Tag Archives: leaving cert

What’s wrong with the Leaving Cert?

Unless you’ve been hibernating under a rock you’ll be aware that the Leaving Cert results came out this week. As usual, the media focused almost exclusively on the two or three geniuses who managed to achieve near superhuman results, in some cases 9 A1s! These individuals are undoubtedly exceptional on so many levels and celebrating exceptional human beings in every field of human endeavour is a truly wonderful thing. I for one would hate to live in a world where individual achievement was ignored instead of exhalted.


What about the exceptional individuals whose talents aren’t recognised or rewarded by the Leaving Cert? Are they to conclude that the things they are good at simply don’t matter or have no value in an educational context? Talents like leadership, teamwork, creativity and innovation – are these things  really irrelevant when assessing their time at school and awarding college places?

I’ve been thinking about the Leaving Cert a lot over the last few months. What kicked it all off was an #edchatie discussion back in April on the possibility of achieving “A Better, Fairer Leaving Cert”. A few short weeks later I was delighted to hear the articulate and intelligent Fionnghuala King lambast the Leaving Cert at our school’s Graduation Mass  (you can read excerpts of what she had to say here in the Mayo News). Then the day of the results thejournal.ie rang me for reaction to the results and to the exams system itself and 24hours later I was in the middle of a heated row with George Hook on Newstalk about the relative merits of the current system. Only four short days after the results and after a summer of exhausting media interviews The Irish Times finally acknowledged that I might have something of value to say and yet I find myself still grasping for a coherent alternative method of assessing students achievements at the end of five or sometimes six years of secondary education.

For what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I’m aware they are often contradictory but this is a complex issue!So let’s embrace the paradoxes and tease them out…

  • Embracing change for the sake of change is a pointless and potentially damaging exercise.
  • Nonetheless we MUST find a way to reduce the pressure on students without compromising the integrity of the current system which is viewed by most as relatively transparent.
  • Transparency and objectivity are vital in a small country like Ireland which has always struggled with nepotism and corruption (exams which are externally marked & anonymous thankfully negate these negative societal traits).
  • There is no simple or obvious utopian alternative but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep looking for a lesser evil.
  • We need a terminal exam which assesses academic ability & aptitudes??? (I’m not sure about this one…)
  • Should a terminal exam be combined with some continuous assessment? Can we prevent plagiarism and maintain trasparency if we go down this route? Is there a danger of more grade inflation? Will parents/neighbours/teaching colleagues put pressure on teachers to give their son/daughter a higher grade than they deserve? Does this mean that those who shout the loudest will get the most? and how would this play out for students whose parents play fair? or don’t care? Aren’t teachers supposed to be advocates for their students not judge and jury? Will students just beg borrow or steal projects that they know will get them a good grade? And if this happens what are we willing to do about it? (Not very much, if this case is anything to go by).
  • The Leaving Cert as it exists is an incredibly blunt instrument which assesses a very narrow range of aptitudes and abilities and all too often leads to rote learning and regurgitation. However, is a certain amount of knowledge (stored in your memory rather than in a computer) a prerequisite for analysis and synthesis and deep understanding? This might be a chicken and egg debate – which comes first? Certainly you cannot rote learn your way to 600 points in your Leaving Cert. But if you repeat and select only the subjects which require and reward rote learning you can certainly get 500 points.
  • Exam technique and the ability to remain calm under pressure are the aptitudes which are rewarded most highly under the current system – if you fall down in either of these areas you fall down in your Leaving Cert. So God help you if you don’t (or can’t) nurture and develop these ‘talents’.
  • It is unforgiveable that there is no repeat procedure for students who are hit by illness or bereavement, through no fault of their own, immediately prior to and/or during exams.
  • It’s good that we offer a rounded education – I don’t think we should follow the British system where you could study English language, English literature, Drama and General Studies and then say you had studied 4 subjects for your A levels – let’s face it this is mostly different branches of the same subject and you’d have received a very narrow education indeed in your final two years of secondary school education.
  • However, we currently offer a very narrow range of subjects, with a ridiculous bias in favour of students who are good at languages – most schools have their subject choices arranged in such a way that you must study three languages. So almost 50% of your leaving cert subjects are languages irrespective of what your interests, aptitudes and abilities are. How fair must that feel if you love Maths, Accounting, Business, Art, Tech Graphics and Woodwork??? I know I certainly resented being told that I ‘had‘ to do a science subject when I wanted to do a combination of History, Geography, Art and Music. I was lucky in many ways – English and French were also on that list whether I liked it or not – but in my case I loved languages.
  • The range of subjects being offered is getting narrower all the time thanks to cutbacks. Physics, Chemistry, Accounting, Economics, History and Applied Maths are now all considered minority subjects. I mean seriously, WTF???
  • The bell curve sets students up for failure. It’s not about your achievements, it’s about how crap your achievements are compared to Mary down the road. Vomit.
  • We need to reform the system of college entry – the points system is so crude and so cruel we should be ashamed of ourselves. Fix this and a lot of the pressure, stress, worry and one-up-man-ship of the current system will dissappear.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Lots to grapple with.

