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National/Munster Provincial Winner: Niamh O'Connell of Colaiste na Sceilge, Cahersiveen, Co.Kerry

Ladies and gentlemen,

Imagine walking into the vast, echoing hall, lined with desks. The sun seems to mock you as it beams in down from the windows. Imagine the ashen faces of your friends staring wide eyed at the blank sheet of paper in front of them. Imagine that moment of panic as you skim through the exam paper, glancing around shiftily to gauge the reactions of your peers. The months of revision books and rescue remedy are behind you and now you must face the final hurdle – the Leaving Cert. Fall and who knows where you will end up, leap only to realise you must re-evaluate your entire concept of learning when you move to third level.  You know that your exam results may not reflect your true intellectual ability, yet you cannot help but believe that your future rests on the ink in your pen, the stamina of your hand and your brain’s ability to regurgitate the opinions of your teachers. It doesn’t reflect your hard work over two years, it doesn’t reflect the sacrifices you have made, and it doesn’t reflect your teachers’ best efforts to help you. But above all else can we honestly delude ourselves that the Leaving Cert prepares our youth for twenty-first century life?

The skills required to navigate through twenty-first century life contrast starkly with the skills needed for previous generations. With the technological advances in our society, how can we justify not recognising Information Technology as a Leaving Cert subject? Forfas has estimated that the technology sector could create up to 44,500 jobs in Ireland in the next 5 years, but if we do not support this development with highly skilled graduates we cannot expect our economy to grow. We must design an exam that nurtures the skills and qualities of our young people and focuses them into career paths where jobs will be plentiful.

Framework for twenty first century learning also includes the key skills of critical thinking, learning and innovation skills, communication and collaboration skills, as well as creativity. The current Leaving Certificate system however, fails to address every one of these skills. How can students evolve and begin to think analytically when they are spoon-fed opinions and ideas, basically crafted into unthinking, robotic outlays of someone else’s opinion. How can creativity flourish in an environment where rote learning exists? How will our students cope with project work when they have never had the opportunity to improve their interpersonal and leadership skills? When we look to leaders, to people who have changed the world, are they people who were happy to sit idle and learn off the ideas of others? No, these are people who saw outside the box and challenged the narrow-mindedness of “the system”. They looked for real solutions to real problems. A leadership advisor at Fortune 500 CEOs and Boards and Forbes contributor, Mike Myatt has said “Great leaders create culture by design, while average leaders allow culture to evolve by default”. We are manufacturing these average, lazy leaders as a by-product of the Leaving Cert. We must recognise that the Leaving Cert in its present form does not support or encourage enterprise and initiative. Instead it smothers it.

We are entering an autumn in terms of educational reform and while I welcome the changes, I fear them. I fear we will move in the wrong direction. I fear we will make the Leaving Cert worse. Take Project Maths as an example. In theory the syllabus makes sense. In practice, I am speaking from experience and assure you it doesn’t. True, we have learned how to divide a Crunchie bar into equal segments but is this really fulfilling the core aims of the curriculum, the so- called “practical applications”? Frankly, I don’t think so.  For students intending to pursue careers in engineering or computer coding the situation is far graver as core materials such as vectors have been taken off the course. How will our graduates compete with their European counter-parts when such vital topics are excluded? A report by the Olli Martio University Finland cited the following reason for abandoning project maths; “Problem solving and putting emphasis on calculators have taken time from explaining the basic principles and ideas of mathematics.” So while the exam paper is becoming more challenging and unpredictable, the standard of mathematical ability is dropping rapidly, with many claiming the maths course has been “watered down”. As a sixth year student, I can guarantee that there is nothing quite as demoralising and disillusioning as hearing that the subject you most struggle with has been “dumbed down”. Undoubtedly project maths is the equivalent of taking one step forward and two steps back.

With this in mind I propose that past Leaving Cert students and Leaving Cert students as well as Leaving Cert teachers should play a more active role in the formulation of the Leaving Cert course. Our country is a democracy and our opinions should matter. We cannot continually look to the models of our countries, we must make our own. A paper published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations titled “Workers’ Participation in Decision–Making Processes and Firm Stability” by Shlomo Mizrahi argues that efficiency and stability can be achieved in a business by allowing employees to have a say in the decision making. Surely, this would apply to our educational system too. If students felt as if the Department of Education and Science was working with them, rather than against them, I believe we could make a difference to the well-being of our students. We could create a Leaving Cert that prepares us for life, that leaves us with a multi-faceted range of skills in our arsenal. We could make our education system the envy of countries all over the world. So why don’t we?

Ladies and gentlemen, I asked you to imagine the reality that I must accept in June. But now I want you to imagine walking into a bright, familiar classroom. You half run to get your usual seat by the radiator. It is your teacher that hands you an exam paper. It looks challenging but you keep calm because you breathe in the awareness that your whole life is not banking on this one test. You haven’t learned the answer off by heart, but you have a bank of knowledge on the subject and you are able to adapt and apply what you know. This is what the Leaving Cert should be.