So-called “Radical” education reforms

In the week of the teacher conferences, Minister Quinn’s special adviser has earned the large pay packet this morning. The Irish Times, Independent and Examiner all carry details of the changes planned for the Leaving Cert grading system. “Leaving Cert grades face radical change under plan” writes Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times. “ABC system will be dropped in sweeping education changes” says Katherine Donnelly in the Independent.

grading scaleThe reform announced will see the number of grades drop from 14 to 8, with bands every 10% rather than the current 5%. While this is welcome, the education correspondents seem to suggest that this will somehow “nurture a spirit of enquiry” (Donnelly) or allow schools “reclaim their purpose as educational institutions” (Humphreys). (Unfortunately neither of these goals were achieved in the short time after the Irish Times proclaimed the points race to be “over” a few years ago.)

While proclaiming the wonder of this radical new plan sweeping through education, our education correspondents seem to miss out on some details. Points awarded at higher and ordinary levels are not proposed. The balance between ordinary and higher has often been the subject of debate and in the case of maths, has led to the introduction of bonus points, to stem the flow of students aiming for 60 points at ordinary rather than risking it all in the higher stakes maximum of 100. What is proposed for the new system?

Our reporters happily lay the blame of the current system firmly at the door of the third level sector, arguing that the colleges asked for the current system to increase the granularity of the points awarded and hence reduce the number of places awarded by random selection. That was in 1992. There are a lot more courses on the CAO now, so with decreased granularity, there will be a lot more allocation by random selection. Did the reporters query to what extent the expert group believe this will be the case?

The reports mention in the same breath that the grading bands are being reduced to avoid teaching to the test, but that a separate study has found that predictability is not an issue. There is a conflict here that should be investigated.


The real issue is number of places allocated per course. To make courses popular, colleges subdivide main entry courses (e.g. Engineering, Science) into different categories and allocate small numbers of places per course. Therefore these courses, which are predominantly co-taught with other courses, will have high points on entry, and become more popular, attracting more students and requiring higher points. It’s a self-propagating system. Humphreys writes:

Instead of asking school leavers to chose between, for example, “physics with astronomy”, “applied physics”, “physics with biomedical sciences” and “analytical science” – to take four courses off the DCU prospectus – there will be a greater focus on putting applicants through “common entry” science, allowing them to specialise later. In fact, DCU already offers such a course.

The real question is if DCU already offer such a course, why then do they (and all colleges) continue to offer the specific courses? Humphreys does report that the college “are intensively reviewing their programme portfolios to reduce the complexity of choice and to ensure broader entry programmes into higher education,” quoting directly from the report linked to the Minister’s press release, but doesn’t make the point, which Niall Murray of the Examiner does, that this was first proposed in 2011. Why is there a delay?

A commitment to review the courses by the institutions themselves is a bit like a commitment to ensure responsible drinking by the alcohol industry. No-one wants to make the first move. Perhaps the HEA telling colleges that they have a limit on the number of courses they will fund through direct entry might initiate some progress. Colleges can have as much choice as they like in second and subsequent years (you know, the way it used to be), but all entry must be through a single point. Now that would be a radical, sweeping change.