I was delighted to hear the radio ad from the Institute of Guidance Counsellors reminding the public of their availability in their local school to advise parents and students about filling in CAO forms.
Just as the arrival of the first swallows signifies an improvement in the weather, so does the CAO process signal the start of the third level points frenzy at the heart of the educational year. I’m old enough to remember when people used to say, “I got so many honours and so many passes” (not to mention the concept of the red honours, the honours grade but on a pass paper) when asked how they did in their Leaving Certificate. Not anymore! ‘How did you do in the Leaving Cert?’ is answered now in terms of points: “I got [x number of] points” as if this is the be-all and end-all of life!
Unfortunately, for many students that is how it is perceived. Imagine getting 500 points in your exams, an achievement which puts you in the top 8 or 9 percent of the cohort, but considering yourself a failure because that may not be enough. Daft isn’t it?
I never cease to be amazed by the obsession we have with progression to third level in Ireland. What people often don’t realize is that the CAO is owned by the universities and is a very effective way of filling first year college courses, but in a manner which may not now suit an increasing number of students.
There is no doubt that the points system is definitely transparent and fair, perhaps brutally so, as demonstrated in my example of the 500 point student who still hasn’t enough for the coveted course.
If we were designing an education system to meet the needs of the Irish citizen where would we start? What do we want a well educated Irish 18 or 19 year old to look like?
We’re lucky that in Ireland we have a very high retention rate within our second level system and also a very high rate of students going on to third level. In the same way as the Leaving Cert is a springboard to third level, so now the primary degree is a springboard to employment but in a labour market where many of the jobs our graduates will fill in 10 years time haven’t been invented yet.
Just think about that for a minute. In ten years time, you may be working in a job that doesn’t exist now. Not so impossible when you consider that ten years ago there were no ipads, iphones, ipods, or cloud computing. So, as you begin to go about filling in your CAO form, be sure to choose an area that interests you and not a course you feel you should do because you have so many hundred points and you don’t want to waste them.
Things have changed a little bit recently but, three years ago, Law – which is pretty easy but which involves a lot of memory work – was on astronomical points. Computer Science – which is really complicated -was on very modest points and many who started out on such courses found that they didn’t have the ability to get through first year, resulting in high failure rates.
Resilience and an ability to flourish within an inclusive school setting, with social equity at its heart, should be the raison d’être of our education system, not just the blind pursuit of points. The media obsession with League Tables and university progression doesn’t promote an inclusive agenda. A narrow focus on a single outcome in education, when so many reports indicate that young people’s needs are infinitely complex, ignores the diversity of needs of students and our society.
The free market approach of the Celtic Tiger Era did not get it right. Sometimes it seems as if the more a school includes Special Education Needs Children, Traveller Children, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the more parents exclude it from consideration as their first school of choice. The more exclusive a school is perceived to be, the more parents seek to have their children included in that school.
So, whether you are a parent or a student, speak to the Guidance Counsellor and choose your course options wisely. Remember that how you do in the Leaving Cert points race isn’t a valid measure of your worth as an individual. Your life has meaning and purpose. Take responsibility for what you have done in life, learn from it and if necessary, change it.