and encouraged to talk about the events of the day. Think of the student who after school goes to her part-time job, gets home late, gets herself something to eat, and then maybe thinks about the homework - or maybe doesn\'t, since everyone seems to be out and about, and the noise levels, combined with exhaustion make study really difficult.

Consider the student who is anxious about the French exam. He has loved French since first year, has worked at it consistently but knows he just doesn\'t have the fluency to bring him to the level he would have been capable of if things were somewhat different. Now think of the student who has an average capacity for French, and who works fairly hard at it, but knows that the French exchange she has participated in over two summers, as well as the extra conversation classes, will help lift her final grade considerably. Or consider the student who went to Irish College several summers in a row, or the one who was weak at Maths but has had individual tuition over the last year to bring his standard up to pass level. Of course it is costly, but it is most definitely worth it as he finds it so much easier to understand when he is the only one being taught. We could go on but the point is clear.

The students who are privileged in so many unspoken ways have to work hard to achieve good results in their Leaving Cert. And parents and teachers and guardians are proud of them as they gain places in third level Institutions where most will graduate and have access to positions of power and influence in our society. But it is exactly the same Leaving Cert that other students have to sit without any of the kinds of underlying helps and supports, and often with considerable dis-incentives to be overcome. It is obvious that many students who manage to pass, despite obstacles and without any of the layers of privilege that are available to some, may in fact be far more able, have greater intellectual capacity, than many who gain honours and succeed in getting the places in our third level Colleges. Why do we think our society can afford to turn its back on the unrealised potential of so many young people who happen to be born on the wrong side of this particular track?iii Is it really to the overall benefit of society that virtually all our more powerful and influential people come from the same section? Put another way, as long as the present situation continues so does the fundamental injustice that so many young people lack the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential with the result that our society is deprived of the benefit of this potential.

Tinkering at the edges of injustice.
It is not that the policy makers in the government have not made some attempts to address the issue. Free access to education, with a consequent theoretical equality of opportunity, exists for some time now as a necessary first step. But it has clearly proved inadequate. What has not been well addressed by successive governments is the issue of the underlying conditions that lead to inequality in the first place. Kathleen Lynch, in Equality in Education, points out that the focus has been on equalising opportunities rather than equalising resources. Students have formal rights to participate in education, but they are not resourced to do so on equal terms with others. There is a minimalist type of equality of access, but not equality of participation, and certainly not equality of outcome.

One of the major reasons why governments and policy makers continue to support initiatives that tinker at the edges of injustice without radically altering its pattern is undoubtedly because of the power and influence of middle class interests on educational policy in Irish society. Those who are currently benefiting handsomely from educational inequality have no reason to want to change, and in political terms, they constitute a major interest group in Irish political and educational life.iv

This is a serious indictment of middle class Ireland. It suggests that, left to the area of politics, as a society we will continue to \'tinker at the edges of injustice\'. Real change is going to need the support of those who are currently benefiting from educational inequality. How could this be awakened and harnessed? Is it possible that many who benefit are unaware of their part in upholding a system of education that is heavily loaded against so many of our people? Along with work for policy change do we need work for raised awareness and change of heart? Where might this change come from?

A new situation is evolving.
Focusing on the 60% of our second level schools which are denominational, and within that the large number that are under the trusteeship of religious orders, a significant feature of what is happening in many schools currently is the process of handing over management and setting up Boards. School Boards now comprise parents, teachers and others appointed by the trustees. At the same time, there are Parent Associations and Parent Councils being set up, and in some schools Student Councils. The democratisation of second level education is underway. This in turn is providing new opportunities for many different kinds of people to become involved in education, to become aware of education policy, and to notice at first hand many of the elements that contribute to make our system of education operate the way it does. Many schools were originally set up to provide education for the disadvantaged in society, many have their roots in what can seem like a long-lost spirituality of justice that would seek to provide opportunity for the development of the full potential of the pupils, regardless of their social or economic background. There is now a chance for many more people to become acquainted with, and maybe even inspired by, the Christian vision for education of the founders and to rediscover their original aims.

Based on the values of love and justice the education mission of many religious groups in Ireland has taken them beyond the conventional classroom and into the communities where, on their own or in co-operation with community groups, they are trying to address the structural inequalities which block the path for so many people to full development of their potential.

