Transition to third-level education set to ease

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So the CAO system is to receive its first-ever shake up. The proposed reforms of Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills, are still a little shy of detail, but they have been outlined.

The three main changes are:

  1. A significant reduction in CAO Level 8 (honours) courses. There will now be far less course specificity as first-year programmes become more wide-ranging. Students will be able to specify to a greater degree in their second year in college.
  2. A reduction in the current 14-point Leaving Certificate grading system – the highest in the world for equivalent exams.
  3. Removing predictability from exam papers.

The basic thinking behind the three suggested changes is that by reducing the amount of specific courses on offer, students will be faced with a clearer, more straightforward selection of third-level options. In the past, expecting students to focus on a particular area at such an early a stage only created unnecessary pressure for them, which was further exacerbated by the intense competition for courses with limited places available.

This bleeds into the second proposal: the competition to secure college places meant that the additional points to be earned from getting an A3 instead of a B1 yoked students with an unrealistic and unsustainable burden of expectation (self-imposed in many cases). This will now be lessened considerably.

The final proposal is aimed at eliminating learning by rote – the so-called ‘learn to the test’ problem. Proper teaching and learning (i.e. critically engaging with the material with the aim of understanding it) has often suffered at the hands of a single-minded commitment to gaining maximum points in the Leaving Cert. A review is to be carried out by the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, which will look to establish areas of ‘problematic predictability’ in the Irish terminal State exam system and make recommendations based on its findings.

This, too, is encouraging, as it should – theoretically at least – foster greater analytical thinking in students, thus preparing them more effectively for the rigours of third-level education. The traditional schism between secondary and tertiary levels should therefore be bridged somewhat, allowing for an easier progression from one to the other.

The shake up in the points system will be phased in for students entering fifth year in September 2014. It is therefore difficult to accurately predict what changes it will effect in the long term. There is plenty of scope for optimism though, and the more stakeholders get involved in the plan, the greater the scope for that optimism becomes.


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