Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion

Members are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean shared seats and desks. If members are moving around, it is important to sanitise regularly. I remind members to please ensure that their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when on silent mode.

Are the minutes of the meeting of 5 October 2021 agreed? Agreed.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Jim Miley, CEO of the Irish Universities Association; Dr. Joseph Ryan, CEO of the Technological Higher Education Authority, THEA; Professor Diarmuid Hegarty, president of the Higher Education Colleges Associations; and Mr. Ken Whyte, director of further education and training with the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board, who is representing Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI. The witnesses are here to discuss leaving certificate reform with reference to higher and further education requirements, vocational options and career paths.

The format of the meeting is such that I will invite Mr. Miley to make a brief opening statement, followed by Dr. Ryan, Professor Hegarty and Mr. Whyte. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has an eight-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. I will cut off the member or witness speaking after approximately eight minutes. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish any opening statements on its website following the meeting.

Before I begin, I want to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The witnesses are not giving evidence remotely and are the first witnesses to come before the committee in person in a number of months. It is very welcome that we are getting back to some form of normality. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by the Chair to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I will call Mr. Miley to make an opening statement, followed by the other witnesses as I outlined a few minutes ago. They each have four minutes.

Mr. Jim Miley

I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for the opportunity to address the committee on this important issue today. We have provided a detailed submission so I will confine my remarks to just a few key points from that submission.

We see this review of the leaving certificate process as both necessary and timely. We have acknowledged the many positive attributes of the leaving certificate in our submission but we believe that reform is necessary. That reform must support the maintenance of internationally recognised standards of assessment. It is critically important that the reform be student-centric. The leaving certificate should be fair and equitable, recognising the differences in learning style and capacity of students. It must also address the accepted challenges for students in terms of stress and mental well-being and optimise the pathways to careers or further study for students of all abilities. The current overbearing prominence of the final examination militates against students with learning disabilities or with a learning intelligence not best suited to a written exam. The heavy weighting of the final exam is still far too great. The universities advocate strongly for more authentic assessment across all subjects that genuinely reflects the learning and thinking of the student. We propose that this change be done on a phased basis, ideally over the coming three-year period.

The benefits of using a national, State-certified school leaving examination as the basis for selection to higher education are obvious. It is available to all students under the same conditions with results quality-assured by the State. It also ensures continuity and comparability year-on-year so that higher education applicants presenting results from different years are treated equitably.

The Central Applications Office, CAO, points system provides an objective and transparent allocation of places, by order of merit, based on leaving certificate achievement. The points system has been designed on the basis of stable grades but the Covid-induced changes over the past two years has destabilised the results trend. In 2019, 207 students achieved a maximum score of six H1 grades but two years later, in 2021, this had grown to 1,342 students. That is an increase of more than 600% in just 24 months. This has distorted the entry threshold to third level, and I have given just one example from the data, with a particular inequity to applicants presenting results from earlier years.

The IUA proposes that the system immediately reverts to an agreed and stable grade distribution model. That would ensure that the leaving certificate results can continue to serve as the mainstream selection mechanism for entry into third level.

The timing of leaving certificate results is a particular problem even in normal years. Results in mid-August means that first college offers cannot be made until the third week of August at the earliest. Second and third round offers come well into September often after college courses have started. The college offers for students who appeal their results can arrive a number of weeks into the college year. This all needs to changes for two key reasons. First, it gives students and their families an unacceptably short timeframe to find student accommodation and make other practical arrangements. Second, it is out of line with most other European countries, including the UK, where college offers are made in July or even earlier in some cases. Let us say an Irish student has applied for a course in an Irish university and a university in Manchester may feel compelled to accept the UK course for fear of not getting a place in Ireland.

The IUA is firmly of the view that these timelines are no longer fit for purpose. We propose that students should be in possession of their results no later than the end of June of any given year. This would allow the CAO to process results, and for offers and acceptances to higher and further education to be completed by the end of July. This would allow students to make rational choices regarding their preferred study options or career options and enable them, and their families, a reasonable period to make the necessary practical arrangements, especially those regarding accommodation but also fees and grants. This process would also allow for the leaving certificate appeals process to be completed well before the start of the academic year.

The delivery of results within this revised timeline is entirely feasible with less emphasis on the final examination, and a greater use of a range of continuous assessment options. The IUA proposes that immediate steps are taken to introduce this revised timeline in 2022.

In summary, the IUA proposals are centred on four key issues: a more equitable leaving certificate, allowing all students to reach their full potential; a greater range of more authentic assessment in the leaving certificate; more stable results to maintain equivalences across years; and, importantly, earlier results.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, instigated a phased and considered review of the senior cycle in 2016. It is evident that the impact of Covid has stimulated acceleration in this discussion.

Let us first acknowledge the key role of upper secondary education and the separate fact that it commands domestic and international respect. We might also be mindful of the strong social and intergenerational connection among individuals educated in Ireland. The external view from the OECD is: "Senior cycle enjoys high levels of trust in the public, and its final assessment (the Leaving Certificate) is strongly rooted in the national culture."

The enforced creation of calculated grades and accredited grades processes in 2020 and 2021 lends additional importance to this topic. The impact of the pandemic on student engagement and assessment prompted a level of mitigation that has resulted in consequent problems for selection in at least some higher education programmes. It effectively compromised the greater granularity that resulted from the 2017 review of the grading system.

The initial question might usefully be around what the review is trying to achieve. Any critique of the leaving certificate tends to converge on key elements: the sense that the senior cycle has too narrow a focus and that curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment could be calibrated better to prepare candidates for a fast-changing world; the pressure imposed by the final concentrated summative assessment; the shifting purpose from what was a final award with significant currency to what is now essentially a portal to further or higher education; and, finally, consideration of fostering lifelong learning and facilitating a better continuity of approach to ease transition and assimilation.

Taking these in turn, the relevancy and currency of the curriculum can be anticipated to be focal points in the advisory report. THEA has encouraged a broadening of the scope of the curriculum to recognise differing intelligence and to encompass more active and problem-based learning. If we are to shift cultural perceptions and to value all learning equally, and if we wish to realise a moment when students will contemplate pursuing an apprenticeship just as readily as an academic programme, then we need to broaden an inclusive curriculum to reflect better the diversity of what a modern society requires.

There have been calls to do away with assessment altogether. We should learn from recent examples of mitigations that have tended, unwittingly, to relocate a problem. In the absence of a graded and respected leaving certificate, it is likely that many students and parents will look to replace it with something such as the international baccalaureate. Any such decision would have consequences for Ireland’s educational reputation, which the OECD attests.

It is important to recognise that assessment drives learning. Authentic and timely assessment is for learning. Properly calibrated, it helps to develop students' ability to evaluate themselves and make judgments to enhance their own performance. Ireland is somewhat of an outlier in our secondary education's historic reliance on summative assessment for certification purposes. This expresses itself mostly in written tasks, which favour a particular type of intelligence. It is conservative and innately iniquitous. The lessons from Covid, the embrace of a digital world, and the technical facility of younger generations all propose that we should explore a far greater component of formative assessment. This will require stakeholder buy-in but the benefits for learning and student welfare are indisputable.

The leaving certificate was once a passport to many jobs. This has changed and most employers seek evidence of a post-secondary qualification. Thus, the purpose has altered. This has impacted the scope of the examination. Greater choice and a larger component of self-directed learning would be more consistent with the ambitions for lifelong learning. It makes practical sense to utilise the leaving certificate as a contributing determinant in selection for higher education. Replacing it or supplementing it with a separate matriculation process would simply transfer pressure as well as adding a significant administrative burden. The CAO system is elective and it has the quality of being dispassionate. It is publicly valued for its link to State-managed appraisal. THEA supports the retention of the system but with an altered assessment approach and an earlier indication point that takes the pressure off the learner, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, the CAO and the receiving colleges. This presupposes a greater proportion of formative assessment and a more modular approach.

We must also guard against the tail wagging the dog. The simple truth is that higher education is open to all with ambition and reasonable application. The headlines and the pressures centre on a delimited number of high-demand programmes with finite places. In seeking to reform the system, we might usefully separate out this smaller cohort of programmes for particular attention.

Concerning continuity of the pedagogical approach, learning and assessment in second level is different from that to be expected in higher education. There would be appreciable merit in aligning approaches so that not just the final examination but the substance and the mode of the senior cycle better prepare our citizens for lifelong learning whenever and wherever they might choose to pursue it.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I thank the committee for the opportunity given to HECA to present to the committee. HECA is the representative body for private Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, validated higher education institutions. In our view, the leaving certificate should be a capstone assessment of students' entire second level learning experience. Instead, it is used to allocate third-level places. One may ask what is at stake in this regard; it is €336,800. This is the value on the international marketplace of six years of medical education given to students who attain the highest number of points. This is compared to €3,000 for another student. I want people to dwell for a moment on this disparity. We see the disparity between the world market value of €336,000 for a medical education and €3,000 for recipients of some courses. We must bear in mind the €336,000 is allocated on the toss of a roulette wheel called random selection. I suggest this is another obscenity.

In response, students game the system, as acknowledged by a former Minister for education. They focus on subjects leading to maximum points as opposed to personal development. The assessment requires absolute precision in marking for fairness in the hugely diverging resource allocations. Every mark has to be justified. This makes the examination more predictable and easier to game.

Equity demands fundamental change. I have asked myself how we can liberate the leaving certificate from this burden, this heavy responsibility, of being the deciding factor in the allocation of those hugely diverging resources. One politically difficult approach would be to have unrestricted entry to third level, which would release that burden from the leaving certificate, and places would be granted on the basis of first-year performance within the higher education institutions, as is the case in France. Another politically difficult approach would be to provide additional places to meet demand and funding them, if necessary, from student loans.

Two less difficult alternatives would be to create alternative pathways for disappointed students and to introduce alternative access credits, which I will discuss. Assessment options should reflect the student voice and their range of abilities; stagger assessment throughout the senior cycle, providing performance measures that support different learning styles; increase the focus on formative learning, creative assessment, experiential learning and progression paths; address an inclusive curriculum embracing specialisations, apprenticeships, voluntary work and life skills; and replace the predict-and-memorise emphasis and 100% summative assessment with group work, presentations, multimedia project work such as podcasts, video and reflective writing or blogging, and portfolios reflecting an assessment of practical soft skills, for instance, communication, teamwork, analytical reasoning and critical thinking, which are not currently assessed. They should also give credits for community activities, sporting and personal achievements and micro-credential type credits.

Digital technology and digital learning environments, as well as learning technology professionals employed in schools, would improve teaching and assessment, digital literacy, core e-safety skills and online safety and ethics, and promote more novel ways of interaction. Curriculum expansion should cover emerging technologies and more flexible delivery options. Key subjects would include the proper referencing of sources and the avoidance of plagiarism. Referencing should become the "fourth R", along with reading, writing and arithmetic. Laptops should be provided and Internet connectivity improved to close the digital divide.

