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Ulster Provincial Winner: Mark McDonnell of St. Macortan's College, Monaghan Town, Co. Monaghan

Here we are in 2014 where Ireland’s senior cycle examinations in secondary schools prove two things. Firstly, how much you can remember in seven or eight broad subject courses that are taught over two years and secondly, being able to put it all down on paper in the space of two colourful weeks in June. I say colourful because it is, for a lot of Irish people the most stressful few weeks of their lives and also because almost every year the weather conveniently dries up and the sun starts splitting the rocks. In Ireland we call these examinations the Leaving Certificate, and it definitely perpetuates a system of learning that poorly prepares students for either the realities of third-level education or modern life in general.

Students usually take seven or eight subjects to study over the two year course. There are three mandatory subjects and the rest are optional. Maths is one of the mandatory subjects and has been redeveloped in recent years to add more practicality to the course. It is a step in the right direction, as the present maths curriculum has proved essential in gaining access to courses in third-level institutions due to its similarities and essentialness to some of the respective degrees.

 On the contrary, Irish, a subject feared by many, involves a lot of rote learning of sample answers for poetry and short stories for the majority of students studying the course. While some people are fluent in Irish and also possess the traits of enjoying Irish-language poetry and stories, many do not and suffer as a result. They often need to learn page after page of notes that they do not fully have a grasp for, due to lack of fluency or interest. In my opinion there should be a different way of teaching Irish. Split the subject into two subjects; ‘Irish language’ and ‘Irish language and culture’. The former would involve writing, understanding and being able to talk fluently in Irish about subjects other than what’s going on in a ‘sraithpictiuir’. The latter option would give students the opportunity to study the Irish language, plus the cultural literature of Irish such as poetry, short stories and novels. These courses could prove helpful in later life; the former in conversing with fellow Irish people at home and abroad, with the latter proving useful to gaining jobs in the Irish arts industry.

The final mandatory subject English should be left untouched since it is the native tongue of most people in this country. Students generally find it that bit easier than other languages to discuss poetry, drama and other literature in the subject. The course itself provides students with a concrete foundation in literacy and appreciating the works of novelists and poets. A good solid start in English really proves invaluable in later life due to its necessity in nearly all jobs in the western world and beyond.

The four or five remaining subjects examined in the Leaving Certificate are optional and while many people think that the subjects on offer are contemporary and modern, there is still a lot to be desired from them that reflect the changing trends in the world of employment. Subjects such as Chinese and computer programming would be a welcome addition to the ‘Big LC’ in line with their additions to the Junior Cycle course from September 2014 onwards.

While the new reforms of the Junior Certificate course will be welcomed by many, I feel that it is a pointless move should they go ahead, without also reforming the Leaving Certificate examinations. The folks in government are debating on how to implement continuous assessment into the Junior Cycle. The Leaving Cert should also have a form of continuous assessment, so that instead of having to engage in a scrum of all the Leaving Cert exams in two weeks of June, why not spread them out over 7 or 8 months depending on how many subjects one is taking. By beginning in November or December of Sixth Year and depending on the subject course length, students would sit one or two exam subject(s) per month right up until June. In this way students would have less stress and be able to specialise more in each subject since they would have a full month to study for it. A student would also more likely achieve better results in their Leaving Certificate rather than attempting to learn all 7 or 8 broad subjects in the space of a few draining months. On completion of earlier exams, that would be one more subject freed up in your timetable for each remaining month, giving teachers more time to complete the course in other subjects and also begin their revision a whole lot sooner. The timetable for the exams would be set by the length of each course.  Some subjects finish early whilst others need more time to complete. I believe that this approach to the Leaving Cert would be far less stressful and would leave students more focused in studying well for their exams.

Finally, most schools have career classes for senior cycle students. Along with explaining how the CAO system works and talking about various courses in third level, students should also be taught life lessons such as how to live independently and how to build up your confidence when trying to maturely converse with adults in the workplace and beyond. Pupils should be shown how to prepare for an interview for a job and take part in a mock interview with local employers. Finally and most important of all, educators should be developing an ethos amongst students that in life you must work hard towards achieving your goals and that you should pick a career that you will enjoy.

If the Leaving Certificate system was developed in any of the ways I have mentioned in this essay I believe it would gear our nation’s young people towards having good futures in their chosen paths of life.