Topic of the week: The Future

Trying to imagine what the future will look like can make your brain wibble-wobble in all sorts of uncomfortable ways.

For some reason when people envisage the future, cities looks quite like they do now but they’re curvier and have random flying pods zooming about.

Everything is also crystal clean sparkly clear and the air is somehow fresher, brighter, sharper than it is when you look out the window (not sure how that will happen but here’s hoping) – or else we’ve been through some kind of armageddon and everything looks vaguely like it did during World War 2…

Given that we can only speculate, here are a few questions to get your idea juices flowing…

On a global scale:

  • Will we end up zooming around in hovercrafts?
  • Will the ice caps melt?… and will Ireland drown as corresponding sea levels rise?
  • Will solar, wind and wave technology finally free us from our dependance on fossil fuels?
  • Will medical advances allow us to grow spare body parts? And will we be able to select the genes our children inherit? Perhaps we’ll even be able to ‘transplant’ our brains into a new body and thus find a way to live forever!
  • Will the threat of nuclear annihilation re-imerge? Will religious fundamentalism lead to the break-out of a global jihad between Muslims and Christians? Will ‘the Hunger Games’ ever come to pass? It may sound crazy but pick up a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and you’ll see just how much big brother’s already come to pass!
  • Will robots finally do our housework for us? (please let the answer to this one be yes…)
  • Will we find a way to populate other planets? Holidays on Mars anyone? Underwater cities? There are 7 billion of us on earth now after all. That’s a whole lotta peeps for one planet…

On a personal level:

  • What will your life be life? What will you spend your time doing?
  • What will you achieve?
  • Will you make the world a better place? Or a worse one? Or have no effect on anything!
  • Who do you picture IN your future with you?

I’m particularly taken by the idea of augmented reality which isn’t far in the future – check these out:





Also, if you’re not doing the Leaving Cert until next year I recommend you read “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future” by Mark Stevenson over the summer. If you like reading that is…which I’m presuming you do if you browse this website for shits and giggles!!!

Hamlet in Howth

I’m a big fan of Alan Stanford’s podcasts Hamlet in Howth.

They’re an excellent way of revising the play – but make sure you stay focused by taking notes as you listen.

Here’s the link: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drama/hamletinhowthall.html

Book Covers

I have to admit, until recently I’d never given a huge amount of thought to the process involved in designing a book cover.

I love books, always have, and worked for a couple of years in the best bookshop in Ireland (Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway for the uninitiated) but I loved the words IN the book more than the pictures ON the book. I’m sure on recollection that a striking cover has often grabbed my attention but it is the opening page that either gets me to spend my money or prompts me to quietly place the book back on the shelf.

A little more recently, after I’d already begun my teaching career, I remember mocking any of my friends who chose one of the ‘adult’ dust jackets when purchasing the Harry Potter books. I thought it somehow foolish or dishonest not to admit that yes, you were reading a kids book, and by the way you were bloody well enjoying it too!

But someone, somewhere, in the marketing devision of a publishing house decided once upon a time that you could get more people to buy the same book – people of varying ages and genders, people with widely differing tastes in literature – if you offered them a choice of book cover that spoke to them or reflected who they felt themselves to be.

And I guess if they’ve kept doing it, then it works!

Perhaps they’re playing to how predictable most of us tend to be. We know what we like, and what we don’t like, we tend not to like change and not to take risks. So if a book looks like science fiction from the cover – and we ‘know’ we don’t like sci-fi, we probably won’t even pick it up. Similarly, if a book is in any way pink – or even worse – pink neon! – I will treat it like it has a highly contagious disease. I have decided, in my wisdom, that if it looks anything like romantic fiction, it’s not for me!

So why my sudden interest in the topic? Well, I have to admit to a fascination with the twists and turns the leaving cert. paper 1 in English throws up on occasion. I like the thought that were I to sit the paper, I’d have to apply my knowledge to something I really know nothing about; the notion that I’d have to “ad-lib… unselfconsciously with overflowing speech” and think on my feet in order to do well. Two years ago one such minor curve ball appeared when one of the comprehension questions asked students to compare two contrasting dust jackets for the same novel, “Fahrenheit 451”. As well as identifying the extent to which they captured the essence of the text visually, you were expected to figure out why one appealed to you more than the other. In the process I guess you were identifying who the target audience was in each case and why you were more attracted to one dust jacket over the other.

Rather than waffle on any further about my own lack of knowledge, I instead want to send you in the direction of people who know infinitely more about this than I do. The first is a blog post in response to an article in the New York Times, the second is a Ted talk  I stumbled upon by accident by the truly eccentric book cover designer Chip Kidd.

p.s. thanks to Julian Girdham’s twitter feed @sccenglish, I also have this link for you http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/the-50-coolest-book-covers



Delay or procrastination?

Perhaps the single most debated question about Hamlet is “why does it take him so long to avenge his father’s murder?” For some, his delay is baffling and despite feeling sympathy for Hamlet as he struggles with his suicidal despair, they nonetheless view him ultimately as a procrastinator. According to this interpretation, Hamlet knows what he must do put puts it off – for a variety of complex reasons.