On access, equality and well-being supports, improved consideration is needed of the challenges to learners with disabilities and disadvantage and in large class sizes. A dedicated task force should be created to identify initiatives to increase further education participation rates in Dublin 1, 2, 13 and 17 and other unrepresented districts nationwide. As I said to this committee on the previous occasion I presented to it, the participation rate in Dublin 6 is 99%, whereas that in Dublin 13 is 17%. That difference is obscene.

On higher and further education requirements in respect of vocational options and career paths, the CAO and one-to-one career guidance should present all options, including apprenticeships and further and higher education, and focus on future potential career roles with support from regional skills forums, SOLAS, Intreo and the expert group on future skills needs. Transition between programmes should be facilitated by flexibility. Alumni support groups could advise on post-school experience. I feel strongly about the current cap of 450 points applying to further education students for transfer to higher education. If a student coming from a further education college applies to the CAO, his or her points will be limited to 450, no matter how well he or she has performed. Often, students coming from further education colleges perform very well at third level.

On the Irish language and education, the language should be promoted as a living language, focusing on oral language and Irish in daily life, with continuous assessment. We should provide a national measurement scale as in English, such as TOEFL or IELTS, and require a certain proficiency.

On international best practice, students need the skills to be successful, global and national citizens and to be agile to change. New curriculums should focus not only on knowledge but also on the skills, values, attitudes and interpersonal awareness that are required in the 21st century.

Mr. Ken Whyte

The ETBI welcomes the invitation by the joint committee to its examination of leaving certificate reform, including recommendations involving Youthreach provision. Our submission draws on the knowledge of the education and training boards, ETBs, where about 3,700 places are provided annually in more than 100 Youthreach centres throughout the network.

About one third of all Youthreach learners successfully pursue the leaving certificate applied programme every year. This model meets the needs of a cohort of learners for whom the traditional format of school did not meet their needs. The leaving certificate applied model supports our Youthreach learners to continue their education and further their life opportunities. We advocate a senior cycle model comparable to the leaving certificate applied model which embraces vocational subject specifications that lead to competence in vocational skills for learners.

Managers and practitioners within Youthreach settings agree that the leaving certificate applied model provides the opportunity to support the non-linear nature of progression experienced by many Youthreach learners. It is incumbent on us to prepare our Youthreach learners with transversal and technology skills to support their future career choices. In regard to provision, the proposed reform of the leaving certificate must ensure that the learners’ capabilities are realised through the different strands and choices in senior cycle education; subject specifications should prepare learners for lifelong learning, in addition to academic attainment; and delivery approaches should embrace interactive, experiential, and practical modes of teaching and learning. Alternative means of assessment, such as skills demonstration, and assessment performance that provide for incremental and continuous assessment over the two years of the programme are recommended.

Measures of reform should include the integration of higher order skills, reflective thinking and interpersonal skills, as well as technological and digital literacy supports. We note the need for literacy and numeracy supports concurrent with the leaving certificate programme to widen participation and overcome learning barriers. There should be an integration of models, such as universal design for learning, UDL, into the curriculum with increased levels of inclusion. Leaving certificate reform should aim to challenge social inequality by actively enabling the progression options best suited to the learners’ aspirations and interests, including paths to apprenticeships, further education and training, FET, higher education and traineeships.

I again mention that the literacy and numeracy deficits remain major concerns. Improved post-primary level supports in these areas are an essential part of reform. Learner support should also meet the needs of groups experiencing socio-economic disadvantage, ethnic minorities and learners with a disability, and should focus on eliminating economic inequality, which might include the costs associated with transport and materials.

Broader awareness of the wide range of options available to learners has become even more important with the ongoing restructuring of the CAO portal. Learners will now have a range of further education and training, including post-leaving certificate and apprenticeships options, available to them and it is vital that all learners are aware of these options. I thank the committee for this opportunity.

I call the first member of our committee to contribute, Deputy Alan Farrell, followed by Deputy Jim O’Callaghan. Deputy Farrell has eight minutes.

I do not propose to use my full allocation of time. I confirm I am in Leinster House. I thank our witnesses. As this meeting was couched as a round-table discussion, my questions are probably somewhat broad. I appreciate the witnesses’ statements and submissions provided.

I have three main queries. What are the views of the witnesses on potential reform of the leaving certificate in the context of assessment by teachers, notwithstanding the opening remarks of one or two of them? How do the witnesses propose we deal with educational disadvantage? We were provided with a rather stark example of the numbers attending third level institutions between Dublin 4 and Dublin 13. Interrelated with that, notwithstanding the amount of support provided to third level students with IT equipment, among other things in recent months, what more could we do? General confidence in the leaving certificate and CAO process was expressed a couple of times. How do we retain that level of confidence among the general public for those processes while affecting change that would be beneficial?

My last point is a remark rather than a question. It relates to the problems that Covid-19 created for the leaving certificate and entry into third level when the number achieving the highest level mushroomed to approximately 1,300. What can we learn from that in the context of the number of courses that were provided across third level institutions? This is not directed at any particular speaker, but somebody might like to tackle it.

Mr. Jim Miley

I might address two of the questions briefly. In terms of the potential reform of assessment and having that done by teachers, the NCCA has reported and we understand the report is with the Minister and due to be published shortly. We expect that report will deal comprehensively with the assessment issue. We understand the challenges that teachers and teacher representative bodies have with assessment. We would point out that assessment by teachers or in our case lecturers is a standard format in the third level system and is done to the very highest international standards with independent validation. There are mechanisms through which it can be done and done effectively. We would await the NCCA report and moves in that regard.

In regard to the Deputy's third question, the question of retaining confidence in the system while changes are made is fundamental. We have made comments about reform but we do so in the context that the leaving certificate is a State-certified exam and has an intrinsic value notwithstanding the challenges we see with it. It is important to retain the leaving certificate as a State-certified process to offer to students, regardless of whether they are moving directly on to a career or taking different pathways. It is important that the reform process happens and that we maintain confidence over the next number of years.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank Deputy Farrell for his questions. One of the points I made was around the work done by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. There is a disparity between the experience that students meet at second level and third level, and much could be done around that. That includes assessment. The first two enhancement themes for the national forum were transitions and assessment. There is very good work and learning done on that. I agree with Mr. Miley that when the advisory report comes out, a greater volume of continuous assessment would be likely in that context.

Turning to the question of educational disadvantage, one of the lessons we have seen from the Covid-19 experience is that a small amount of targeted support can make an enormous difference. We are not talking about volumes of money, but certainly broadband, counselling and availability of laptops became huge issues. There were stories of students driving to carparks to take up the Wi-Fi of the college.

On the question of confidence, what we are seeing are blip years with the leaving certificate. There is a matter of recalibrating. Certainly the work that was done on the regrading in 2017 deliberately brought in greater granularity to avoid precisely this type of thing. We will end up with cross-generational disparity but we can resume.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Regarding assessment by teachers, our problem there is subjectivity. The problem really is that one teacher may assess his or her own student differently from another teacher. That process is actually desirable. It is a process that happens in third level all the time. Essentially the solution is not to focus on the problem but to liberate the leaving certificate from the consequences of that assessment. Why do we have to be objective? Why must we have a precise base of allocation? It is because of what is at stake. There is too much at stake.

How do we deal with that? Dr. Ryan suggested we segregate the high-end programmes and have a different allocation mechanism for them.

We should also be looking at more creative options, and more of them, for people so that if a student loses out as a result of a subjective assessment by one teacher that favours another student and a negative assessment from another teacher, there are other options for that student. If we are seriously to take on board the points that have been made about experiential assessment, portfolios, project work and all of those things, we are going to be dealing with subjective assessment. That is going to be a reality. The important thing is to release the leaving certificate from the consequences of that.

The key point in a disadvantaged student's life is probably early stage education, both first and second level education. We need to look at the expenditure on that and assess its effectiveness. We need targets. I would like to see, for instance, a target of entry to third level for a certain number of students and I would like the expenditure to be measured against that. That sounds like a commercial perspective but there are limited resources and it is our responsibility to get the maximum benefit from those resources. The resources should be judged by their effectiveness. That is what I would say for disadvantaged students.

The problems created by Covid-19 are probably precursors of the kinds of problems we are going to face as we move to more subjective assessment. We can, through proper training and comparisons of results, bring more objectivity into individual teacher assessment. We are going to be dealing with those issues anyway. The challenge is getting it right and making sure those who are disappointed as a result have alternatives.

I thank Professor Hegarty.

May I come in?

You may, very briefly. The Deputy has exceeded his time limit by a minute and a half, and I want to be fair to everybody.

What the professor is proposing for higher end or higher cost courses would present further barriers to students across the nation, would it not? Perhaps he could provide an answer to that later in the course of the discussion.

On the timeliness of results, and forgive me if the reply to this was indicated in the written submission to the committee I have not had the opportunity to go through yet, but is it the international norm for the results at the end of secondary education to be awarded in July, thus presenting an opportunity for repeats or course choices? How do we compare internationally?

On bridging the gap and transition, I do not understand how that would form part of the leaving certificate in terms of the lived experience of students at third level. Perhaps our guests would like to go into that.

Our guests can answer those questions if there is time at the end.

I appreciate that.

I thank our guests for their contributions. I found them particularly exciting, if I can use that word, because I feel there is an historic opportunity for us to grasp reform of the leaving certificate and do something with it. I do not think anybody who has been through it or who has a family member going through it or who is in the system can pretend it should stay as it is. Even the term "leaving certificate" is a complete misnomer because I do not think anybody genuinely expects that the majority of students will use it as an entry into the workforce. It does not provide an entry into the workforce. It is an entrance examination for the next academic phase for most students.

We have a particularly unequal education system, which is especially pronounced at second level. Second-level schools compete against each other. Social mobility means there is a push to get into what is perceived to be, in any given community, a more academic school, which can sometimes be fee-paying and sometimes not. As a result, there is a stepping-stone effect with the most desirable or second-most desirable schools and, at the end of that entire ladder, there is always a school in any given community that has a disproportionate number of migrant and Traveller children in addition to children with special educational needs. We allow those schools to exist because we want to allow social mobility, and choice and competition between second-level schools, to continue. It is the patronage model and we are stuck with it unless we decide to have a referendum on it.

The point is it is already very unequal. As has been said, people can game the system to try to buy results by getting grinds. Certain second-level schools cannot even offer higher-level subjects because they cannot justify the resources. Those subjects include higher-level maths and Irish so how can someone be a primary school teacher if he or she goes to that school? He or she cannot. It is already particularly unequal. Some 85% of students who attend disadvantaged second-level schools do the leaving certificate. The average percentage of students, overall, who do it, is approximately 91% so 15% of disadvantaged students do not make it to the leaving certificate at all.

We also have the issue of piled-on pressure at the end of sixth year, which does not indicate anybody's ability in anything. It might make someone good at training to be a politician, where he or she does all his or her work at the end of five years and pretends he or she has been working very hard all the way through. Most of us do. Anyway, it is all piled in at the end to prove your worth. It is not surprising many young people do not make it through. It is also not surprising that the lesson they have learned and the training they have received in the second-level system does not in any way equip them for the future.

