29 April, 2015 - Minister O’Sullivan’s address to Transitions Reform Group Progress Conference

Good Morning, you are all very welcome here to the Clock Tower.

Introduction

I am delighted to announce these very important areas of reform that has emerged from the work of the Transition Reform Group.  Firstly, I want to acknowledge the Group, which has a highly engaged and active membership from the higher education sector and key agencies from both second level and higher education. 

Context

We began this journey some years ago when the NCCA and the HEA came together to organise a joint conference that surfaced some key themes that ran through public debate on the use of the Leaving Certificate for selection and entry into higher education and the impact that transition had on the student experience at both second and third level. 

There was widespread agreement that something had to be done to improve some of the difficulties that were being faced by our young people as they left school and sought to enter higher education.  What proved far more difficult was to unwind the threads that bound one level of education to another and to pinpoint where action needed to be taken and by whom.

What was crystal clear, however, was that a whole of system approach was needed.  I have talked before about the whole of system approach to driving educational reform.  But actually achieving system-wide and cross sectoral change is not a simple affair.  The education system is not a centrally controlled hierarchy under my command. It is made up of a vibrant web of institutions and sectors– each engaged with different purposes and missions – but with some very important shared objectives. 

First and foremost, I know that all of you in this room and out in your sectors, have the interests of students at the heart of everything that you are trying to accomplish.  In meeting that goal, real leadership from those working in both second level and higher education was required to recognise that the decisions that are taken separately in each sector do not have mutually exclusive impacts. 

We know that they can only be addressed by a spirit of collaboration and while this at times has been an intense engagement, it has been an enormously fruitful one. 

The Changes

I am announcing four changes today that will impact on those students sitting the Leaving Certificate in 2017. I want to first reassure all students that the impact of all of these changes have been considered and analysed with their best interests in mind.

The four measures that we are collectively launching today build on the work of the Transition Reform Group over the last number of years.

They are changes that address:

·        The extent of predictability in the Leaving Certificate examinations;

·        A new grading scale for the Leaving Certificate examinations;

·        Proposals towards a revised common points scale for entry into higher education; and

·        Broader undergraduate entry to higher education programmes.

Consultation and Research

Changes to our education system resonate right through Irish society and generate huge debate and public discourse.  And while that engagement is positive, when any change is proposed, we must be sure that our actions are not dictated by rumour or supposition.  We must have all the facts at our disposal.  We need to listen to the views of all of those concerned both directly and peripherally before we embark on change.

We have heard from a whole range of stakeholders about their experience of this transition and about the proposals that we have been considering.  We heard directly, from fifth and sixth year students who sat here in the Clock Tower more than a year ago and fully engaged with the issues at hand; from practitioners at second and third level in the major conference held in Maynooth University and at sectoral level through discussions by the partners on the Group with their respective constituencies.

I also want to acknowledge the research subgroup chaired by the HEA that worked the Educational Research Centre to carry out statistical analysis and modelling on all the changes that are being proposed today. I know that having access to the results of that analysis is helping all the partners on the Transition Reform Group to inform the decisions being taken in their respective sectors.

Predictability in the Leaving Certificate

One area where more formal research was considered essential related to the concerns about predictability in the Leaving Certificate examinations. With such a fundamental issue for the currency of a trusted assessment such as the Leaving Certificate, it was essential to ensure that the most robust examination possible was carried out before any action was embarked upon.  

The State Examinations Commission asked the leading international experts on assessment, the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment to work with Queens University to carry out a significant study on the Leaving Certificate examinations.

The study, which will be published in full by the State Examinations Commission this coming Friday is of unparalleled depth and breadth and will attract widespread interest internationally.

Getting this right is important. Here in Ireland, the extent to which exam papers are perceived to be predictable can dominate exam preparation by students and teachers and also pervades public discourse.  

We often get a dual perspective on this issue – predictability can be considered “good” (too many surprises can be unfair to candidates) or “bad” (often cited as a factor in leading to inappropriate reliance on rote learning).

I have asked the State Examinations Commission to now carefully consider the very important findings of the research study and come back to me with their advice of the actions to be taken. I hope that this research will provide a welcome evidence base around some of the more popular myths surrounding the Leaving Certificate.

The study found that despite the perception of many students and others, the Leaving Certificate examinations are not in fact very predictable and that those who rely on their predictability too much often do not perform as well as those who prepare more fully for the examinations. 

