No sooner is yesterday’s departmental Examination Board done and dusted (after just two and a half hours) when attention switches to school examinations. The Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations both start today, so the first thing I need to do is wish everyone taking examinations the very best of luck!

Among other things, the results of the leaving certificate examinations are important for next year’s University admissions. As we gradually dispense with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic, it seems this year we just *might* have the results before the start of teaching at the end of September. That will make a nice change!

In the system operating in England and Wales the standard qualification for entry is the GCE A-level. Most students take A-levels in three subjects, which gives them a relatively narrow focus although the range of subjects to choose from is rather large. In Ireland the standard qualification is the Leaving Certificate, which comprises a minimum of six subjects, giving students a broader range of knowledge at the sacrifice (perhaps) of a certain amount of depth; it has been decreed for entry into this system that an Irish Leaving Certificate subject counts as about 2/3 of an A-level subject for admissions purposes, so Irish students do the equivalent of at least four A-levels, and many do more than this. It’s also worth noting that all students have to take Mathematics at Leaving Certificate level.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate). I would have liked to have been allowed to take at least one arts subject past O-level, for example.

For University admissions points are awarded for each paper according to the marks obtained and then aggregated into a total CAO points, CAO being the Central Applications Office, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS. This means, for example, that our main Science pathway at Maynooth allows students to study Physics without having done it at Leaving Certificate level. This obviously means that the first year has to be taught at a fairly elementary level, but it has the enormous benefit of allowing us to recruit students whose schools do not offer Physics.

As much as I like the Leaving Certificate, I have concerns about using a simple CAO points count for determining entry into third-level courses. My main concern about is with Mathematics. Since the pandemic struck, students have been able to choose to questions from just six out of ten sections. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University, such as Physics.

I’ve been teaching the first year Mathematical Physics course in Maynooth for about 5 years. At the start of the module I put up a questionnaire asking the students about various mathematical concepts and asking them how comfortable they feel with them. It’s been noticeable how the fraction that are comfortable with basic differentiation and integration has been falling. That’s not a reflection on the ability of the students, just on the way they have been taught. As well as making adjustments during the pandemic for online teaching, etc, I have changed various things about the teaching, in particular adjusting the way I have introduced calculus into the module. Another problem is that we have been forced to start teaching first-years a week late because of delays to the CAO process caused by the pandemic.

I’ll be on sabbatical next academic year so I won’t be teaching the first-years (or anyone else) in September. It’s time to hand these challenges on to someone else!

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