My main focus is on getting the witnesses' reflections on what I have said about the inequalities within the system. Does the system in any way equip young people to be the best of themselves, to think independently, to trust their own judgments and opinions and to have the self-confidence to go to the next stage of their lives? Is it just a hole they have to fill to get to the next point? I would be interested in comments on that. It is not directed at anybody in particular. I am just interested in the witnesses' reflections.

Mr. Jim Miley

I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy's view that we have a stratified second-level system with deep-seated inequality within it. It is certainly something we are very conscious of. The question is what changes we can make to the leaving certificate to try to cater for the varying learning styles, not just abilities. We all know people who have come through the leaving certificate and are brilliant at particular aspects of life and learning but who cannot do a written examination and fail abysmally as a result.

The curricular assessment report will, hopefully, deal with this issue comprehensively but we have done this already in junior cycle. There has been substantial reform of the junior cycle where the broader skills base and interests of students are catered for. When speaking to second-level students, as I have, they will say they did fine in primary school and up to junior cycle, but once they hit fifth year they fell off a cliff. The model of reform of junior cycle gives us something to work with, combined with the assessment piece we spoke about previously.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Deputy for his questions and reflections. There has been a lot of talk about learning to the test, what that does and the fact that it is not consistent or constant with the type of learning one needs to be able to embrace when one gets into third level.

If education is about bringing out the individual and building potential, it will be very different for different people and in different ways, hence the discussion on broadening the curriculum and recognising different skill sets.

My colleague raised the question of practical education. This committee has played a huge part in the development of the technological universities. You can see the impact they will have on the future prosperity and sustainability of regions and how they will fit in with national development plan. That type of practical learning is not central to our second level curriculum. It will require self-directed learning and taking the high-stakes element out of the leaving certificate. Going back to Deputy Farrell's point, the high stakes involved is a consequence of a small number of programmes and is not the reality, yet that culture has informed thinking on this.

I will be brief because I know others want to contribute. We are trying to build a research base in this country and we should look to do more about this in second level education. I know the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will focus on direction of exploration, which was not there during my time in secondary school. I know much has been done in that regard but it should be about increasing that. It encultures people before they enter third level education. Research is increasingly a component of undergraduate programmes. It is about the question of continuity.

Mr. Ken Whyte

On the targeted approach to help disadvantaged learners, the power of IT and devices has been referred to a number of times. There was an initiative during the Covid crisis, which stemmed from the Department and was delivered through SOLAS, to provide devices to many disadvantaged learners. It was a successful initiative at the time for what was needed. It showed the power of that sort of support for disadvantaged learners.

I wish to refer to two matters. First is the damaging effects weak literacy has on students as they work through the system. I wish to emphasise how difficult it is to perform in the leaving certificate if you do not have the literacy and numeracy skills required for that level on coming out of the junior cycle. Second, the role of guidance services needs to be emphasised also.

I call Mr. Hegarty to contribute briefly, and we will then return to Deputy Ó Ríordáin to wrap up.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Deputy Ó Ríordáin has asked a fundamental question. I have been teaching for 50 years and one thing I have learned from students is that what is learned is what is assessed. If a topic is not on the exam, it will not get the students' attention. Mr. Miley rightly talked about students falling off the cliff when moving from transition year to fifth year. It is because the assessment completely changes. The focus of the assessment in the leaving certificate is utterly different. I completely agree with the Deputy about education preparing students for life. It is about much more than an academic education. It prepares them for life, not just for work. All those skills developed in transition year need to be better assessed in the leaving certificate so that people do not fall off the cliff. It should be a continuation. That is the short answer to the Deputy's question.

I have a general point to make. Professor Hegarty referred to the reform of the junior certificate. From my memory, that was not an easy process to go through at the time, although it was not suggested that people go into the workforce with only a junior certificate. The timing and way in which that programme was reformed meant it was a difficult process. That experience probably put the political system off reforming the leaving certificate.

That said, I appeal to the people involved in this process to ask themselves what the point of this is. If we were to put the student at the heart of this process, we would construct an entirely different system, but we always seem to have every other agency or interest group pulling and dragging at the system. If middle Ireland likes something because it has been through it and it has been successful for it, then middle Ireland will want to defend it. However, we are not here for middle Ireland; we are here for every young person in the system.

I do not think any young person going through it, regardless of their background, feels that it reflects them. Even if they have a successful process through it, most young people are still terrified by it. Why we have scared young people in our second level schools is something we should all reflect on. I thank the witnesses for their contributions.

I agree with the Deputy. I found the presentations and briefing notes very interesting because we are starting to move to the crux of the matter, which is how we try to balance tensions between having an external, fair exam and how we can match it up with a continuous assessment model. We all agree the leaving certificate rewards a specific, narrow set of skills. We want to move beyond that to reward wider critical thinking skills and different learning styles, in particular. It is frustrating we are doing this still blind of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, report. It would be much more helpful if we could discuss the matter in that context.

I will ask a broad question first and, if we have time, I will come back to more granular issues. It builds on what Deputy Ó Ríordáin talked about. I would like the witnesses to comment on the students who arrive at third level, especially in the context of the type of exam we have exposed them to or the meritocracy we have created through the leaving certificate and how that prepares them for their first year in college. Do we find our leaving certificate students are struggling because they have suddenly moved to a different learning model or are they well equipped? I suspect it is probably the former. I will start off with that broad question and give the witnesses the opportunity to respond. How well is our leaving certificate system preparing students, not just for college, but for life after the leaving certificate? It is a wide question.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Deputy for his question. I will be brief to allow other colleagues in. We are certainly not proposing to attack the leaving certificate and say it is all bad. There is much that is good in the leaving certificate. I fully agree with the Deputy that it would be very helpful if the NCCA report was published. We would have a much more informed discussion if we had that.

I used to teach in third level. At one stage, we had people coming in from second level who were very able students, but we had to put in remedial work at the start of first year just to get them into that. It had to do with differing learning styles. I talked recently to the parent of a very bright child in third level who said he or she was finding it very difficult. Again, it was that dislocation or the question of a different style. To put it quite frankly, our leaving certificate tends to be quite traditional in its way. The world is fast-moving and that is where the focus needs to be over the next period.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

To answer the Deputy's question, we have to look at the assessment, which focuses people's attention in fifth and sixth year. The kind of question I would ask is to what extent students in those two years spend their time on the predicting and memorising game and to what extent they spend their time on group work, group presentations, multimedia projects, producing podcasts and videos, reflective writing and preparing portfolios? They might do that if they are going to study design. To what extent are skills in communication, teamwork, analytical reasoning and critical thinking assessed on a day-to-day basis in school, as opposed to preparing students for their mark in the leaving certificate by which they and their teachers are rated under the existing system? Those are the questions that have to be asked and we have to get straight answers to them.

Mr. Ken Whyte

If I was to be blunt, I would say the leaving certificate does not prepare students for anything. It is simply designed to assess a certain amount of knowledge at a particular point in time to facilitate entry to another process. It is a gate and no more than that. One of the reasons we have been so supportive of the leaving certificate applied model is that it has a broad range of competencies that are assessed on an ongoing basis over the two-year period. If one was being very honest, the answer to the Deputy's question is it does not prepare students.

To be fair, it probably is not designed to do so. It is designed to fulfil a certain other purpose. Perhaps the question about leaving certificate reform should be turned on its head to look at what we do want the examination to do in the first place, after which we can work back and consider how we assess it.

I have two further questions relating to more granular concerns. Mr. Whyte made particular reference to literacy and numeracy. It has often struck me, particularly around languages, that if somebody is not necessarily a very capable language learner, he or she will probably struggle with three or four of the seven subjects being taken for the leaving certificate examination. Obviously, numeracy is extremely important, but students who struggle with it can at least make the choice to limit it to one subject. It has always struck me that English, Irish and a European language make up three of the seven subject choices.

Mr. Whyte referred in his presentation to extending digital learning to small or remote schools in order to afford greater access to curriculum options. This issue has been discussed by the social protection committee. I am interested in whether Mr. Whyte is proposing a particular model for the certification in Gaeilge to which he referred. Is he talking for example, about the European common framework? I would appreciate if he could answer those two discrete questions.

Mr. Ken Whyte

Regarding small schools, I will keep my answer within reference to the Youthreach scheme, if I may, which is the particular area I am discussing today. We discovered during the Covid period that by being able to extend digital skills to smaller centres, particularly Youthreach centres, which often have weaker learners and much smaller numbers, it allowed us to keep those learners in the education system and get them to the leaving certificate applied examination. Without investing in that technology, it would not have happened for them. During the Covid period, the disparity between those who had access to digital capability, and all the tools that go with it, and those who did not was quite broad. Students who did not have access were severely disadvantaged. It is the nature of society that the more disadvantaged one is, the further one is from achieving educationally. That is one of the reasons we draw attention to this issue.

On the point regarding literacy and numeracy, we have found, particularly through the Youthreach model over 30-odd years, that the impact of literacy and numeracy deficits can be devastating for a young person. It is hard to believe that someone can get to 16 years of age and be barely able to write a letter or comprehend a piece of normal English writing. We are not even talking about foreign languages. People do not realise the impact that has on an individual. This is one of the things the leaving certificate applied examination assesses, and the Youthreach model is very much about increasing those skills. Without good literacy and numeracy skills, one cannot get into an electrician apprenticeship scheme, for instance, and one will suffer in many other apprenticeship schemes. With all due respect, nobody wants an electrician with poor literacy or numeracy skills wiring a fuse board. I fully agree with the Deputy on the importance of this issue. It is a problem we have not yet got to the bottom of and it impacts on the leaving certificate examination down the road. We keep drawing attention to it because we consider it very important.

With the Chairman's indulgence, I have one more question. It is one that probably will receive a one-word answer and I suspect that I know what the word will be. We have been talking a great deal about well-being in schools and directing students to different pathways than those on which we are currently focused, such as the pathway to third level. Do we need to invest more in guidance counselling services in second level schools?

Mr. Jim Miley

Absolutely.

I suspected there would be a one-word answer.

Do any of the witnesses want to flesh out the response to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's last point? There is time available to do so.

Mr. Jim Miley

I certainly agree on the career guidance point. It is absolutely critical. I want to make one comment regarding the leaving certificate examination. I tend to focus very much on looking at solutions rather than focusing on the problem. However, if we analyse the problem with the examination, it is not just that it is not suitable for some students; it is fair to say that there is a significant minority of students who are actually damaged by the leaving certificate process.

Mr. Jim Miley

That needs to be carefully analysed in any reform process. Whatever we do, we should not be damaging students. The examination drops some of them back for life, in my view.

I think we all were damaged by the leaving certificate. Obviously, it is more pronounced in certain groups but everyone here can relate to having nightmares, as adults, about the examination, including those who were successful in it. We were all damaged by it and it certainly needs reform.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I agree completely with the Deputy's point about career guidance. It would help career guidance teachers to carry out their function if they were supported effectively by the regional skills fora, SOLAS, Intreo and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. If there were regular conferences between those bodies and career guidance teachers, the latter would be aware of current skills needs and how students need to equip themselves to prepare for the current labour market.

