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Last week’s “Transitions” conference gave a rare opportunity for people from across the different sectors of education in Ireland (ie school, university, IoT, adult education, etc) to come together and work towards progress on reform of both the school ‘Leaving Certificate” and the processes for entry to higher education. Ireland, of course, has a long-established tradition of debating the horrors and stress of the Leaving Cert. In fact, it has become an annual ritual, just as much as the media frenzy that accompanies the examinations themselves. The problem is that little of significance has been done and it is here in this new process that things look as if they will indeed change. Universities have signed a “let’s all jump together” statement to reconsider their first year entry requirements.

It is to be hoped that whatever reforms take place in the Leaving Cert they will also lead to the ending of not just rote-learning, but also the very traditionalist perception of what constitutes learning and the sheer amounts of content that are stuffed into the syllabi of each of the multiple subjects. There’s surely a lot to be learned from more holistic educational approaches, that enable school to be more a place of exploration, experimentation and, dare I say it, fun. Of course that requires resources and there’s nothing cheaper (for the state at any rate, if not for the parents) than a traditional, academic knowledge, memorisation/high-stakes examination approach. But, what’s noticeable to those of us ‘blown in’ to Ireland from distant, northerly lands, is the whole sub-culture and parallel economy of Leaving Cert preparation, of private tuition (or  ‘grinds’ as they call them) and expensive school books (yes, parents have to buy them here!). So what of the grind schools in any reformed structure? Are they still going to be needed to help prepare kids for the other forms of entrance tests, such as HPAT, all of which can be gamed?

Hong Kong provides an example of an even more extreme system, however, and it was interesting to see a documentary on this recently on the UK’s Channel 4. We’re not quite at this stage in Ireland, though we definitely do have the private tuition centres, if not the celebrity tutors driving Masseratis.