Breifne College students in Cavan Town, relieved to have English paper one over them. Back (from left): Pierce Morton and Pauric McKiernan; front, Caoimhe Tully, Ailish Hyland, Karina Mackle and Niamh Smith.

Calls for review of Leaving Cert grow

Greater choice eliminates exam stress

Breifne College students are among the 750 plus students across County Cavan sitting their Leaving Cert exams this week.

The Celt encountered a group of happy students on Wednesday afternoon after sitting English Paper One and they felt they were off to a flying start with the State exams. They were among 60 pupils - or over half of eligible students - to sit the exam at the Cavan Town secondary school.

The students, along with their teacher and principal, agree it's time to review the Leaving Cert to include more choice and a mix of exams and continuous assessment to permanently remove the pressure from the system and give students their best chance.

In respect of English Paper One, there was total agreement that the choice on offer in the exam gave them the greatest opportunity of achieving their full potential on the paper, while they also had the safety net of calculated grades to fall back on.

Some had opted to sit all their exams, while others chose to sit certain subjects and accept calculated grades in the rest.

Caoimhe Tully told the Celt that she was “really happy' with the first English paper in the Leaving Certificate.

She explained that there was more choice on offer in the paper. “You could leave out question A if you wanted. The exam lasted for two hours and fifty minutes – I had loads of time left – I was really well prepared.”

Ailish Hyland described it as a “good paper". She said: "I was happy enough with how it went – I like English and I liked the essays.”

Karina Mackle agreed. “I though the first English paper today was grand. There was loads of choice in it – it was not too hard or anything. There was no pressure really, I had loads of time”.

She found she had time to go back and check over answers and add a few things.

“It was good for the experience, to sit down and do the exam. I am sitting four subjects. In relation to the other subjects, I was doing well enough in my assessments, so I did not see a point in stressing myself and studying,” added Karina.

Niamh Smith is sitting five subjects and has now completed LCVP and the first English paper.

“The first English Paper was very nice. There was lots of choice. It meant that you could study a specific area. There was a lot more certainty to the exam, there was no 'what if this does not come up'. There was a lot more structure."

She has chosen the assessed grades for Home Economics, Irish and Maths. "I was doing decently in all of those subjects, so less pressure and concentrate on doing better in the other five,” explained Niamh.

Pierce Morton was also relaxed having completed his first exam. "There was a lot more choice in the paper, especially in relation to the comprehension, as opposed to the essay itself – overall there was a lot of time allocated for the exam itself,” he found.

Piece is sitting five subjects and having two assessed. “I am having Irish assessed – that would have taken up a lot of time with studying – so leaving that to be assessed allows for more work to be done on the subjects I am sitting,” he explained.

Pauric McKiernan was also pleased with how the exam went. "There was nothing really surprising about it. They were very easy questions – a lot of things came up in the exam that I had a good knowledge of," he said.

Pauric is also sitting the Construction exam and having five subjects assessed. As a career Pauric would be looking at Carpentry or Architectual Design. “Construction has always been one of my best subjects – practical work and designing things,” he said.

Teacher's view

English teacher in Breifne College, Maria Battigelli, enthused that English paper one was “great”. She said: “There is always a different theme on paper one for English – on the higher level paper, it was reflections on time. I think that was a very good theme to pick in these Covid times, when we all have had so much time to reflect.

“Then for the ordinary level paper, the general theme was music and some great artists were mentioned on the paper that students would be familiar with. I feel they picked topics that students would be more comfortable with and I think that was a really nice way to ease them into the exam, especially in the light of Covid."

Maria felt there were loads of options in relation to the long essay question and the language used was really accessible.

When asked if a combination of sitting exams and continuous assessment was the way forward for the Leaving Certificate, Maria said: “I just think we have such a pressurised system - it's even been called a Murder Machine by Padraig Pearse years ago and it really hasn't changed in terms of the exam.

“I think that giving students an option or even finally of introducing some kind of continuous assessment – I think that is absolutely key and the way we should move forward."

She doesn't feel that exams should be cut entirely.

“I don't think we should scrap exams. We all need to learn how to deal with exam pressure. Having variety and, even if it means one subject having fifty per cent continuous assessment and fifty per cent exam, creates balance and it is even more accurate of my experience in college, where certain modules would be continuous assessment and certain ones would be an exam.

“I think it would be a more accurate representation of what students would face in third level education,” said Maria Battigelli.

Tough two years

The principal of Breifne College, John Crotty, said it has been a tough two years for the Leaving Certificate Students. “It has been a real endurance test for them. To arrive at a bit of normality here today and to see them smiling and happy, it is a credit to them.

“It has been a balancing act preparing them for these exams and keeping an eye on their well being. It has been tough for them," he said.

Mr Crotty agreed that the additional choices on the exam paper and the fallback of accredited grades had "removed the pressure from the exam”.

The time is right now to review the State exams, he feels.

“There has been a lot of talk over the years about a revamped Leaving Certificate. I think we have learned a lot from online teaching and learning – it certainly has brought a new dimension to what we do.

"It now looks that a combination of both assessment and sitting exams could be the way forward, with some fine tuning," said Mr Crotty.

“It is a pity that it had to take a pandemic to see these things!" he added.

The principal is not in favour of exams being scrapped altogether.

“It will stand to them all going forward because they will have to sit exams in the future. It is important that we don't lose that experience,” said Mr Crotty.

“The combination of exams and assessment has been introduced in the reformed Junior Cert. Continuous assessment can bring forth huge positives – it can help attendance and motivation. There are a lots of positives. If we think this through and put the time into it, we can all be winners going forward into the future,” he concluded.

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