This has been a very thoughtful discussion, to which everybody, on all sides of the table, has come with an open mind. That is really welcome. I am a little surprised, in a good way, that after three sessions, there is the vague outline of areas of agreement. There is not quite a consensus but there has been substantial agreement across many of the organisations from which we have heard. First, there is clear agreement that the weight of emphasis that is put on a terminal examination is excessive. That has been expressed by all the groups that have come before the committee. We need to work towards a system where students have an opportunity to build up credits, however that is structured.

Another issue where there is agreement is one we have not discussed much today but in respect of which I am more convinced of the need for action the more we talk about it. This is the need radically to expand the number of people going into apprenticeships. I am especially convinced of its importance because no matter what shape of system we envision, and we can certainly make the system much better, if there is more demand than space because there is too much emphasis on higher education, people will find ways of gaming the system. No matter what system we set up, people will find a way to game it. Culturally and policy-wise, a huge part of what we need to do is to transform the perception of apprenticeships and how they are integrated into the system. Mathematics is going to be very important in this regard because many trades, especially the emerging trades, are focused on precision, and that requires mathematics skills.

There are other areas on which there is less agreement, one being the question of external versus internal assessment. I understand the point Professor Hegarty made in this regard. I approach the matter with an open mind but my gut instinct is that the relationship between student and teacher at second level is different from the relationship at third level. We need to take account of that.

My first question is for Professor Hegarty. I will try to ask all the questions together, hoping that the witnesses will be able to keep track of them. In some ways, the idea of separating out the leaving certificate examination from the process of access to third level is appealing. To be fair to the people who designed the examination, it was never really envisioned or planned as such a mechanism. Industrially, we were in a different world when the leaving certificate was introduced but, since then, it has become a mechanism for accessing third level education. If we are to separate it out, we need fair and objective criteria for allocating third level places. One possible problem is the potential for duplication.

Second, Deputy Ó Ríordáin made an important point about what middle Ireland likes. There are things middle Ireland might prefer but there are dangers in that. I would feel a certain hesitancy in regard to personal statement interviews and other methods that are open to bias on the grounds of class, gender and race. As I said, I approach all of this with an open mind, but we need to be careful of that. If we are going to have a separate system for allocating third level places, what should that system be and how do we avoid duplication? I have a related question for all the witnesses on an issue to which Professor Hegarty referred in his presentation, namely, open access, as in the French system. Such a system would be very expensive but we owe it to students to consider and discuss all the options. I am interested in any comments from the witnesses in that regard.

I have a question for Dr. Ryan and Mr. Miley.

I am cautious in putting this question because our dealing with the leaving certificate and reform of it need not be focused on this, but we need to take consideration of it. What are the skills deficits that students coming out of the leaving certificate have? I emphasise that this is not the focus of why we need to reform the leaving certificate, but we need to be aware of it and we need to take account of it.

My final question is for Mr. Whyte. In my experience, learners in Youthreach are quite diverse and people will be in Youthreach for a wide variety of reasons. Without being too prescriptive, if Mr. Whyte was designing a new leaving certificate do we need to continue to have a leaving certificate and the leaving certificate applied? Would Mr. Whyte prefer if a reformed leaving certificate could cater for the people currently doing the leaving certificate applied just as it is, without a separate streaming programme or is it an integration of the two? Is it possible to create a leaving certificate that can cater for all learners without a different stream or a different channel? I am open-minded on those questions.

Mr. Ken Whyte

I will deal with the apprenticeship question as I have a large interest in apprenticeships in Waterford and Wexford, but first I will address the Youthreach question.

Today we are focused on the leaving certificate applied but two thirds of Youthreach learners also do QQI modules. We should not forget that the leaving certificate applied is one route they take to get where they want to get to.

In answer to the Deputy's question, yes it would be wonderful, and no it probably will not happen. The difficulty is, to design a system that would comprehend all learners in a system that allows multiple assessments, practical demonstrations and the whole thing, would perhaps be a gargantuan challenge. It would be wonderful but it might be just a step too far. It is a bit like trying to eat an elephant; sometimes it must be done one bite at a time and cannot all be done at one sitting.

The leaving certificate applied is particularly useful for the variety for one third of learners because they have not survived in a school setting. Going back to Deputy Ó Ríordáin's point about the four types of school in an area. There is always a fifth. There is also a Youthreach centre somewhere that is there to help those learners who do not survive in the other four types of school, and they do a very good job.

On the apprenticeship question, I agree with the Deputy. We have a very significant presence in apprenticeship in Waterford and in Wexford, and we plan to have a bigger one in Wexford in time to come. I wish to be very clear about apprenticeships. There is also the role of traineeships, which are a very appropriate model, and sometimes more appropriate for the type of craft that one wants to develop than apprenticeship. Apprenticeship does not suit all types, to be frank.

The second factor with an apprenticeship is that it must be planned. It is an enormously expensive provision to have. It normally must be planned for two to two and half years in. If we want an electrical workshop put in somewhere we need to think one to one and a half years ahead. While we are certainly trying to go through an emergency response at the moment, that will not kick in until next summer. If we are predicting greater numbers down the road we need to invest now to have the provision in two and a half or three years' time, and then have continuous investment. This matter has been looked at.

The third part of the question is whether apprenticeship should be within the whole CAO system anyway. This is being piloted at the moment, and hopefully down the road it will be included.

Sometimes guidance counsellors do not pay the same level of attention to apprenticeship because it is not seen as a valid career choice. Some guidance counsellors see it as something one does if one does not get into university. I am not saying that they all do, but perhaps some guidance counsellors do not pay apprenticeship the attention that it deserves.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Deputy for the questions. I have been following this discussion over the previous sessions, and I would like to pick up a couple of points. The Deputy spoke about a thoughtful conversation. I compliment the Chairman and the committee. I have been very impressed, even this morning. I was very much taken by the Deputy's comment about the different relationship between the teacher and pupil at second level and third level. It is a very well-made point. To some extent at second level, as people advance through, it is a question of letting go and increasingly allowing them to take responsibility. This goes to the point about what are the skills deficits when people come in.

I echo Mr. Whyte's comments on apprenticeship and I fully agree with him. Our society is a complex organism and it needs lots of different skills. There is a question, however, about valuing all those skills equally. This may go to the point of whether we have three different types of leaving certificate or whether it is possible to have all of that in one. This is why we need the report to have a look at some of this.

On the question of apprenticeship, the Deputy mentioned the point of perception, which is a key part of this. We had the old apprenticeships and we have the new apprenticeships but we still call them apprenticeships. In the public mind, people do not necessarily distinguish between these things. I believe they may have an old-fashioned sense around this. It may have something to do with the marketing of this. There is also something about lifelong learning and earn and learn. We especially need to look at the funding through the national training fund if employers are being taxed up to a certain percentage at this stage. It seems we have to have more conversation about that perception piece.

On the question of open access, I was talking to a senior member of a university in Europe. Anyone who wants to do medicine can come into that university. Of course, it has an enormous failure rate. This goes to the point made about cost. Common sense must come into play on this also.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I completely agree with the points Dr. Ryan made about apprenticeships. He was far more eloquent in making the point I made earlier that there must be other pathways. We need more apprenticeships and opportunities. The Germans have really lived this way. Their whole education system is built around this and it has been very effective for them. Ireland can do the same.

If we are to embrace apprenticeships, we need to have a policy of fluidity in progression. I will ask a simple question. Why can a nurse not transition to become a doctor? If we ask this question in relation to a whole range of professions, we then start looking at obstacles to progression within apprenticeships. Apprenticeships should be accepted as a completely equal and respectable route. They should not be regarded in the way Dr. Ryan described earlier, as traditional apprenticeships. If apprenticeship is to be regarded as an equal route, there must be equal opportunities for progression. We must eliminate those obstacles that exist, which reflect the rights of the professional elite. We have to remove those obstacles and have progression for apprentices. If we do that, we will have a definite opportunity to create an alternative route that would capitalise on the abilities I spoke about in answer to an earlier question, namely, the abilities to integrate analytical reasoning, to communicate and to work in teams. These are all abilities people will develop in the workplace. The apprenticeships will develop those, capitalise on them and make leaders out of those people.

I will bring in Mr. Miley now as I want to be fair to other speakers.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I apologise; I was getting enthusiastic there.

Mr. Jim Miley

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Hegarty's comments on the need to radically expand apprenticeships.

My colleague referred to critical thinking as a skills deficit. It is one of the key deficits of those who come into the third level system. The lack of critical thinking, group learning and group work are very much a feature of the experience as they come through from the leaving certificate.

On the question of whether the leaving certificate and entry to third level education should be separated, we have dealt with this in the more detailed submission to the committee. On balance, we believe that a State-accredited leaving certificate, or whatever it might be called as a result of a reformed process, should remain as the primary mechanism for entry into the third level system. It may not be perfect, but in an already strained system we could get into significant duplication of resources and costs. There is that bias issue. We had the matriculation exam in the past and there are still elements of it in one or two colleges for one or two courses. That was used at a time when the proportion of people who went through level education was very small.

It would be an enormous challenge to set up that system for 80,000 applicants a year. It would be ideal to maintain the leaving certificate and perhaps have some additional elements loaded on as part of the entry process while keeping the leaving certificate as the anchor.

Go raibh maith agaibh to all of our guests. I have been listening intently online for part of the meeting and now I am here. This is one of the most refreshing, honest and valuable conversations we have had around leaving certificate reform and what needs to be done. Our guests' experiences and their honesty are appreciated and will be valuable for the report we are trying to do and in identifying the priorities we want to come out of that report. We would not want to see 100 different recommendations and none of them implemented. We need to focus on some key things. I take on board in particular what Mr. Miley said about the transition, that it might take three years to do what we need to do on a phased basis while preserving the benefits of the leaving certificate as it is. It is easy for us to say it is all rubbish and we need to change it without concentrating on the positives. Quality assurance, continuity, comparability, equability and State certification are all important.

I have a question about the immediate challenge we face for the 80,000 students who will sit the leaving certificate examination this year. Dr. Ryan referred to the destabilisation of the results trend and the need to recalibrate. How do we do that in the immediate term? How do we get away from the use of the random selection to choose between applicants? There is an absolute unfairness in that and the sense of injustice for those who have been subject to it is ferocious. We need to deal with that issue.

I will turn to the barriers to cross-Border student mobility in higher education and the difference in the value of A levels and the leaving certificate. What part do our guests think we should play in reforming the leaving certificate and considering how we compare the A levels sat by students in the North to allow them to apply for courses in the different colleges across the island?

The Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA, stated the leaving certificate curriculum should be reformed to promote Irish as a living language. Could Professor Hegarty expand on that further and outline the type of teaching that students require? Does he believe there may be an issue with teacher fluency? Would this type of change require much retraining for teachers?

Mr. Jim Miley

I thank the Deputy for her incisive questions. She asked how we deal with the immediate challenge. I quoted some statistics earlier but another contained in our main submission to the committee is that in 2019, 13% of students achieved 500 points or more. The equivalent this year was 26%, which is double the amount. There are numerous other data points at which one can look. When we refer to recalibrating, we mean that we must level the curve. We cannot have another yo-yo effect next year whereby we dive into a valley again. Whatever decisions are taken must gently flatten the curve. Ideally, it should not sit at the level it is at and should come back down. That needs to be done on a transitionary basis. It needs to be carefully calibrated and if we do not do that, disadvantage will continue. Either next year's students or those from last year and the year before will be disadvantaged. Stability is absolutely critical, even if it is an imperfect system. We must get the system stable and then make the necessary changes.

