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Connaught Provincial Winner: Niall McGovern of Rice College, Westport, Co Mayo

The Leaving Certificate:

Incarceration and Examination.

My school looks like a prison. The towering fences surround poorly kept, concrete grounds, unkempt lawns and even an impromptu moat when it rains. This image is completed by a basketball court that lacks hoops. Grey permeates the area in a multitude of shades: the dark, solid hue of the asphalt; the loose, dusty gravel; and the perpendicular leviathan of a building itself with its lumpy, off-white paint coat that has gradually faded to an ashen tone. All we’re missing are the watch towers housing floodlights and rifle-toting guards sporting cheap aviators. That does not mean to say we’re not guarded. We are, but in a more subtle fashion. My school, like all schools, is an institution.

Unfortunately, no matter how tight the regulations or how kindly the warden, an institution can never prepare its residents for the reality of the outside world. Take the inmates of Shawshank State Prison. When librarian Brooks Hatlen is granted his liberty, his conditioned mind cannot handle the independence that is suddenly thrust upon him. This leads to his suicide, as he is unable to fit into the relatively modern times of the 1950’s. I also recall Randle P. McMurphy’s excursion with his fellow psychiatric patients in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Their madcap antics on their rented fishing boat are a direct result of their isolation from reality. This is the near future for the majority of Leaving Certificate students. With an absence of adequate preparation we are forced out into modern life and finish up struggling to adjust.

I argue that the storms that accompany the transition to adult life could be weathered if our studies were relevant to modern times. Unfortunately our courses are as contemporary as a Neanderthal listening to a Walkman. In this world of IPads our education system is playing catch-up. One textbook with its attention-grabbing title “Fundamental Applied Mathematics” would look at home in Isaac Newton’s personal library. This dull brown tome was subsequently updated in 2011. The course itself is yet to evolve. Some would see this as a source of permanence in a world of constant flux. I see it, and a certain Mr Darwin would agree, as a species failing to adapt and careering towards extinction.

Similarly, a shortage of respect for students within the Leaving Certificate syllabus brings about their own failure to adapt. My physics textbook has informed me that I “don’t need to know” certain proofs, implying that they are far too complex for my child’s brain. This leads to the “guarded” feeling to which I alluded earlier. There is no “Big Brother” surveillance from the telescreens, but it is censorship of which the Party could be proud.

Language courses in the Leaving Certificate do not deserve the title. To hear us in French class, one would have a hard time placing the language. We know nothing of the cadence of the tongue, or the culture of our continental peers. We know how to answer specific questions put to us by an examiner, but drop us in Paris and we’d starve before being able to order “des frites” in McDonalds. This ineptitude is far more shocking when one realises that it is just as prominent in our native tongue. We all have our “cúpla focail”, and we may even be able to request “sceallóga”. As students though, we spend more time learning by rote pages and paragraphs about poetry and prose than communicating.

In our Leaving Certificate we are not taught about reality. We are treated like toddlers, not being permitted to view “adult” material. Without knowledge of the infinite red tape we are consigned to become entangled and ensnared in it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, art is also abandoned. Despite her insights into the recesses of humanity, there was controversy surrounding the inclusion of Emily Dickinson in our English course. She was considered far too pessimistic for Ireland’s sweet little babies. The outraged helicopter parents were silenced, but the attitude to our tuition has been revealed. They have ironically missed the point of our education. By preventing us from seeing any darkness, they keep us in the dark.

Combine the above omissions with our inability to liaise with our neighbours, and it is clear that we are unready to enter adulthood. Perhaps these lapses could be forgiven had we more time. As it stands our days are compressed into the precious gaps between study periods. We have no time to explore the laws that govern our existence or the art that questions it. Daily our minds are subjected to such pressure that it is a wonder that we do not get the bends when we leave the school premises.

Teachers cannot be blamed for this shameless intimidation. They are just pointing out that the system pits us against one another and many of us will lose. This method of comparative grading makes it necessary to isolate ourselves from our peers in order to succeed. In third level and in the wider world, the opposite is required. Currently the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation is promoting group work and leadership, because these skills are vital in the corporate sector. In the Leaving Certificate however, you do not get marks for helping your classmates.

Given the above issues, it is no wonder that I drew wisdom from films with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, rather than my Leaving Certificate courses. Pop culture has been my escape from the Leaving Certificate strain, like a poster of Rita Hayworth and a rock hammer were for Andy Dufresne. It distracted from the horrendous mistakes made in the examination system. As I approach the parole board to see whether I will be released, hindsight allows me to see what is missing from our rehabilitation. Maybe there’s hope yet because I have recognised the system’s flaws. It’s clearly too late for Brooks and McMurphy. Must another generation of Irish students be sacrificed to the murder machine?