The unprecedented cancellation of the Leaving Certificate has thrown the education system into chaos. Within Ireland these examinations determine progression into higher education and serve a similar role to A-Levels in the UK system or SATs in the US. It is also a huge opportunity to rethink both the Leaving Certificate and third level. CWI Ireland members Carah Daniel (SIPTU and Young Socialists member) and Ciarán McKenna (SIPTU Education Sector – Personal Capacity) analyse what this development might mean for the future of education.
On 8 May the government finally announced the cancellation of this year’s Leaving Cert due to the Coronavirus pandemic following months of uncertainty for 6 th year students across the country. CWI Ireland believes these examinations should have been cancelled as soon as the scale of the COVID- 19 crisis became. This it is a position that has been supported by the majority of students.
While teachers and students have tried to adapt to the best of their ability to online classes, this isn’t enough to meaningfully prepare for such exam. But the sudden, unplanned, shift to online education reveals stark class differences. For instance, it doesn’t take into account the large number of students who don’t have access to the technology required for online classes; a stable broadband connection; or, the ability to have a quiet place to study at home. This is a reality for many working class students, who would have missed out the most were the Leaving Certificate to go ahead as normal. The mental health of students is also another key reason why it would have been grossly unfair to continue with the exam. We’re all affected by this pandemic and impacted by, for example, being unable to see our friends and family. By the time the exams came around many students would be dealing with unemployment and financial difficulty in their families as well as sick family members or, indeed, coping with bereavement. It would be completely unfair to expect students to sit the Leaving Cert exam during this time.
The proposal from the government is to replace the Leaving Cert with Predicted Grades agreed by teachers and principals of schools. This alternative also raises concerns, particularly for schools in disadvantaged areas and working class students who wouldn’t have the same access to private assistance such as grinds, are in much bigger class rooms and don’t have the same facilities provided in other schools. The official guidance on implementing Predicted Grades worryingly appears to suggest that performance by a schools’ students in the past would be an influential factor in deciding the 2020 grades. It also places extra work and pressure on teachers, who will now be expected to grade their students themselves. Both teachers and students must be protected through this, and ensure that the grading of exams is objective. Any extra work done by teachers must be paid.
Ultimately, however, the Leaving Cert in its current format, is simply not fit for purpose. It isn’t ashow of intelligence so much as it is a memory test. It has always been unfair to working class students, with students being educated privately and able to afford grinds or further educational assistance being put at a clear advantage to those who can’t. Education under capitalism is focused on developing the next generation of the workforce to generate profits for the capitalists not on developing the innate talents and abilities of young people.
CWI Ireland argues that there should be no Covid-19 penalty for any young person’s education. The current pandemic is unprecedented, but the sudden changes it has forced upon us mean we must use it to fight for a better education system for young people.
In the present circumstances as many students as possible should be facilitated entry into their favoured CAO choices. Importantly, paid apprenticeships should also be expanded to give young people access to more fields and a different way of learning. It must be ensured that when students and staff return to schools and universities that it is safe to do so. Smaller classes, a recruitment drive on teachers, increased funding for more spaces and resources as well as full sanitisation of classrooms etc. will be necessary for this.
As socialists, we say that education is a right and that it should be free and accessible to all. No student should be placed at a disadvantage due to their financial situation or class background. We strive toward a socialist society that is democratically planned and organised by working class people that caters to the needs of people instead of profit and big business. Education should not be detrimental to students’ well-being or be a source of stress and anxiety. Education should be about thinking for ourselves, learning new things, developing ourselves and trying to expand our horizons.
BUT WHAT IS THIRD LEVEL FOR?
The cancellation of the 2020 Leaving Certificate examination is also an apt time to reflect upon the purpose and function of third level education. Under capitalism all institutions of education are pushed further and further towards meeting the needs of big business and its desire for profits. From primary level onwards we see in recent times the increasing influence of capitalist thinking in education. Attempting to turn all students into so-called ‘entrepreneurs’ is perhaps the most toxic manifestation of this process.
Higher education provides highly skilled workers for industry without which production or the provision of services would not be able to generate profits. It also provides the vast bulk of basic research that is then often taken free of charge by big business and turned into profitable products. Of course, these capitalist companies usually then funnel all of the resulting profits to their off-shore bank accounts rather than pay their taxes. This, in large part, accounts for the funding crisis that third level has experienced since the last capitalist economic collapse in 2008. Capitalists ruthlessly exploit the higher education system in the same way they ruthlessly exploit the working class, the animal world and the environment.
A comprehensive higher education system is critical to the functioning of a complex society. Prior to COVID-19 climate change was the major crisis facing humanity. It still is but the immediate task is to defeat the virus through the development of a vaccine. Presently nearly all universities and colleges are re-orientating themselves towards this urgent task. For socialists, higher education must be based on the principle of meeting human need and the development of human intellectual capacity to that end. There is a long tradition within the workers’ movement of valuing and encouraging intellectual activity among workers. From the Mechanics Institutes, trade union education initiatives and now the embrace of a mass higher education system.
The old elitist model of higher education, to act as a filtering mechanism for the professions and the establishment, while still in place to a considerable degree, is increasingly being eroded by the mass nature of higher education. Between 1991 and 2016 the number of students progressing to third level increased from 15% of the age group to nearly 45%. This included huge numbers of working class students who were able to take advantage of the abolition of third level fees in the 1990s. But parallel with the expansion of access has come the determined intention of the capitalist establishment to degrade working conditions for staff in third level. The system runs on the backs of thousands of precariously employed lecturing staff who are mercilessly exploited. Alongside this the supports available to students have diminished over time forcing many students, particularly working class students, often to work full time as well as study full time. More recently the appalling accommodation situation has meant that many students cannot afford to live near college with some students now commuting four or five hours a day to continue their studies. All too often the effort to reconcile all these conflicting pressures leads to thousands of students being compelled to leave their courses before they attain a qualification.
None of this is necessary. The jolt to the system caused by the cancellation of the Leaving Certificate should now spur a re-orientation in the whole third level system. Socialists call for a range of measures to both meaningfully enhance students’ experience and to allow staff within the system to work with students to allow them to reach their full potential.
At a minimum, this would require a number of immediate changes. First, abolition of student charges and replacement by a massively increased central grant from the State. In addition, there should be publicly funded expansion of student accommodation facilities to ensure all students are housed comfortably so that they can concentrate on fulfilling their potential. Added to these would be a massive increase in lecturer numbers to ensure student/staff ratios allow the scope for students to broaden and deepen their educational development. This would mean an end to precarity and exploitation and the creation of full-time, permanent, positions for lecturing, research and teaching staff. We also call for a democratic trade union and student oversight of university administration and the applications process to universities to ensure fairness in this regard.
But shifting the focus of higher education away from ‘competitiveness’ or ‘innovation’ primarily or wholly for the benefit of the capitalist class is surely posed in a world profoundly shaken by COVID- 19 and the threat of climate change to the very survival of humanity. By creating an open access system to allow all those who are interested in higher education to access it, we expand the capacity of our society to face those challenges. The famous quote from Harvard University scientist Stephen Jay Gould sums up the socialist perspective on higher education: ‘I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than I am in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.’ The working class, as the overwhelming majority in all capitalist societies, possesses the innate talent, skills and intellectual capacity to face the challenges ahead. A socialist revolution, and a socialist transformation of society, including higher education, is the fundamental precondition for unlocking this capacity in the working class and, solving the colossal problems facing humanity.