The Deputy also mentioned the cross-Border issue. Our proposals around timing are important in that regard. Deputy Farrell earlier asked about the relative positions in other countries. In Sweden, students get the equivalent of the leaving certificate results on 10 June. In Finland, students get their results at the end of May. In Denmark, students get their results on 5 July. The results of the French baccalauréat are available in the first or second week of July. The results of the German Abitur are available by 15 July. As the committee is aware, results of the UK exams are available earlier than the results of our exams. More than that, UK universities make conditional offers to students, sometimes in March or April. We have a real challenge with attracting Northern Irish students, very few of whom study here. The timing issue is a considerable factor in that. A student in Antrim or Derry has a choice available in May or June, certainly by July, of an offer from a UK university. The student will ask whether to take the place or wait and hope. Of course that student will take the place. Some of our member universities made a considerable effort in the years before Covid-19 to recruit more students from Northern Ireland and did not succeed very well. Timing is one factor in addressing that issue. There are other issues around A levels but I am probably not best qualified to comment on those.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Deputy for her razor-sharp questions. I fully agree with the points Mr. Miley has made and will not labour them again. In reforming the leaving certificate a number of years ago, we tried to get greater granularity so we would avoid problems. Covid-19 has been the issue here. The unfairness extends, in particular, to students who are presenting with results from previous years. It seems to me that if the situation stays stable, there will have to be some mechanism to accommodate and recognise those issues for a period of time. It will not be perfect, as Mr. Miley said, but it is critical to try to get stability back into the system.

The leaving certificate has highly respected standards. I fully agree with Mr. Miley's point about retaining the leaving certificate as an element in determining places in higher education. For a few high-demand programmes, an extra piece may be required. There is an element of the tail wagging the dog to that.

The Deputy asked about the cross-Border piece. I am conscious of the work the Royal Irish Academy did on higher education futures. That is an all-island piece and, as the Deputy knows, the north west was a big feature of that. The fact that there is that all-island context to our shared island means there is a chance to look at that again. As Mr. Miley rightly said, there is less student traffic than one would have thought between the North and South. Given the situation at the moment, including the impact of Brexit, etc., there are questions around research and collaboration. The dynamic has changed somewhat in that regard. Our registrars have looked at this. They benchmark and it is possible that it is time to look at the issue again in that context.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

When the Deputy joined the meeting earlier, I noted and admired the assiduous notes she was taking. I return the compliment she gave us at the beginning. She asked questions about random selection and the Irish language to which I will reply. Random selection is a real problem. We must ask ourselves how many places are available in medicine and what is the limit. The limit is the number of clinical places. We must ask how many of those clinical places are actually taken up by non-EU students. It is a significant number. The universities must market medical education abroad to balance the books. The fees are substantial, but perhaps the Government would consider buying some of those places. That would give more places to Irish students and is one solution to the Deputy's question about random selection. The problem of the swelling of the numbers in random selection is a function of the pandemic.

We may have that problem again if we have more continuous assessment. I hope it is a temporary problem.

On the question of Irish, I will give the Deputy a very subjective answer to her question. My French is much better than my Irish. I can conduct a meeting in French with a French team. On a project in Vietnam, I found myself in a team of six where the other five were French speakers. Naturally, the language du travail was actually French and that was what you had to live with. Had the working language for that been Irish, I might have had more difficulty and that is a terrible thing to have to say to fellow Irish citizens. I believe it was because, in the teaching of Irish I experienced, I really did not develop a love for the language. I developed an affection for French. I had a great French teacher.

What do we need to solve the problem? It is too late to solve the problem for me, although maybe not. You never stop learning. What do we need to solve the problem in schools? We need to focus on oral Irish and on continuous assessment. We need to focus on the richness of the Irish language. I am not sure whether members heard, there was a poet called Máire and she died-----

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Máire Mhac an tSaoi.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Yes. There was a programme on RTÉ radio last night, I think it was "Arena", where they were talking about her work. They talked about how she felt in the Irish language that the language of affection and the language of emotion was so much richer in that regard. We must get that across to our young people in the teaching of Irish so they actually understand the richness of the language. They need to use it daily. It would be helpful in helping them if we had a measure of their skill, that is, something like Test of English as a Foreign Language, TOEFL, or the International English Language Testing System, IELTS, or something like that. We might then decide to set a national requirement. I have gone on too long already but I could go on at length in answer to the Deputy's question.

Deputy Conway-Walsh has a couple of seconds left if she wants to ask a question, but I will not allow the witnesses to come in until the very end.

We would need to have each contributor here in a separate session and we could fill it with us expanding and developing points about how the training of Irish language teachers needs to change and what we need to do on that to create a love of the language rather than a fear of it, which I think many of us have. I can identify with what Professor Hegarty is saying about not having the confidence to speak as Gaeilge.

Cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna agus gabhaim buíochas leo as a bheith linn. On that last point, I agree with Professor Hegarty there is certainly much more we can all be doing to try to generate a love of our first language in the country. We all understand incentives as well. Perhaps if a certain mastery of Irish were a requirement for progress within academic administration, and indeed if we were to go back to a rule around a certain mastery of Irish being necessary for advancement within the Civil Service, that might help as well. I do not think we should put it all down to the failure of the education system to engender a love of Irish, because it did not fail in every situation.

Returning to today's core business of leaving certificate reform, I wish to begin by suggesting a couple of principles I think we all agree on. One is that the individual learner and his or her needs should be placed at the centre of any redesign of the senior cycle. The second principle is the leaving certificate must be a fair measure of student accomplishment and achievement on all aspects of his or her learning during his or her years in senior cycle. If there is a third principle, it might be we must take the needs of industry and our country into account. If there is a fourth, it might be that the needs of academic administration and colleges, that is, their commercial and administrative needs, while important, must come in at that point in the pecking order of concern because we must serve the higher principles.

It is with that in mind I propose the first point. Surely if we are talking about a student-centred experience, we should be interviewing all candidates for college rather than treating them as mere CAO numbers? It happens to a degree with art and teacher training. There is no problem with there being a minimum requirement of points, let us say, for certain courses, but I heard what Mr. Miley had to say and, nothing to him personally, it sounded like a vested interest argument to be talking about resources and duplication. If it is going to be as student-centred as we say, should we not start that decoupling process by making it a requirement that people are interviewed for a college place?

The third level institutions are going to have them for the next four years so it would seem to be a worthwhile investment in people and in the process. I put that to Mr. Miley and the other witnesses.

Mr. Jim Miley

In an ideal world, interviewing all candidates would be welcomed by people, I think. It is not because the members we represent are shy of it. It is because the process to set that up would be extremely elaborate, comprehensive and costly. We have 60,000-odd students coming out of leaving certificate but we have 20,000 to 25,000 per year applying for college. We have, in total, upwards of 80,000 per year who apply. If we go back 30 or 40 years to when we had the matriculation, which probably was a precursor version of what the Senator is talking about, albeit through an exam, although there were also some interview processes back in the day, you were talking about some figure in the low thousands for entrants to third level. If you had a well-resourced third level system, that is something that could be considered, but as we have spoken about at this committee before, we have a very under-resourced third level system as it stands. Throwing something like that on top of an under-resourced system would further damage it in our view. We have considered it and we have referenced that in our submission. Our registrars have discussed this in recent weeks but on balance would say we should use a State-accredited system.

The resource issue is one aspect but the bias issue is another. We are a parochial country. Whether you are from Ahascragh or from Knockcroghery, you tend to know people in different parts of the country and everyone knows somebody. I would fear for a system that would have an over-reliance on that. Were you setting up that process, you would have to ensure you had very strong filters against bias and I am not sure how that would be constructed.

It might be better to recommend it though rather than deprecate it at this point, to recommend it subject to resources and to those safeguards. One possible issue, which I am not sure if it is something being considered, would be that the academic year in that first year would begin in January. You literally spend the time in that first term facilitating the interview and the change-of-mind process. This is a very important thing. Are we thinking outside the box sufficiently?

Dr. Joseph Ryan

The Senator's question is very well put. A bit like Mr. Miley, and I do not want to sound defensive, it is not about administration and looking after the administration. It is a question of whether it is sustainable to do something like this.

If I could approach it from the direction of the Senator's principles, I was with him on principles 1 and 2 but I was missing principle 3. I was thinking there was something else in there, namely, something about the individual, the development of the individual, actually getting the individual innate talents and how they are brought out, not to a curriculum, and how that might be captured. If we were to think about that for a second, that, to some extent, actually gets you into that sort of interview piece or individual piece. It is like those old stories of someone arriving into Oxford and sitting down with some old professor who would ask some daft question like, "Why are elephants big?" On the quality of that answer, the person's course was decided.

I was a registrar for the best part of two decades and would have worked with all colleagues on the CAO system. We were in Galway looking at all this. No more than I was saying in my statement earlier, most programmes are very straightforward. One can manage demand and supply very equitably. You try to give cross-generational fairness to that as well. It is very carefully managed.

The difficulty is in respect of a very small number of programmes, which is my point. I bring it back, then, to the interview piece and whether the proposal the Senator is making is proportionate to where the difficulty is and where the problem might seem to be.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I was fascinated to hear what the Senator said because he came up with a lot of interesting proposals as he developed his point.

I would like to hear what Professor Hegarty has to say.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Mr. Miley's response to the Senator was that if we are going to interview, the problem is objectivity. Ideally, all 80,000 applicants should be interviewed by the same person. I am not sure whether the Senator was volunteering for that, but it would be a major undertaking. Interestingly, as the Senator developed his proposal, it became clear, to my mind, that he was talking about interviewing not as a selection mechanism but more as a career guidance process. It is the idea that people would actually spend the first semester at university getting their minds clear. I am aware of many students who have started a programme and then discovered, perhaps after a year, that it does not suit them, and suddenly they have lost a year of funding. There is, therefore, a lot of merit in the Senator's proposal that people should have three months general education during which they can get their minds clear. That transition into third level is a new experience and many students realise in their first year that it is not for them. I think the Senator has got something there. Perhaps we could use interviewing. The whole process of the relationship students establish with their teachers in the first three months would be very valuable in helping them make the right decision.

I am out of time.

I will allow the Senator another minute or two.

Very good. There is some evidence that industry is not happy with the non-academic skills, for example, teamwork, problem-solving, work ethic and communications. A survey done by Accenture in February 2020 found that these skills were really lacking. Undergraduate programmes expect these skills to be acquired at home or in school. In many cases, students from disadvantaged backgrounds depend on school to teach such skills. However, the leaving certificate examination, as structured, does not measure that kind of activity or area of endeavour. Do the witnesses agree that the teaching of such skills needs to be included in the leaving certificate senior cycle? This would have implications for what we have just been talking about in terms of how people are assessed and selected for college courses.

