Joe’s Jotter: Improving our Current Exam System

The debate is ongoing in relation to continuous assessment at Secondary school, with a keen focus currently on the percentage and type of allocation being introduced for the new Junior Cycle. Many subjects at Junior Cycle level already have Classroom Based Assessments (CBA’s) incorporated into them. Now with a review of the Leaving Certificate taking place (more than likely to be rebranded the ‘Leaving Cycle’), I am wondering whats next? As with any change to an assessment model, we need to ensure there are transparent procedures in place and a clear sense of fairness is preserved.

Preserving Fairness

With the above in mind, firstly I feel that any continuous assessment needs to be completed during school time. If students take work home, it may become an unfair competition depending on the socio-economic background of their parents and other extrinsic factors. i.e. I feel we can’t take the chance of having any external interference in projects that students are required to complete alone. We need to make sure a level playing field is retained and that we don’t allow potential changes to tarnish or unbalance our currently solid exam system.

Should Teachers assess their own Students?

I strongly feel that projects and practical’s should not be corrected by the student’s own teacher. The department needs to hire suitably qualified personnel for these posts. They also need to properly resource schools for these assessments and allocate proper time on the timetable for students and teachers to prepare for them.

Teachers are clear that they don’t want to assess their own pupils. A teacher correcting their pupils’ work for any kind of state certification would leave our existing robust system open to all kinds of accusations. When I read articles around the world and hear of exam papers being leaked and scandals over corruption in education, it’s clear that our current Irish system actually works pretty well. People need to be careful what they wish for. ‘The law of unintended consequences’ and ‘baby and bath water’ come to mind here. The SEC and our Department of Education and Skills have a great record of always acting professionally and with the utmost integrity when it comes to the exam process. These principles need to be maintained at all costs.

According to a Jan 2019 report from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) entitled ‘Senior Cycle Reform – What do we want?’, the responses are varied in relation to the question of exam paper correction. For example, only 22% of principals, deputy principals and teachers support the practice of correcting their own students’ work, with many having concerns that a teacher would be biased against/for a student. That number increases to 30% of parents who would support such a change with a slight majority of 51% of students wanting it. Not major numbers in favour there!

How can we Improve our Current Exam System?

In order to further improve the exam system, I propose that we have a week of continuous assessment before Easter to take the pressure off the June bottleneck. Each student could still then enjoy their Easter holidays and return refreshed for the last push towards June’s finals. I think by spreading the load more, it would mean that all the focus for the student isn’t placed on one part of the academic year. This would greatly reduce the intensity levels for those two weeks in June.

Would studying a reduced amount of subjects, five for example, be another option?  I think the benefit of having less subjects would mean that students could spend more time exploring and even enjoying the ones they select. It might also take away the constant focus on how many CAO points a subject can yield and allow them to investigate topics they genuinely have an interest in. Third level courses are usually made up of quite specific content compared to our current broad based Leaving Cert. Is our second level system too broad?  Are our students ‘Jack’s and Jill’s of all trades and masters of none’?

Another potential option might be to run a compulsory Transition year (TY) and implement some continuous assessment at the end of that year. This would ensure the large majority of students would be eighteen sitting their final exams and therefore be in a better position to decide on their third level/further education options also. The students could still enjoy their trips, experiences, and work placement in tandem with assessment in certain subjects. In addition to this, I would also like to see a system where all TY’s have the opportunity to sample leaving cert subjects. This would give them a deeper understanding of subject content, prior to making those choices for 5th year.

I am all for some continuous assessment, but still feel a final exam is the best and fairest way to differentiate and separate students academically. Having said this, I would be in favour of students having around 30% (approximately one-third) continuous assessment of each subject assessed before sitting down to do the final exam papers at the end of the year. This would seriously reduce current exam anxiety.

