The Leaving Cert may be slowly changing

Parents are crossing their fingers and their toes. Novenas are being said. Girls are outperforming boys. The scramble for places has begun. Accommodation problems abound. Guidance counsellors have expressed concerns. Parents think the Leaving Cert places too much pressure on their kids. Employers think third-level courses need reform to better match their needs. The Minister for Education is looking seriously at reforming the rote-learning exercise that is the Leaving Certificate. Students’ unions want more money. Parents are hard-pressed to meet the costs of college.

You might think those headlines are from 2016. They’re not. They are from 1996. Search the papers in 1996, and 2006, and you see exactly the same patterns, the same stories, the same issues.

They’ll be the same in 2026 and 2036. Ireland has really excellent education correspondents, but apart from changing some of the names, the stories are the same year in, year out. There always seems to be a picture of young people jumping. And, of course, there’s the obligatory profiles of the people who get nine As and the mature students completing their Leaving Certs.

The Leaving Certificate is a deeply rooted part of our society. It is, literally, a rite of passage. An important rite. We pushed 58,000 people through the process this year. Those who excel at the process become tomorrow’s professionals, who can look forward to higher earnings, on average, over their lifetimes than the rest of society.

Those who don’t excel at the Leaving Cert, or who merely miss their points target, must make-do with what they get lower down on the CAO form. For those who aren’t academically inclined, the list of options is growing as the new apprenticeship system is being rolled out by SOLAS, but for many in our society, the expectation is that you still need to go to college.

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There are deep, structural elements in our society, and these structures get reproduced year after year in a series of obligations, rights, and expected behaviours. You learn about them as you grow up. Like trips to Croke Park, or wedding days. The best place to learn about them is to read Colm O’Regan’s hilarious Irish Mammies Twitter feed. Or better yet, buy his book.

A social structure is effective in organising behaviour of large numbers of actors. Actors like you, and me, and Enda Kenny. Everyone. A structure is coercive of individual and group behaviour.

Social structures give roles to – and grant power to – individual actors. When you meet the Taoiseach, you sort of ‘know’ how to address him or her. You don’t rock up and say ‘Howaya horsebox’, do you? The position they hold in our social structure commands your respect.

A social structure often has distributional consequences for individuals and groups. The Leaving Cert is a great example of this. It distinguishes everyone by grade. This year’s scandal is the high failure rate in ordinary mathematics. Nine per cent of those who chose ordinary mathematics failed it. The target is slightly lower at around 5 per cent.

A social structure is geographically dispersed. Where you’re from matters. A recent study by NUI Galway’s John Cullinan and Sharon Walsh, and my UL colleague Darragh Flannery, showed the north-west and areas of the west, south-west and border are poorly serviced in terms of absolute and relative accessibility to university education.

A social structure involves persistence and change. Despite how solid the Leaving Cert is as a structure, it is changing. This year, for example, minority languages were a big feature of the certificate, reflecting the increasing diversity of our population. Of the 333 students who took higher level Russian, over 80 per cent got an A.

In 2026, there will be a Taoiseach and a Dáil, people will still get married, they will have kids, they will do a long and stressful matriculation examination to get into college. Irish mammies will still care about the immersion. What employers want will change, however. The skill set I had doing the Leaving Cert in 1996 would not help me much in 2016. I highly doubt 2016’s Snapchat enthusiasts will be current in 2026. Technological change means basic skills will be less in demand. For example, being pretty good at driving won’t make you much money in 2026, but if you know how to write code for self-driving cars, you’ll be fine. Technological change creates jobs and job categories as it destroys others. The Leaving Cert doesn’t respond to these technological changes as quickly as it should.

We are still educating our kids for a 20th-century world in many respects, though that is slowly, slowly, changing. Target-driven policies can reform aspects of the Leaving Cert process, but they won’t change the underlying social structure it represents. Which means we can look forward to the same stories for Leaving Cert next summer.