Mr. Jim Miley

I wholeheartedly agree.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I, too, wholeheartedly agree. I will link this back to the Senator's previous question. I will not develop the point but there is a question for the committee around the role of transition year in something like this, that will link into it. In response to the Senator's direct question, higher education has a role to play. The focus also needs to be on us because we also have a responsibility. We have given a lot of thought to the first semester. It is about orientation and induction. There is a pattern by which we bring people into third level and they face exams two or three months later. A number of us have been asking for some years what the point of that is because there is something about that link back. As the Senator said, if there is a difference at the top of second level to prepare, equally, there might be a receiving piece in third level that helps that transition and integration.

Like Deputy Conway-Walsh, I was taking notes upstairs. I came down to the meeting prepared to ask certain questions A, B and C but I will change tack and ask a different question on the basis of what Senator Mullen said. Before I engage in the debate, I will say that I am in favour of an interview-type system but as the witnesses explained, the practicalities of that would be challenging. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire stated, such a system has an inherent potential for bias. At the same time, I believe that it is the ideal. As Senator Mullen asked, why can we not strive for the ideal?

Then again, I find the teacher in me questioning what can be learned in 15 minutes that could not be explained or examined by a teacher over two years, six years or whatever the case may be during senior cycle. It is worthwhile having the debate but the practicalities of it weigh heavily on me.

In relation to Professor Hegarty's comments on the Irish language, unfortunately, I spent 15 years teaching the language as a secondary school teacher. I have my own opinions as to where it falls down and what we can do better, but the one statistic that sticks out is that 58% or 59% of leaving certificate students took Irish last year as a leaving certificate examination subject. Between exemptions and students dropping out, it is obvious that students are voting with their feet when it comes to Irish and the numbers doing it are not what they should be for a compulsory subject. That is something we need to reflect on when we are talking about leaving certificate reform. I have my own opinions on Irish. The bonus point route is something that needs to be looked at. We need to give value to it, as we did with mathematics in the past, including by introducing applied mathematics as a distinct course. Perhaps we could introduce an applied Irish course. There is merit in studying that option because we need to place a value on Irish.

While I am on the topic of value, I listened upstairs with amusement to the debate on apprenticeships. Part of me thinks that if we offered apprenticeship courses that required 400 or 500 points in the leaving certificate, people would be beating down the doors to get on to the courses, such is their enthusiasm for the points race.

I have a few questions, which the witnesses can answer in any order they like. The first concerns Irish. I note that in its submission, the ETBI, made reference to the junior certificate reform. Like the ETBI in its submission, I welcomed the reform of Irish at junior certificate level. It gives students more variety, it uses technology and has presentation built into it, but it is much more difficult than the previous junior certificate Irish course. I believe the ETBI stated that it is acting as a "deterrent" for people down the line to continue Irish to leaving certificate. I ask the witnesses for their opinion on junior certificate reform, the impact it has had on Irish as a junior certificate cycle subject, and the issues I spoke about previously in respect of leaving certificate Irish.

My second question is addressed to the ETBI. In its submission to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on the senior cycle review, it stated:

Cognisance should be taken in any reform of those students likely to be left behind for reasons not always academic. Any reforms should not further burden, by default, an already disadvantaged cohort.

I ask the witnesses to expand on that commentary. Is it referring to making extra provision for disadvantaged children and people from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special educational needs?

My third question relates to the comment I made about apprenticeships. What can we do to make them more attractive to students? My brother became a fabricator by profession. It is about earning potential and the value some people place on jobs. As a fabricator, my brother earned much more than I did as a teacher. However, I do not think that message has got out to wider society.

My fourth question relates to the modules and credits system that some of the witnesses have spoken about. I think it is a great idea. Going back to the issue of Irish, in the case that students went to the Gaeltacht for a period of time, whether for six weeks or eight weeks, I always advocated for that to be accredited as part of their result. Can that approach be built into other subjects?

Mr. Ken Whyte

I will work backwards. The modules and credits type system is common enough. I refer to it as part of the leaving certificate applied. It is a model of assessment that works well. It is time-consuming but the positive for students is that it is a form of formative assessment that can be used to build them towards their result and guide them to improve their performance as they go along. There is certainly a lot of merit to it.

The Deputy has answered the question on apprenticeships himself. If a course required 450 points or 500 points on the CAO system, people would beat the doors down to get on to it. That is the reality to a certain extent. Apprenticeships tend not to be considered until all the other options have been looked at. That is what is killing them. In Germany, and particularly in Austria, apprenticeship is on the same par as any other option.

In those countries, it is possible to work one's way from an apprenticeship back into university to do an honours degree and then a masters or PhD degree down the road. If an answer is desired in this regard then, there it is to a certain extent.

Regarding the disadvantage, it is concerned with targeted supports. We find this a great deal in Youthreach. Elements like information technology and literacy and numeracy are key. There is no question about that. Guidance and supports are in place now for students within the Youthreach family as well. Those aspects have become very important in recent years because it has become more complicated for young people to thread their way through the "system", particularly in the last decade or so. Having that guidance capacity to help students to thread their way through the process has become crucial.

Turning to the query on the Irish language, I do not want to comment too much on that issue because it may be more of a second-level issue and I am here not as a former principal but as a representative of Youthreach. To a certain extent, however, the level of Irish required in the leaving certificate applied is concerned with everybody achieving a certain level of competency. The difficulty with Irish in the leaving certificate perhaps lies in doing Irish and achieving points being linked together. As was suggested, perhaps some kind of applied Irish could be used to gain points but, equally, it would also be ensured that everybody would have a certain standard of Irish, which could perhaps be examined in transition year. This debate might be similar to splitting English into English language and English literature as students progress. That approach might be a way to encourage Irish, because it would be possible to have expectations of a level slightly lower than leaving certificate Irish while ensuring that everyone would have that standard. Those who then wished to use the language to gain points could then go on and develop that over the last two years while in school.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan for his questions. I will comment on just a few points and allow others to come in. Regarding the Irish language, I wonder whether the problem is focused on education or if there is a much broader issue that we must examine. I refer to the context and use of the language. Senator Mullen talked about the incentivised aspect and mention was also made of the use of the language. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about the love of the language. That is the important point. I was taken by an interview I heard with An tUachtarán yesterday morning on the deaths of Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoi. He talked about Ms Mhac an tSaoi's passion for the language. Irish was how she expressed what she really believed. It was not just that the language is a beautiful thing and our heritage, but that it is appropriate for and connected to us. Our sense, however, as the Deputy said, of the language from the education system is of it being utilitarian and a bit of a drag, to be honest. That point brings us back to questions regarding the beauty of Irish and how we might think about that perspective. Equally, there is the aspect of how we might use the language.

I have spent a fair amount of my time assisting people in things like programme development for third level. One of the big issues, and this goes back to a comment from Senator Mullen, is the challenge of what to leave out in developing the content of such programmes. There is a desire to have many elements in such programmes. It is not a case of adding on different modules because of a need to have certain skills. Senator Mullen spoke about the skills we are missing. What is being attempted is trying to add those skills in as an integrated part of a programme. I refer to capabilities such as software skills, team working, interpersonal skills, etc. Those elements are not intended to form part of a distinct module but to be built into the rest of the programme. The reason I mention that point in this context, in responding to the question from Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, is that from the perspective of students, and we spoke of a student-centric approach being at the heart of this endeavour, if they are not seeing the beauty of the language and the utility of the language, then I do not think that any number of incentives will change the situation. Again, as a former Irish teacher, the Deputy will doubtlessly have his own views on this issue.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I thank Dr. Ryan for expressing that point about the Irish language far more eloquently than I tried to do. I will address two points made by Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan, that of apprenticeships and then the fabricator.

On apprenticeships, the question asked was what we need to do to encourage them. We must look at what we are investing in the various streams. If a student is doing four years in university or any higher education institution now, then typically we are talking about investing approximately €11,000, on average, for each year, depending on the specific course undertaken. The student pays about €3,000 of that cost, or a little more on occasion. The State, then, is investing about €8,000 a year and approximately €32,000 over the duration of a higher education course.

If the State wants to promote apprenticeships, then it must invest more in them. One impediment limiting the number of apprenticeships is that employers must sign contracts for a minimum of two years, which is the shortest time for an apprenticeship programme, and probably for an average of three to four years. Employers must make that commitment, and getting enough employers to make such a commitment in this marketplace is probably easier than it would be in a different labour marketplace. The chief executive of SOLAS has suggested that the State should pay for the day that apprenticeship students spend in education each week because employers get no benefit from their employees on that day. It would also be possible to argue that employers are getting limited benefit from their apprentices in that first year and the State should also consider a subvention of the cost of apprenticeships in that first year, bearing in mind that employers are making a four-year commitment. There is a need for the State to balance the investment being made in different streams of education and to consider supporting apprenticeships financially.

Turning to the point concerning Deputy O'Sullivan's brother working in fabrication, his huge earning potential and the Deputy’s own 15 years teaching Irish, all I can say in answer is look at the Deputy now.

I would say there is more money in fabrication.

I will not say that politicians engage in a certain amount of that activity.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Those 15 years will come back to serve the Deputy well. I am not talking about money here, but about values.

Mr. Jim Miley

I have one brief comment on the apprenticeships issue. I agree with the remarks made earlier by my colleagues in this regard, but we also must broaden our understanding of what apprenticeships are. The perception of apprenticeships is often very traditional. One of our members, the University of Limerick, UL, last year launched an immersive software programme, which is, essentially, an apprenticeship. It is a four-year programme, consisting of two years in full-time in college and then two years working in industry. Ten or 12 of the leading technology companies have signed up to take part in that programme. The students on that course work on-site in those companies more or less full time. The programme is not called an apprenticeship, but it is an apprenticeship model to all intents and purposes. Therefore, we must broaden our understanding of apprenticeships in that way. That is just one example and others are emerging. There are not enough of them, though, but examples are emerging, especially in the technology sector. We need more endeavours like that. The questions raised by Professor Hegarty concerning the funding model involved in apprenticeships, who pays the costs involved and how to get employers engaged in these programmes highlight some of the critical issues to be addressed in this area.

Mr. Ken Whyte

To clarify a point regarding craft apprenticeships, what are known as the pre-2016 apprenticeships, the State in that case does pay apprentices when they are on training courses, whether those programmes are undertaken in centres based in institutes of technology or education and training boards, ETBs. The apprentices on that type of programme are paid during that time.

I thank Mr. Whyte. I call Senator Pauline O’Reilly.

I thank our guests. It was interesting to listen to the answers to questions posed by my colleagues. I hope I will not be repeating too much, but we do develop themes as we go through meetings. I firmly believe that we must have a form of secondary school education that looks more like a transition year every year. Education, and secondary school in particular, is fundamentally about the transition from school to adult life. Young people want to be valued members of society and they want to practise what adult life is like. The current school system does not allow that, beyond that brief period in transition year. All the students love that aspect because it is about reaching out and experiencing life outside school. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on that point. I ask for their comments in this regard because the fundamental reason people do not take up apprenticeships is in school they are practising an academic way of being in the world and then they continue that approach outside of school. They see that as being what they are supposed to do. We must ensure that what happens in school looks more like apprenticeship programmes to encourage people to choose apprenticeships after school.