There are always improvements we can make to our exam system, but I feel there is a still lot right with it. Some of the above initiatives would take a little pressure off our students, while maintaining the integrity of our process. Indeed, there are a many changes the department could make, and it seems some are afoot. Ultimately, I still firmly believe that final exam papers should be retained as the fairest judgement. Joe

To view last weeks feature article on ‘Twenty Five Summer Reflections for Students’, click here.

More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

W: https://www.acesolutionbooks.com/ace-maths-tuition
FB: http://www.facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

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Joe’s Jotter: Changing your ‘CAO’ Mind – The Final Decision (Part II)


Investigate each Course’s Content

In order to rank your courses in a way that suits you best, choose ones you really want to do (not necessarily the ones your friends are doing or ones your parents want you to go into). Choose for you and no one else. When choosing a course, be sure to examine closely the module descriptor for each course. This tells you the exact layout of the course, how many credits each module has, how the exams are assessed in it, how many hours you will spend on each module, how the learning will take place and exactly what you will learn about. Investigate the exact modules you will be studying for each potential course. This is my most important piece of advice. You don’t want to be heading into November or December thinking ‘I am not interested at all in any of this stuff’ #nightmare.

The CAO is not the Only Show in Town

If you have not applied to the CAO or do not receive a CAO offer at all come September, there are other options. You should go on the SOLAS website (solas.ie) to investigate further education alternatives. These tend to be with your local Education and Training Board. For example, Louth & Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB). Many ETB’s offer Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses which will give you a Level 5 or Level 6 qualification. These courses are one or two years in duration and often involve practical work experience in companies. The fees for these courses tend to be much less than your standard CAO courses and grants are available in many cases also.

PLC courses attaining you a FETAC level 5 or 6 qualification are a steppingstone into higher college courses. These also allow you to see if an area of study suits you. Some courses in Colleges/Universities set aside a quota of PLC (FETAC) students to fill places each year. If you achieve the required results in your chosen PLC course, a college may accept you onto one of their courses. You can verify this by ringing up the college and asking them about accessing a specific course via the PLC route. You can find the full list of PLC courses on www.fetchcourses.ie or contact the Further Education College directly. Examples of PLC courses that students regularly progress further from are Pre-Nursing and ICT. For each CAO course, you will also be able to view (on cao.ie) what PLC requirements will get you a place on a given CAO course. This is well worth researching over the next few weeks.

To enhance your skills in a certain area, you can go also down the apprenticeship training route by checking out www.apprenticeship.ie. The apprenticeship scheme has been expanded greatly recently to include employers and jobs in many fields. Many of these companies would be delighted to take you on and help you grow and learn on the job. Apprenticeships were traditionally only for crafts like carpenters, electrician, plumbers etc. While these still exist, there are now new ones in ICT, Accountancy, Engineering, Insurance, Catering and Fintech etc.

A traineeship is also another option which can be considered. A traineeship is based around making your more employable by improving your skills. These tend to be a short duration courses (12-18 months) and are mostly run by the ETBs. Many apprenticeships and Traineeships are ‘Earn as you learn’ and therefore you can get your qualifications and have a few quid to live or pay for accommodation also.

Personally, I would have a look at alternatives like these above over the next few weeks, just in case the CAO process doesn’t go in your favour. It is good to have a little plan in the background, should you not get what you expect. You may not even need to use it, but it will certainly give you the comfort of having it there on the back burner.

Have a Plan B, C and D…..

I have spoken to hundreds of students over the years who had their heart set on one course and when they didn’t make it, they had no fall back plan. Your 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th choice are really important, so you would need to be content enough to accept them should it come to that. I cannot emphasise enough about the importance of checking out the module content of each course you choose. For each course, you need to genuinely ask yourself, ‘Would I do this course’?. This will then set the platform for your Plan B, C and D. If there are limited amount of courses you really want above all others, contact the institution offering it and ask them ‘Is there any other way to get into the course by studying something else first as opposed to the direct points route?’. This could be very useful Information later should things not work out perfectly.

