October 3, 2022

Education: Competing Against the World


Everything hinges on how well students perform on the Leaving Cert, a series of exams at the end of secondary school.

Mike Vogel | 8/1/2006

TEST CASE: Stephen wrote about his experience taking the leaving cert for the Irish Independent Newspaper. "I'm a bit worried about it," he says of his performance on the math portion of the exam.

Ireland Stephen Mc Fadden, 18
Col?iste Cholmcille
Ballyshannon, Ireland

Family: Father, a police officer; mother, a bank worker; two brothers, 6 and 16.

School: Col?iste Cholmcille ("St. Columba") is a 666-student school, an average size school, for 12- to 18-year-olds, two miles from Stephen's home in Ballyshannon, a town of 3,000 in northwest Ireland. The school offers math to parents of first-year students. Secondary school runs roughly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 167 days from September to May.

Courses: Stephen took higher-level classes for Irish, English, math, German, history, physics and chemistry. He also took physical education, careers and religion, studied applied math on his own and completed the school's Leaving Cert Vocational Program (a linked course of work experience, fund-raising experience and other studies).

'Brutally Fair'

Talk about high-stakes testing. In Ireland, every day for more than two weeks in June, newspapers, radio and television were full of reports on that day's Leaving Certificate exams, the end-of-secondary school exams that will determine the futures of the 52,000 students who took them.

Each exam can take up to three hours. Each day's news reports carried teacher and student comments -- and those of one of Ireland's leading mathematicians in one case -- on whether an exam challenged students or left them in tears. The coverage gets specific, down to individual items on the test. "Outrageous," one teacher said of a particularly troublesome math question.

That instructor would get no argument from Stephen McFadden, 18, who chronicled his Leaving Cert exams for the Irish Independent newspaper. He wrote that during the first day of the two-part, higher- level math exam, which covers a range of mathematics from algebra to calculus, he saw his hopes of an A "swirling down, lower and lower, into the imaginary toilet that I saw before me."

Stephen's favorite subject is chemistry, and he hopes he scored well enough to attend the elite Edinburgh University in Scotland tuition free.

Everything hinges on how well students perform on the Leaving Cert, a series of exams at the end of secondary school.

Higher level math was one of nine Leaving Cert exams, seven of them higher level, that Stephen took. Most students take only seven. They can choose between higher level or ordinary. Three -- Irish, English and math -- are compulsory. "It's a fierce competition and a national competition," says Jimmy Keogh, principal at Col?iste Cholmcille. "Someone described our exam system as brutally fair. I thought it was a good description."

Ireland's education system, like the country's economy, has undergone exceptional change in a generation. Keogh, 45, says his parents, as was common in their generation, left formal education at 12 or 13. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Irish children went on to higher education. Now, two-thirds do.

Funding, curriculum and examination standards are set nationally, but each school is autonomously managed by its own board, composed of elected representatives of parents and teachers and often representatives of Catholic religious orders. Sixty percent of secondary schools are run by church-related organizations.

Tags: North Central, Education

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