I would also like to hear the views of the witnesses regarding having an approach to the leaving certificate that is more akin to mentorships.

I think work is being done on that, particularly for the junior certificate, but if we took that approach of people who are expert in particular skills mentoring young people, it might bring us closer to where we need to be.

I wonder about the number of subjects. This comes up quite a lot. There is an argument there about greater specialisation and I wonder what the witnesses think. We have a long history of specialisation in subjects. We do not get enough from half an hour or an hour of a subject per day. We probably need young people to start choosing what they want to study much earlier.

As for the question of doing interviews, according to PhDs or even witnesses in legal cases, people from outside Ireland often address the fact that we are a very close-knit community and there may be bias. Is there some merit in looking at that and widening the net if that is the route we are to go down? Continuous assessment probably makes a bit more sense because, as Deputy O'Sullivan said, I am not sure what can be got from somebody in 15 minutes.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I thank the Senator for the questions. They are much appreciated.

I referred to the question of transition year earlier. Transition year will certainly be a big part of the discussion. I anticipate that this will come through in the NCCA report, although we will wait and see. I was teaching at second level when transition year was introduced and I recall the great possibility and opportunity but also the question of how we were going to fill the year. Things have moved on a great deal since then. The question for the committee and for all who are interested in this is whether we could do more with the huge opportunity that is transition year. The committee may remember that transition year was introduced for a slightly different reason. Back then it was a time of very high unemployment and there was perhaps a different motivation to it. That has changed. We fully agree on that.

The mentorship approach is a helpful idea. The Senator is correct about the idea of bringing people in from outside and that connection back into real life. Maybe it is a question of how that might best be done.

I refer to the question of the number of subjects and greater specialisation. I am struck by the fact that when one comes into third level, if I could approach it from that angle, there are technical skills associated with every domain within third level but, beyond that, it goes back to the softer skills Senator Mullen was thinking about. What informs them all is the question of critical thinking and building a faculty for judgment, selection, etc. A good third-level programme will do that regardless of where the student is. Therefore, as to the question of the number of subjects at second level, if those particular skills are being inculcated, and if that can be done with a deeper dive in those skills that allows more space, including for critical thinking, it seems to me better to prepare someone for that transition. That will be the big focus, I would have thought, for the committee.

I thank the Senator for her questions.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

Throughout the 50 years I talked about earlier, I believe a teacher's job is not to give knowledge but to ask questions. If the process that the student goes through in being taught is constantly asking and answering questions and constantly being brought through the thinking process in order to work things out for themselves, I think it will be found that that itself will develop the critical thinking facilities the Senator mentioned. That is a matter of teaching technique. That is a personal view.

I loved the Senator's description of school as a transition. It was so apt and so eloquent. It is exactly that. It is a transition from childhood to adult life and one that should occur not in one year but in 12 years.

I think what the Senator was saying - I ask her to correct me if I am wrong - is that the transitional experience should not be concentrated in just one year of a student's education but should be there throughout. I am in complete agreement with her. The question, and Dr. Ryan's challenge, is to get the balance between giving students the specific technical skills they need along with the transitional experience. A lot of that is in the teaching style and how they are taught. Whatever subject they are taught, they can still be taught to think. That is probably the big challenge we as a country face. I hope that answers the Senator's question.

Mr. Jim Miley

I was struck by the Senator's comments on mentorship. It is an interesting idea that would need to be explored further. I am with colleagues on the transition year concept being imbued further into the overall cycle. That is critical. It still leads to an end point - I will call it that because I want to get away from the notion of the end exam being the be-all and end-all, which we have been arguing against - but the challenge in remodelling the system is that there are two things to do. One is that the process itself and the curriculum needs adjustment. There are very good ideas around the table on that today. However, that still gets to an end point, and the challenge of overcoming the absolute fixation - it is more than a temptation - on gaming the end point, whatever it is, also has to be addressed. Whether it is an exam, an interview or whatever else, the potential for gaming is strong, and the gaming is driven probably much more by the parents, perhaps the parents of middle Ireland to which Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred earlier more than most, in terms of the ambitions for their sons or daughters. It is a matter of ensuring that the reforms that would be proposed both address the process of the curriculum itself and adequately address the end point, which we have argued in our submission should be a much higher component of continuous assessment combined with a less significant end exam.

Mr. Ken Whyte

I will be careful about what I say. One should be careful about what one looks for sometimes. As for the idea of reducing the number of subjects to something closer to the English model, we should be cautious. One of the powers of the leaving certificate model is that the intention is that students will have a broad education. Asking people very early to reduce the number of subjects they will study might have inherent dangers. The other thing is that children mature at different rates. Very often what a child is interested in and good at at 14 or 15 is not what they are interested in or any good at at 17, and asking them very early to make those choices might open up difficulties. The transition year can be explored a lot more. The potential within transition year has not been explored. We see this now in the youthreach model, for example, where they do a broader range of stuff. We see some of the benefits of that because youthreach is perhaps much closer to a transition year experience than the traditional leaving certificate. I would just put in those caveats. I am not pushing to go against the tide or anything.

Senator, is that okay with you?

Yes, that is fine. I will add just one point if you do not mind, Chair, given that we have a bit more time. I have a child who was homeschooled and went into secondary school. I noticed he was reading through a book very slowly. I asked, "Why do you not just finish the book?" He said, "It is not as much fun when you are being told to do it."

That is where I am coming from on specialisation. It is not to do with the fact it might be what they do in later life; it is more that it gives them autonomy and they are not studying subjects because they have to study ten things. They are specialising in things to get more joy out of the learning in front of them. I agree with previous speakers that it is more about the skills someone learns in studying the subjects as opposed to the subjects themselves.

We can all talk about reform but there has to be an appetite for that. Do the witnesses feel the Department of Education has the appetite for real reform and will do the reform needed? We are now post Covid. Over the past 18 months, everybody spoke about the leaving certificate needing reform. I do not think the appetite is there in the Department of Education and I am disappointed in that. The NCCA report is coming out and I am disappointed the Department has not published that. It would make our job an awful lot easier here if it was published. I plead with the Minister to publish the report. It would give the witnesses a greater understanding of the page the NCCA is coming off, what it is talking about and what direction it feels the reform is coming in. I do not want to put the witnesses in a fix but I ask them for their genuine feelings. Do they think there is a real appetite in the Department of Education? Is there the same appetite that was there for junior certificate reform?

Mr. Ken Whyte

That is an ecumenical question to a certain extent. I am fortunate that my primary Department is no longer the Department of Education but that of further and higher education, research and whatever else they get up to. I do not know is the truth. It would be wrong to say I know. In my many years in post-primary education, there was no appetite there. Maybe it has changed in the past five years.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I will be bold enough to go there, on the Chair's invitation.

Like William Shatner.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

Returning to the previous point I made to Deputy Ó Laoghaire, I have been taken by the focus of the committee on this subject, the attention it has given it and the thoroughness with which it is going about it and taking different perspectives. It is about bringing that together in an informed way with the report from the NCCA, which has been going on since 2016. That is reforming a system that has not been reformed for 20 years. It makes no sense to me to have two parallel processes that may meet too late in the day. That is how it seems to me, just to echo a point the Chair is making.

As to whether there is an appetite for reform, the Chair is closer to this than I am. I am conscious that we have gone down the line of creating a new Department, the one referred to by Mr. Whyte, with a specific mandate. That is clearly because Government feels the role of further and higher education is critical for our society and economy. If we have taken that view, the logical concomitant is to then look at the other interrelated pieces. The leaving certificate is a critical piece in that for informing it. The fact we have gone down that road means there should be an appetite to look at reform.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I was taken by Mr. Whyte's comment concerning eating an elephant bit by bit. The main problem is that in approaching the eating of the elephant, there is always the fear of what the elephant will do to you while you are eating it. That describes the fear people have of change.

Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned that the introduction of transition year was a major change and achievement. Building on that with more transition-type experience for students in fifth year with gradual change to the assessment of the leaving certificate might be the way forward. I understand the situation, because of what is at stake. I talked about the figures earlier. The Minister is giving a cheque for €336,000 to one student and a cheque for €3,000 to another. Because of what is at stake, people are reluctant to make quick changes. It has to be a gradual and iterative process. One has to keep pushing.

Mr. Jim Miley

Does the Department of Education have the appetite for reform?

Mr. Jim Miley

I do not know the answer. We have sent our submission to the Department and hope to engage with it directly in the near future. I will ask the Department the question and, no doubt, the committee will do so in one way or another. I would like to think there should be a greater appetite for reform in the Department than there might have been heretofore. In a pre-Covid context, the Department might have looked on the leaving certificate as: "Let's not break it; it's a bit broken but it ain't badly broken so we don't need to fix it." The disruption of the past two years has not broken the system but has seriously agitated it. If there is not an appetite now, there never will be. This is a moment and the initiative by the committee is welcome because it helps, hopefully, to create the appetite for reform. We all need to drive that forward.

Transition year was mentioned but the Department of Education also reformed the junior cycle. There has been substantial reform to primary education in the past couple of decades. The Department has shown a capacity to reform and I would like to think now is the moment when it will embrace leaving certificate reform.

Mr. Ken Whyte

Sometimes, all bureaucracies, and Departments are no different, need a policy direction from another source. Perhaps the role of this committee might ultimately be to give the Department of Education a vision or direction it needs to go. Reform can only happen when there is a reason for it. When there is no reason, as Mr. Miley said, there is no need to reform. If a committee like this gives a policy statement that reform is needed in a certain direction, then by and large Departments over time move in that direction. Maybe that is the missing piece at the moment.

I will take up the point Dr. Ryan mentioned. There were two issues I wanted to look at as Chair of the committee, namely, school bullying and leaving certificate reform. That was because of my experiences in both of them. I was taken by a point from Deputy Ó Ríordáin on people approaching the leaving certificate and being afraid. I would say 75% or 80% of students approaching the it are afraid of what is there to face them. When I was growing up, it was about doing the leaving certificate, going to college, getting a pensionable job and living happily ever after. The student of today is totally different from the student five or ten years ago and, most definitely, the student when I did my leaving certificate in 1992.

There is a parental responsibility when we talk about apprenticeships.

Most parents now want their children to go to college and to get a nice comfortable job. They do not want them to be out in the rough and tumble of life. They think that in doing an apprenticeship one never knows what one will end up with afterwards. Professor Hegarty spoke about the nurse becoming the doctor. It is a perfect example. Why should the nurse not become the doctor? There are many other areas where a person doing an apprenticeship can end up teaching the apprenticeship to students. I believe we have to look at it differently.

I have a question for Mr. Whyte and then I will refer back to the other questioners. How does he convince the parents and mentors of the student that apprenticeships are a great track to further education? The only ones that offer that step are the vocational schools - the name of it has gone out of my head - whereby if students do not get enough points, they can do a PLC. Personally, I think they are a little outdated. They are much needed but a little outdated and need to be reformed as well. I am interested to hear Mr. Whyte's response to that. I want to come back to something else on the leaving certificate.

