This letter in the Irish Times by Seán de Brún of Mary Immaculate College has a certain air of plausibility about it. There is no doubt that a modular system where students are assessed in a variety of ways should, in theory, result in students acquiring a more rounded set of skills, skills that cannot be assessed by an end-of-year written exam. Furthermore, the idea that a modular system might be less stressful for students than the all-or-nothing system that we have at the moment also rings true.
But there are a couple of reasons as to why I would tread carefully here:
- Stress and anxiety levels among third level students are an increasingly worrying problem. No doubt, many mental health problems from which students suffer have nothing to do with the fine detail of the education system per se, but there is certainly no evidence to suggest that the modular system, with its increased emphasis on continuous assessment, is reducing stress levels.
- Although the modular system used in third level does allow one to assess students in a variety of ways, there is really no evidence to suggest that it leads to better – or worse – learning. We just don’t know and our thinking tends to be guided by little more than anecdote and gut feeling.
- More fundamentally, though, we need to ask ourselves what the Leaving Certificate is for. In the last couple of decades, the Leaving has effectively become an entry examination for higher and further education. It is essential, therefore, that whatever way we design the second level system, it should not only provide students with a broad education (to enhance their lives in a general sense) but it should also prepare students for the rigours of third level education. Discussions about the Leaving Certificate, and indeed the entire second level curriculum, should take into account the fact that for most students, leaving secondary school represents no more than the end of the beginning of a process of lifelong learning. We should adjust our expectations accordingly.