It is widely held that Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, has been too powerful in having its values upheld, or some would say imposed on certain aspects of life in Ireland. It is interesting to note the areas in which it could be accused of indifference to what goes on in the public domain. Taking part in an organised way in public political discussion, as far as lay Christians are concerned, has tended for the most part to be limited to referenda on single issues such as divorce and abortion. And often the lay voices are strongly evangelical in tone. It is CORI (Conference of Religious in Ireland) who have worked for years to influence the distribution of wealth, and with no little success, but where are the voices of Catholic laity on the same topic? It is as though we have tacitly decided to let CORI and others carry the faith-based social conscience of the whole group. Or, put another way, many people will be familiar with, and willing contributors to the good works of the churches, and church based organisations, collections for various causes, the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Trocaire\'s Lenten campaign and so on, and it seems that as a nation we are very good at charity. But charity is not justice. Is it right that the Society of St Vincent de Paul should be the funders of absolutely necessary educational assessments for some children in Dublin schools? This is not to make little of charity and the many people who give generously of their time and money to address the needs of the disadvantaged in our society. However, if Christian living, as opposed to Christian education, had been half as real in the past as we would be led to believe, we would not be faced with the injustices endemic in our education system.

Solidarity as a force for change?
I return to the Leaving Cert. and the seemingly small ways in which inequality of participation and outcome in education are crystallised. When the Jesus of St.John\'s Gospel said I have come in order that you might have life - and have it to the full (John 10:10) he meant not some, or a few, but all. This surely is central to the vision of education of his followers. The current situation which sees many lay Christians being involved in education in a more formal way in schools may provide new opportunity for the system to be assessed by a different constituency. The Christian mission for justice carried so admirably by CORI on behalf of the Religious is in fact a shared mission. All Christians are called to participate by means of solidarity. This solidarity is explained in the document of John Paul 11 on the laity and is no soft option.

Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all. v

Of course this issue of solidarity has implications for every aspect of life. We are to be in solidarity with people near and far. In the Ireland of today the Leaving Cert. can in fact illustrate just how far many young people are in real terms from their near co-candidates. Do Christian parents seeking the best educational outcome for their children really want this at the expense of a just outcome for other children? An unspoken agreement between the political parties seems to have ensured that education was not an issue in the very recent election. Things could be different next time around. Equality in education can be an issue if enough people make their voices heard. But conviction is needed. It is right that investment in pre-school and early school education should be vastly increased. But some of the inequities at second level, and particularly at the pressure points of public examination times, should also be addressed. Many schools are open in the evenings for Adult Education courses. Could these be extended to include a study facility for students in the exam years? The inequity as regards extra tuition is obviously more difficult to deal with. Could help with core subjects be made available on an organised basis at least for Leaving Cert. students who need and want it? Would it be too much to ask that each Leaving Cert. student who wants it should have the opportunity for at least one foreign language exchange? No doubt our educators and politicians together could devise many ways towards overcoming the hurdles that are there for so many young people. But it must be said continually that things are not fair enough as they stand. All the voices are needed. Obviously in the first place must be those who are losing out in the present system. But there is need also of the voices of those who are benefiting most from the status quo, but want to see others getting a fairer deal. A commitment on the part of middle-class Ireland to true equality in education, based in Christian solidarity, knowing that it will be costly in terms of re-distribution of resources, could make a real impact on the outcome of the Leaving Cert. for the many students for whom participation on equal terms would make all the difference.


i) Michael O\'Connell, Changed Utterly: Ireland and the New Irish Psyche, Dublin: Liffey Press, 2001, p.36.
ii) Green paper on Adult Education, Department of Education and Science, 1998, p27.
iii) Denis Farrell, Experience of Church, The Unemployed, Studies, Vol. 83, Number 332, Winter 1994, pg 405. Also Cherry Orchard Faith and Justice Group, One City Two Tiers: Life in a Divided Society, March 1996.
iv) Kathleen Lynch, (Citing Hardiman, 1998; Lynch, 1990) Equality in Education, in Studies, Volume 90, Number 360, Winter 2001, p401
v) John Paul 11, CHRISTIFIDELES LAICI,, Apostolic Exhortation, 1988., n 42.

About the Author

Cathy Molloy

Cathy Molloy

Social Theology Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.