Mr. Ken Whyte

Can I throw a caveat in, because in Ireland we get a little fixated on certain things? Apprenticeship is in; it is a big thing. There are only 5,000 to 6,000 apprentices out of the huge number of approximately 80,000 school leavers each year, so it is quite a small number. It is a very important one, and has always been. We must be honest and say that most students are not going to think about apprenticeships or traineeships, which are a particular type of apprenticeships that are sometimes more suitable. The key thing is the attitude, and parents must take certain responsibility for that. As parents, we do not really see apprenticeship as a valid option until our children have explored virtually everything else that is on the table. I mentioned earlier, somewhat jocosely, that perhaps it should be put through the CAO system, put 400 or 500 points on it and then, from a career guidance point of view, it would become the same as doing a BComm, a BBS or a science course. Unfortunately, until that happens and given the way Irish people think, it is just not going to go there. In the short term, we have a shortage of apprentices at present and we are trying to backfill those, but that will pass again and we will go back to it. The blunt answer is that it has to become a viable leaving certificate option for people, if one wishes to achieve that.

Another point you made, Chairman, about the nurse and the doctor was very interesting. It is quite common in certain countries in Europe, particularly France and Germany, for somebody to start with an apprenticeship or skills-based learning when he or she leaves the formal secondary school and work his or her way up. In fact, two chief executives of large motor companies in Germany started on the shop floor in those companies and worked their skills up over the years. They both ended up with PhDs and as chief executives of those companies.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Whyte on one point. This is what, in fact, is part of the gaming. The system has been gamed not just by students but also by institutions. Institutions have established very narrow courses where the demand for those courses has exceeded the number of places, and, of course, they have pushed up the points. The institution becomes a high-points institution. When Mr. Whyte says to put apprenticeships on the CAO and give them 500 points, I fear that what we are doing is playing to the value system of the parent. That is not what apprenticeships are about. Apprenticeships require completely different skills from what are currently imparted by the leaving certificate and, therefore, somebody who emerges with high points in the leaving certificate might not be suited. It might not be the qualification one needs for an apprentice.

I fully agree with Mr. Whyte on the point that apprenticeships have to be better regarded. I do not know if the answer is that they will become better regarded by parents through giving them high points. It is somehow a system whereby more publicity is given to the example Mr. Whyte gave of the leaders in Germany, there is a far greater profile to apprenticeships and giving examples of how people in apprenticeships have progressed to the top of major multinational organisations in other countries.

I would say that is the way. I would be fearful about giving them high points. Forgive me for stressing a contrary view on that.

To go back to my original question, when a Minister or officials in a Department are asked to review something, they all come out in cold sweats. I am a former Minister and, as Mr. Miley said, one never knows what it is going to throw up. There has to be an appetite. I am a little disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Foley, did not put it as a priority when she was appointed because a Minister remaining in the position for quite some time will have to make it a priority for the Minister and the officials. When there is a change of a Minister, the new Minister has different priorities and the work that has been done is often left there or is not done. I plead with the Department of Education to publish the NCCA report and to make leaving certificate reform a priority. What I have heard today from our four guests has been fantastic. It has been a very good engagement.

I will give members two minutes each to ask questions and then I will go back to the witnesses for a final wrap up. I will start with ladies first.

I wish to return to the nurse transitioning to being a doctor because I am very concerned about how training for medicine is designed. I can offer a case example. The person has a degree in biochemistry and an M.Sc. in molecular medicine, both from Trinity College Dublin, and has pursued the aim of being a medical doctor since the age of 14 years. In 2016, after working full-time in a hospital research department and spending every minute of spare time studying for the graduate Australian medical schools admissions test, GAMSAT, examination, the person thought things were finally coming good. The person was offered a place in the graduate entry route in the University of Limerick, but after applying for a loan from the Bank of Ireland was refused on the grounds that the person did not have a guarantor who had at least €700 minimum disposable income each month. The person was given this news after the induction day in the University of Limerick and is truly torn and heartbroken.

That is an example of the man-made and woman-made obstacles that are put in the way, not only by the protectionism inside the system but also by outsiders colluding, as in the case of the financial institutions. That is the challenge we have. I do not know if the witnesses will have time for a short comment on that.

The financial obstacles are a big issue, and it continues in professional training after third level as well. The one that always bothers me relates to the mental health crisis we have in society. We turn out hundreds of psychology graduates every year who cannot afford to become psychologists. They cannot afford to accumulate the clinical experience they need and work at the same time. It is not possible given the demands that exist. That continues to be the case.

I will repeat a question I asked earlier because Professor Hegarty did not have time to deal with it, although Mr. Miley did. I ask his opinion on how, if at all, a two-track leaving certificate and third level access could or should be done. If university or third level access is to be done separately from the leaving certificate, how could or should that be done in his opinion, if he thinks that is desirable? I am not necessarily saying it is, but perhaps he could give me a brief answer on that. I thank all the witnesses for their contributions.

First, it was refreshing to hear a sincere difference of opinion because, in many ways, it brings up the reality that these issues are not simple and that we have to be able to put forward ideas that may or may not recommend themselves to each other. When listening to it, I was struck by the thought of the fanfare about people getting 600 points in the leaving certificate every year, and good luck to them. However, as long as the leaving certificate is associated with prestige at the end and access to prestigious college courses, there is going to be a warped relationship between students with all their potential on the one hand and the choices that they make on the other hand. I say that with particular reference to things such as apprenticeships. There has to be serious thinking about getting back to the considered, interview-based mode of recruiting and selecting students for particular courses. I will stay with a radical question, if I may. It relates to the skills shortage in areas such as nursing, medicine, IT and so forth.

Is there an argument for trying to reserve free college places for students who would legally undertake, and I mean contractually, to stay and work in Ireland for a certain period of time after qualification? Is that too controversial to be on the table? Is it something your people are talking about? Is it something that is achievable? I can imagine it would be difficult but that does not mean it is not doable. Is there merit in the suggestion?

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

There is definite merit in it and I strongly recommend it. The trouble is I do not have to have the courage to face the electorate - the Senator does. I wish him all the strength he can muster in that. It is absolutely right. To develop the point, a significant number of our clinical placements in medicine are effectively allocated to non-EU students. This is basically because the universities need to do that. They need the foreign income because the system is underfunded. I am not blaming universities but that is a reality.

Regarding the loan system, that is an awful case. It is just not right. This person wanted to do medicine. The European Stability Mechanism is lending for education purposes. A Romanian bank has borrowed €5 million from it for lending to students. That is a possibility. By the way, the interest rate is 2%. The Romanian bank is charging 11%, the reason being the level of default on such loans. I think this would be possible. That type of system would be possible for students. The problem is that there needs to be political acceptance. The issue of student loans is too hot to handle. It is a hot potato. Every politician has a view on it. In itself, it becomes a controversial issue. It is a classic solution to that young lady's-----

I raised this issue with the Taoiseach and the Minister previously because a lot of people are affected in the same way through these loans. I do not believe in a loan system, as exists in some other countries. The solution to much of what we are talking about is the immediate publication of the Cassells report and the selection of option one. Let us take it seriously because this is part of the knock-on effect it has on students.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty

I am with the Deputy 100% but it is possible.

Dr. Joseph Ryan

I again thank the committee for this engagement. I very much appreciate it. There is a lot for us to think about as well. Mr. Miley and I will be on something tomorrow and will be talking about the expert group report coming back. That is another issue - encouraging the Minister to publish the report as soon as possible so it informs the next phase because that is the critical discussion for higher education over the next while. I have no doubt the committee will deal with that and, hopefully, we will get a chance to speak to members again on that occasion.

The issue of contractually requiring students to remain here after their studies is worth considering. Let us consider whether it is feasible. Certainly there are areas in society like the Defence Forces and higher education whereby people are supported to study but, equally, they commit to stay for a period of time on a retracting scale. That seems to be a contract worth discussing.

Regarding the issue raised by Deputy Conway-Walsh, again, my heart goes out to the individual in question. I do not know the case but one might have seen an individual who wanted to do medicine originally, may not have succeeded in entry because of what we just discussed and went that related route. The biomedical course is a superb course and we have seen the impact of it - never more so than in the past couple of years. There is something about perceptions around different roles. In respect of the HPAT route, there is a question about trying to get a broader input into medicine so medicine is possibly more reflective of the society. That was seen to be important. There is a conversation there. I do not know whether the committee is going to meet with the professional bodies because they would have a significant input into this sort of consideration. It might be worth considering.

If we go back to the question about looking at this from a student's perspective, while we must think of our economy and, of course, we are investing public money in this to develop our people, if we are developing our citizens to be the best they can be and if we are realising the potential of our citizens, we are doing a good thing, which itself would be best for the country and our system.

Mr. Ken Whyte

I agree with Deputy Conway-Walsh regarding a student loan scheme. The learners we have in Youthreach can barely afford to attend a PLC course so the idea of having to take out a loan for college course would involve us effectively saying to 11% of the population "forget it" so I would be concerned about that.

The reality of leaving certificate reform is that it will ultimately come down to what we want the leaving certificate to do. I spoke earlier about what it does at the moment. If this committee or a group of public representatives can provide a policy or vision for what they think the leaving certificate must do in the future, particularly now we have two Departments, which creates a great opportunity, I believe Departments and the Minister must come in behind that. I would be hopeful that the committee will find a solution to all our problems.

Mr. Jim Miley

I agree with Senator Mullen concerning the prestige badge associated with the leaving certificate. I think we have a cultural issue around this that needs to be overcome. The argument for reserving places for students as a quid pro quo for them staying in the workforce in Ireland is in principle one that should be explored. As Dr. Ryan outlined, there are private companies doing that at the moment. The banks and some tech companies do that on the basis that they will pay for someone's education if the person stays with them for a defined period of time. I would have thought that this should be looked at.

I might broaden Deputy Conway-Walsh's question into a wider piece. One of the challenges we have, and we have made submissions on this to Government in the wider context of funding, is the fact that students are very narrowly defined in the funding model for third level. It tends to be framed around an 18 or 19-year-old coming out of secondary school, who, of course, make up the bulk of students. Increasingly, we are seeing a much bigger cohort of mature students and part-time students coming into the system. There is no appropriate funding model around them. The question raised by the Deputy arising out of that email she quoted is very much in this realm because there is no natural mechanism for a student like that to be handled by the system. In the reform of the funding model, one of the points we raised is that if we are serious about lifelong learning, and this is very much in the lifelong learning space, we must ensure the model caters for that in terms of the cash. It is all very well to have a policy about lifelong learning but if the cash is not there to support it and the mechanism for that cash to flow is not there, it will not happen.

I thank Mr. Miley, Dr. Ryan, Professor Hegarty and Mr. Whyte for attending today's meeting. The discussion today has been very productive. I commend all our witnesses on their very forthright views. I know that today's work will be part and parcel of our report on leaving certificate reform. I know a number of the witnesses have appeared before the committee over the past number of months and I thank them for appearing before us and giving their time today. It really makes our job an awful lot easier when people with the experience of the witnesses impart that experience to us.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.44 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 2 November 2021.