Recently I was chatting to a group of intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning people, all of whom have one or more children in secondary schools in Dublin. What, I asked them, are you hoping that these schools will deliver for your children. The optimist in me was hoping for answers around pedagogy, civilised values, knowledge development, life skills, the thrill of science and the arts, that kind of thing. I didn’t get any of it. What did I get? They were hoping for the highest possible CAO points*. That was it.
We really have come to treat education as a board game, where you have to make the right moves and gather points. It is entirely tactical, with almost no intellectual angle. You doubt that? Well, I asked my companions what specific expectations they had of the syllabus in English literature – how much Shakespeare should Leaving Certificate students be doing, for example? And exactly what level of scientific knowledge should their children have acquired by the time they take their exams? Oh yes, they wanted Shakespeare. Was it because he crafted some of what we now know as the English language, and because he disseminated intellectual ideas from the classics to his own day? Not at all – it was because this was an expected part of the syllabus and students know how to prepare for it to get high points.
As I have mentioned before, I have grave reservations about the CAO points system, and its influence on the way in which students work for the Leaving Certificate. This conversation strongly reinforced those reservations. The social and material ambitions of parents for their children are pushing those children into working methods and career choices which are of very doubtful value for the wider society. The points system is turning the final stages of secondary school into a transaction in which student acquire what they are led to believe is the currency that will resource their later lives. And it would have to be said that the universities, as the owners of the CAO project, are allowing this to happen.
I think it is high time we had another look at the whole CAO framework.
* For non-Irish readers, the CAO is the Central Applications Office (which administers university and college entry), and the ‘points system’ is the mechanism by which Leaving Certificate examination results are converted into a points score which determines eligibility for specific university courses.