I think that the study shows that we all need to be mindful of our responsibility to be careful about the commentary on our examinations so as not to place unnecessary pressure on students during their preparation or during the very stressful period when they are sitting their exams.

New Grades and a revised Points system

I know that all of you here today will be particularly interested in the new grading structure for the Leaving Certificate and the proposals for a revised common points scale.

These are big changes and I can assure you they are not being taken lightly. 

Since the early nineties, we have had a grading system where students’ results are categorised into a very high number of grades.  Many of you of a certain age will remember when you got an A or a B or a C and so on.  As the demand for higher education grew, however, higher education institutions found that they were having to allocate places by random selection.

We agreed to change the grading of the Leaving Certificate to help solve this problem.  Unfortunately it has had unforeseen and unintended consequences for learners at second level. It has created a situation where a student is never more than 2.5% away from a grade higher or lower. This puts inordinate pressure on the student and every mark they earn. 

The NCCA has looked internationally and considered the Irish context. The new grading scale has already received widespread support in our consultations, from students and practitioners, and emerged from those discussions. The eight grade bands reward achievement appropriately without overly emphasising tiny gains or losses of marks that happen on the day of the exam. 

We wanted to make sure that in making the change to these wider grading bands that we did not create difficulties for the selection of students for higher education.

This shows the value of the collaborative approach that has been taken.  In parallel to the development of the new grading scale, the higher education institutions have been working hard to adapt their common points scale to ensure that we do not go back to the days of too much random selection.

In developing their new points system, I know that the universities and institutes of technology are working hard to ensure that they establish a fair system that will:

·        Minimise random selection;

·        Preserve the relative levels of points received for ordinary and higher level results; and, in line with wider education policy,

·        Will encourage the take-up of higher level subjects by removing the risk for students aiming higher of not receiving any points for entry into higher education courses.

I know that the proposals being published today are under development and are subject to review by the academic councils. However, I do think that the underpinning principles that have been developed are a real tribute to those in the higher education sector intent on fairly recognising scholastic achievement at all levels. 

The proposals mean that now points will be awarded for those achieving 30-40% in higher level subjects. In eliminating the element of risk for students of getting no points if they opt for higher level, we will be encouraging its take-up. This approach supports wider education policy and I welcome it.

I hope that the changes proposed will not result in unhelpful and misplaced commentary about “rewarding failure” which does our students a real dis-service. All examination results are a measure of a level of achievement, whether at ordinary or higher level. 

We have created a situation where a student who could achieve say 39% on a higher level paper will get absolutely no CAO points for entry into higher education, while a student with the same ability but unwilling to take the risk who gets a C on an ordinary level paper gets points for that result.

This anomaly is neither logical nor fair, discourages students from aiming higher, and I should add, is not a feature of other examination systems internationally.

I look forward to seeing the final points system later in the summer when it has been fully developed and agreed by the universities and institutes.

Broader Entry

Finally, I want to say a few words about broader entry into undergraduate programmes.

I am very pleased with the progress that has been made to date on the commitment that was made to broaden entry into higher education and to reduce entry routes into the sector.  

This is a very important area of reform for students. Too many entry routes into higher education programmes provide a bewildering array of choice for second level students in 6th year and many find this complexity very difficult to successfully navigate.

We know that the consequences for students can be undesirable and unjustifiable, particularly where institutions are motivated to provide too many courses with an unnecessarily small number of places purely to artificially inflate the points requirement and increase their own institution’s prestige. 

Any such cynical manipulation of student pathways is inexcusable and can result in students making poor choices that can ultimately lead to drop-out.

That is why I want to recognise the work that has been done to date. I know that the restructuring and curricular reform that is being undertaken by institutions requires a lot of intensive work – but I think that the reward for the student experience is worth it. 

Giving students the chance to experience a much broader 1st year and allowing them to defer specialisation to later in their degrees will give us more rounded graduates in the long term. This is good for them and good for wider society as well.

There is more work to be done including issues around matriculation requirements into higher education. 

However, the changes I am announcing this week are the changes that will impact on those sitting the Leaving Certificate in 2017. 

We are putting in place a research and evaluation framework to build on the strong evidence base already established for monitoring the implementation of the various elements of the programme of change on a systematic basis and assessing its impact.

Conclusion

 I want to thank you all for coming here today and for your patience and attention.  I will stay for as much of the discussion as I can.