Perhaps the best way for you to fully grasp the concept of procrastination is to watch this youtube video by charlieissocoollike:


There is a whole other school of thought out there however (and this is the camp I fall into).

  • Some people believe that it is not at all clear to Hamlet what he must do because he cannot trust the ghost’s word.
  • Once it becomes absolutely clear to him that Claudius is without doubt guilty, Hamlet only delays further with very good reason: to establish the extent of his mother’s guilt and to save her soul.
  • From this point on, circumstances (primarily his accidental murder of Polonius) lead to a further delay which cannot and should not be construed as ‘procrastination’ (deliberately putting off something unpleasant). 
  • Despite his exile he does everything in his power to return to Denmark so that he can do his duty and avenge his father’s death. Upon his return he proclaims “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth“.
  • The one scene which appears unquestionably like procrastination (imho) is the gravedigger’s scene where his morbid fixation on death resurfaces and he appears to have absolutely no sense of urgency about killing Claudius.  
  • However, once he learns of Ophelia’s death he becomes almost serene in the knowledge that avenging his father’s murder is his inevitable destiny “If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now….the readiness is all“. His moral qualms have transformed into a sure and certain belief that he will be doing God’s work if he kills the usurper Claudius “is’t not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned to let this canker of our nature come in further evil?”  

Despite Hamlet’s own confusion “I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do“, we can conclude that six highly complex interwoven factors lead Hamlet to delay. They are:

1. Hamlet’s personality – he is a deep thinker, a sensitive individual not a man of action. For proof, look to his soliloquies. His aversion to the task he must perform (to kill another human being) is almost immediately evident when he laments “The time is out of joint, o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right“.

2. His religious beliefs – our first impressions of him are that he’s a very moral individual. He denounces his mother’s sinful actions (“o most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets“) yet despite being suicidal, he does not kill himself because he fears divine retribution (that he’ll burn in hell forever). These same beliefs make him question the reliability of the ghost (“the spirit that I have seen may be the devil and perhaps, abuses me to damn me“).

3. Claudius’ power as God’s representative on earth and Hamlet’s position as heir to the throne – Hamlet cannot and will not openly challenge Claudius (“It is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue“) until he is certain that Claudius is guilty (“I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King“). Hamlet is a cautious and sensible individual – he knows that if he kills Claudius and it turns out that Claudius was innocent, Hamlet will have committed a crime against God and against Denmark (regicide); he will have thrown his kingdom into turmoil unnecessarily; and he will have deprived his mother of the man she loves (see below).

4. His love for his mother (despite what he sees as her betrayal) – after the Mousetrap, Hamlet is certain of Claudius’ guilt (“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound“) but rather than immediately seek him out to kill him, he decides to confront his mother first. I think he wants to find out the extent of her guilt, and he wants to give her a chance to “confess [herself] to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come“. This desire to save her soul is surely an admirable reason to further delay his revenge!

5. His determination to obtain justice (rather than simply get revenge) for his father. This is evident in the Prayer Scene. Remember, Hamlet comes upon Claudius by accident rather than design while on the way to his mother’s chamber. This is the best opportunity he is ever likely to have to kill Claudius (who is completely unarmed and unprotected). However, he wants to ensure that Claudius is properly punished, that his “soul may be as damned and black as hell whereto he goes“.  If he kills him while Claudius is praying this would be “hire and salary not revenge” because Claudius would lose his life but gain an eternity in heaven (or so Hamlet believes!).

6. Circumstances (including his accidental murder of Polonius, his exile and Ophelia’s death). After deciding not to kill Claudius in the prayer scene, we the audience think Hamlet will probably take the next possible opportunity to kill Claudius -as long as Claudius is not in a state of grace (i.e. is doing something moraly wrong). And he does! Unfortunately his impulsive rage leads him to accidentally kill the wrong man. We know without doubt that he thought he was killing Claudius when he says “thou wretched rash intruding fool, I took thee for thy better“. As a consequence of this deed, Hamlet is now seen (understandably) as a very real threat to Claudius and is exiled to England. We suspect he will find it very difficult to find himself in a room alone with Claudius again because the King will ensure from now on that he is guarded and protected from harm.

The other obvious reason is that without the delay there is no play!!! So it’s a plot device as much as anything else.

When approaching this issue, don’t get bogged down in the difference between ‘procrastination’ and ‘justifiable delay’. No matter which way you swing it, Hamlet does not avenge his father’s murder until the final scene of the play and it is his delay, combined with Claudius’ evil machinations, and Hamlet’s impulsive rage, which leads to the unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Leartes, Gertrude and of course Hamlet himself.

Perhaps the most valuable thing to do is to establish clearly why he delays at each stage and then to examine how this effects your feelings towards him. The ebb and flow of sympathy and frustration we feel towards him as a central character is largely created in our recognition of what it is he must do and our understanding of why he doesn’t do it. This conflict – this paradox – is what makes the play and the character so complex and so intriguing. This situation and his personality create the fascination this man of inaction has exerted for generations over successive audiences spanning 400 years.