Higher Level Anxiety | Reform The Musty Leaving Cert

A stranger, a teacher, an entity from some mysterious Irish town you’ve never heard of. You’ve most likely become comfortable with them by the end of the exams; purely due to the ‘mere-exposure effect’, a theory which suggests that we feel at ease in the presence of other people simply by being exposed to them.

This person rises, paces for five minutes, before finally issuing those honey dappled syllables ‘Time’s up’. Often these words are a painful reminder that you could not complete the exam on time. However, this is the last one. It is sweet. You savour the moment as it slips down your throat. They are the words that everyone hears knowing full well that the Leaving Cert is finally complete.




Hundreds of faces move on with life. They enter college, take apprenticeships or find jobs, swiftly forgetting the absurdity of the exams that conclude second-level education. Everyone who completes the Leaving Cert can bitterly recall this unnecessarily dreadful experience. Yet at the same time, everyone briskly forgets how these examinations were nothing more than arbitrary bile digested one night and forgotten the next.

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The core problem with the Leaving Cert is the exam system itself. It is an inaccurate measure of intelligence, a false reflection of reality, a bundle of stress and an illogical memory game which does not facilitate growth in the slightest. Nonetheless, the Leaving Cert is still ever-present and calls for reform are scarce. The principle reason for this appears to be that once anyone undertakes the wretched thing, they cease to interpret it as an issue. It is no longer a personal struggle. It has been overcome. Measurements of success in relation to this overcoming differ, but what really matters is the fact that it is completed. People simply move on with life and all the chaos that seamlessly transpires whilst other elements come to the foreground. The Leaving Cert fades into oblivion, becoming a sort of painful nightmare.

This decision to put these examinations behind us is not necessarily selfish. Although it does mean that the push for reform slithers and withers away. That is regrettable as anyone who has experienced it will agree, the Leaving Cert is in urgent need of revision.

Anyone who has completed the Leaving Cert and endured those anxious moments prior to the unveiling of your results are aware of the tremendous pressure it puts you under. It brings to mind a story I heard about one person who was so anxious about these results, but who didn’t intend to go to college. So in conclusion, they decided to fling their results away, never opening them, never knowing.

The pounding of the heart, the rumbling of the stomach. It is stress that can be totally avoided. Yes, small amounts of stress are an appropriate response to an exam, essay or any work being assessed in any shape or form. However, the levels and intensity of stress that the Leaving Cert produce are a disgrace.

Imagine having six, maybe seven exams at the end of a learning period of two years. Now, in each exam you have to memorise all the information you have accumulated in the last two years. This information ranges from French vocab to tectonic plates to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Those few examples are snippets extracted from the grand array of knowledge that is demanded upon students to possess. This sounds stressful. I think my heart rate increased.

Furthermore, imagine you must spew this knowledge within usually a two-hour time frame. My heart is now furiously throbbing.

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There is an evident solution: continuous assessment. Picture this, a world where you are not overwhelmed by insane expectations. Instead, you are given time to grow and develop as a student. Oh, but that would require more work from teachers, which they have protested against. To this the teachers must search within, to the depths of the uncanny residing internally; they must find that distant nightmare they had when they were in their late teens, that horrible, menacing, crouching, beast that produced a period of exam after exam after exam; surely after recalling their own experience of the Leaving Cert they will be open to a new system.

Something that was touched upon above is the fact that the Leaving Cert is a memory game. It requires an absurd amount of memorising and a truly ridiculous amount too. For some, this is a task that is possible. For others, who may be equally intelligent in regards to academia, unfortunately, they cannot memorise that amount of knowledge, even though they are absolutely capable of comprehending and compartmentalising the knowledge itself. Continuous assessment would facilitate these students and support the growth of all students, for they will no longer be bogged down by their average memorising abilities; they will rather be rewarded for the intelligence and hard work.

Although, it should be noted, that some subjects offer a balance between project work, such as geography field work or oral examinations, still these only present the illusion of a revised Leaving Cert. They do not come close to lessening the pressure. In fact, some of these examinations or projects also require memorising large sums of material. Continuous assessment would fix the issue of these memory games that have been played for the last 94 years.

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Post-Leaving Cert life in contrast to Leaving Cert life differs extremely. In the ‘real world’, the world of work, assessment operates on different a wavelength. There is a multitude of contrasting factors between schoolwork and work. Yet focusing solely on the work element produces intriguing insights. It becomes apparent that work assessment is not by any measure analogous to the Leaving Cert; work employs the continuous assessment module. In any job, no matter the field, you will be graded, reviewed, and assessed on an ongoing basis, or rather a continuous basis.

For example, let’s say you work as a teacher in a secondary school; you are reviewed continuously for the work you do in class and how your students fare in their own tests. Occasionally the board of education will plop into existence and review your performance. What is outlined here are just a few areas used to assess a teacher’s abilities, and if they were to fail in any aspect, depending on what they have failed at, they will have an opportunity to develop and improve in those respects. Furthermore, they are encouraged to grow and cull new abilities as they are constantly assessed within the continuous assessment module.

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A teacher who happily leaves her Leaving Cert exam memories locked away in her mind palace.

Now let’s conjure up a universe where teachers are assessed under a Leaving Cert-type examination. At the end of the year, they must undertake an exam to display their level of skill. Seems absurd. Nonetheless, it is vital to mention that learning how carbon atoms interact and teaching a class of thirty hormonal teenagers is radically different and does require alternative methods of assessments, but school assessment should reflect real-life work environments, for that, is precisely what it often claims to be accomplishing. If a continuous assessment module was in practice it would, in fact, reflect, not mirror-like, but be closer, to real life scenarios.

The horrors and pangs of the Leaving Cert will hastily evaporate from the young minds as they conclude this grand chapter in their life. Nevertheless, it is important their suffering, and thousands of other students do not merely become a bad dream in their minds. An urgent call for reform is necessary, because if someone told you today that you had your first Leaving Cert exam tomorrow, you’d suddenly feel the heart thumping, the belly churning.

Is that something another generation of students should be subjected too?

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