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.