Remember, if there is a subject matter you really enjoy or a course you feel you would be really good at, you may need to travel and live in another part of Ireland. Do not rule out the possibility of the UK (UCAS), the Netherlands, Poland, Italy or other European (UNICAS) countries. Fees and demand have dropped for some courses in Europe that are very popular here. Usually, your results do not need to be as high to study courses in the UK and Europe, compared to Ireland. Do that bit of exploration here if your heart is dead set on something. Just like in Ireland, places in certain courses may become available when not filled in early rounds.

Six Final Key Points of Note

  1. Keep an eye on the ‘CAO alert lists’ for new courses emerging in various colleges on www.cao.ie. Courses are added here on a continuous basis in the ‘Student Resources’ section of the left hand side of the CAO Homepage. You can add these into your CAO listing before July 1st (5.15pm). These courses are not in your CAO handbook (hardcopy). They may also come in at lower points, as many students may not be aware they even exist and will not have them on their CAO listing. As this article goes to press, twenty three of the third level institutions have an ‘alert list’ with new courses on them now.
  2. If you have applied for the HEAR or DARE scheme, you will find out if you are successful or not on June 29th this year. You will be able to appeal any decision made from these schemes from July 5th. Information on HEAR and DARE is on www.accesscollege.ie.
  3. For those of you who have applied for Medicine in various Universities, the HPAT results are due out before the end of June.
  4. The Leaving Cert results are out on September 3rd with the first round of CAO offers issued four days later on September 7th at 2pm.
  5. Students will be able to view their exam scripts and appeal their ‘written exam’ results sometime after September 3rd. I will issue a further guidance document on this in early September. Separately, students will also be able to appeal their ‘accredited grade’ in September. This appeal will only encompass a clerical check, ensuring that marks were correctly transferred. Accredited grades given by your school will not be changed unless a clerical error (only) is detected. As you all know at this stage, you will receive the highest result between your ‘Accredited Grade’ and ‘Written Papers’ for ALL subjects.
  6. I would recommend you sign up to https://careersnews.ie/ to keep up to date with announcements, CAO developments and news from third level institutions. You can contact me (via the below details) for a short consultation should you need advice or more detailed information on this year’s CAO process or third level applications 2021. Wishing you good luck. Joe

To read part 1 of this article, click here.

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More details about Joe’s ACE Maths Tuition classes for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate Students (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

W: acesolutionbooks.com/ace-maths-tuition
FB: facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

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Joe’s Jotter: Changing your ‘CAO’ mind – The Final Decision (Part I)


Change of Mind Oncoming

As the ink dries on the final few Leaving Cert Papers, the attention for 6th years immediately turns to reviewing and checking their CAO choices made earlier this year. With the CAO change of mind deadline approaching next week, I felt it good timing to provide some guidance to help you re-evaluate and analyse your earlier decisions. I would recommend that every student begins reviewing their initial choices (made way back in February) over the next day or two and not leave it until the final hours, when making key decisions under the stress of a deadline isn’t good. I think it is well worth spending a few days ensuring that you make the best possible choices for your future, and knowing you have done your best, will set your mind at ease for the summer. Your final CAO choices must be submitted online by 5.15pm on July 1st.

This is the first point in the year where the CAO process can lead to an amount of anxiety among students. As with every year, students are worried: ‘Will the points rise for my courses?’, ‘have I chosen the right courses in the correct order?’, ‘what if i don’t get my first choice’ or maybe ‘what if i don’t even get an offer at all?’. This article should serve as a reminder of the importance of spending time properly researching your choices now. Knowing the CAO process well and having confidence in your choices will smooth the way for a less painless process come exam results time in September.

Complete the Final Check

In May, the CAO e-mailed you a ‘statement of application’. Open that e-mail now and check that every single detail on it is correct. It is important not to just check course names, codes, possible language exemptions etc, but also to check your personal details. If you spot any incorrect information, get it touch with the CAO immediately. You can change most details online yourself. However, you will need to e-mail the CAO office to change your name, phone number or date of birth on your application, if required.

Note that any change you make to your CAO account/choices over the next few days will be confirmed to you by e-mail. You should always comb over these e-mails for accuracy. If this confirmation e-mail doesn’t arrive (keep an eye on your junk mail), you will need to contact the CAO office. If you make a mistake on your CAO form, you may not be able to correct it after July 1st  (5.15pm). If you enter the incorrect course or accidentally place them in the wrong order, you could see the third level place you want given to another student. From this point of view, I would get a second person to double check all your Information is accurate. All students must check their ‘Statement of application’ e-mail whether they are changing their mind on courses in this window or not.

How do I get onto a Third Level Course?

To get your place on any third level course, you need to fulfil three elements. You need to reach the ‘minimum entry requirements’ e.g. For Trinity College Dublin (TCD), the standard matriculation requirements are pass grades in English, Mathematics, a language other than English, and a full set of valid subjects for your examination system. The second element you must meet is the ‘subject requirements’ for a course. e.g. You must get at least an O1/H6 in Maths to get into Engineering at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT). Thirdly, you obviously need to achieve the CAO points required. The above entry requirements will be listed on the CAO website for each individual course. The moral of the story here is that when you are viewing a course’s content and modules, checkout the relevant requirements you need to attain also.

Genuine Order of Preference

The first and most important thing to be sure of is to put your course choices in the exact order you would like to do them in. You should not order them on how many points you think you will score or change them around based on how your exams went. At the end of an exam, you may feel you have underperformed or haven’t got the required grade for a specific course. Often, this may not be the case. Your first choice should be the course you want to do above all others, no matter what last year’s points were. This philosophy should be applied to all other choices also.

You have two separate lists to fill. The level 6/7 list and the level 8 list. Level 6 is for higher certificate courses, Level 7 for ordinary degree and Level 8 for honours degree courses. You may be offered a course from both lists, but you can only accept one of these. No matter what college course you commence, you will always have the opportunity to progress to a higher one once you have completed your chosen one in full. The course you select is just the beginning of your career journey. It is not the final step.

On each list, be aware that if you are offered your second choice for example, you cannot be offered your third choice or below thereafter. In this scenario, you can still be offered your first choice in future CAO rounds. You can go upwards on each of your two lists but cannot go downwards. This makes your order of preference decision even more crucial.

Changing your Mind

You can change or add in new courses to your Level 6/7 and your Level 8 list. The only courses that you cannot add in at this stage are called the ‘Restricted courses’. Restricted courses will be marked in your CAO handbook. An example of a restricted course may be a music degree where a practical was required to be completed. Another example is completion of the HPAT exam earlier in the year in order to get into medicine.

In an ideal world, you should fill out all ten choices on both lists. Ensure you have at least seven courses down on both lists to cover your bases well. When selecting your courses ask yourself questions like:

What areas did I enjoy learning about in school?
What subjects in school have I a natural curiosity for?
What subjects in school did I enjoy so much that it didn’t really feel like learning?
What modules would get me up for lectures at 7am on a cold winters morning?
Is there a topic or career I believe I have a passion for?
Am I narrowing my focus on a specific area too much?
What subject would I like to find out more about?
Could I see myself working in this career or a similar one in five years’ time?

You don’t need to know the exact answers to all of these above questions, but it will certainly get you thinking about the reality of whats ahead and your current decisions. A bit of soul searching is necessary before reaching your final order of preference. Keep in mind also that you will probably be graduating in three or four years’ time, so think ahead a little about what jobs and careers might be in demand them. In general though, select your courses based on your talents and passions, not how much money you can earn from a career or what other people think. Oh! and did I mention the deadline is July 1st at 5.15pm? I did of course. The sooner you start your deliberations, the more thinking time you will have. You can contact me (via the below details) for a short consultation should you need advice or more detailed information on this year’s CAO process or third level applications 2021. Good luck to everyone. Joe

To read part 2 of this article, click here.

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More details about Joe’s ACE Maths Tuition classes for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate Students (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

W: acesolutionbooks.com/ace-maths-tuition
FB: facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

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