Reverse the inhumane decision! Cancel the 2020 Leaving Cert Exams now!

With the wealthy and governments keeping non-essential businesses open and refusing to invest massively in PPE and necessary medical equipment, the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the nature of capitalism, that puts profit before workers’ health. This is mirrored in our state’s treatment of school students: the recent decision to postpone the Leaving Cert to late in the summer/ early September – after having left young people in a stressful limbo for almost a month – has truly revealed how detached the Irish government is from its young people. 

Only 19% of Leaving Cert students support the rescheduling of exams, according to a survey of 46,000 young people conducted by the Irish Second Level Student’s Union earlier this month. On the other hand, a student-led petition calling for its cancellation has surpassed 18,000 signatures. This illustrates the government’s continual disregard of our demands and its failure to represent our best interests. 

In this article, sixth-year students and Socialist Students activists Haritha O. and Sadie H. explain how inhumane any type of assessment is under such circumstances, as well as the concessions that must be put in place for young people to be able to enter third-level education next year – if public health conditions permit.

  1. Holding state exams is a recipe for a mental and public health crisis and is inhumane – Cancel the Leaving Cert now!

The stress of the Leaving Cert on an average year is strenuous and detrimental to young people as it is. This was only exacerbated by the closure of schools in March, leaving students isolated without full educational support. This is disproportionately affecting poor and working-class students who do not necessarily have access to a quiet environment where they can study and may not be able to afford the technology to participate in online classes. Students with mental health problems and disabilities also have restricted access to the resources they deserve.

For a lot of students the Leaving Cert is a life-defining exam that has huge repercussions on their physical and mental health. This anxiety is only heightened by the pressure of the pandemic – most students are unmotivated, their ability to focus and study affected by the lockdown. The situation will only appear more dire come July, when many will be mourning the deaths of friends and family. Who is to say what the situation of this crisis will be by the end of the summer or in what state of mind young people will be in? Any type of assessment in such an uncertain and unpredictable period will have devastating results for young people’s mental health, and will hit the most vulnerable layers of students hardest. Such inhumane conditions could spark an extremely severe and dangerous mental health crisis amongst young people. This must be avoided. 

This is also a public health emergency – students will inevitably end up sitting their Leaving Cert with Covid-19, forcing other students, teachers and invigilators to risk contracting the virus in exam halls, which could threaten their own physical health and that of their loved ones. Various exams across the globe – the Baccalauréat in France, A Levels in the UK, and state exams in both the US and India – have been cancelled. The well-being of young people should be prioritised over exams in Ireland as well as globally.

Based on the need to protect young people’s health and safety, we demand a cancellation of the Leaving Cert and all future forms of assessment for entry into further education this year. All students should receive a certificate allowing them to progress to work or college. 

  1. Fund third-level institutions to ensure all students receive their first or second CAO choice

We have seen huge solidarity from ordinary people in support of frontline workers, and concessions, although minimal, have been made for workers affected by Covid-19. Young people cannot be discriminated against in this crisis, and postponing the Leaving Cert puts a tremendous amount of stress on Leaving Cert students that plan to work over the summer to finance third level education. Many young people are left without this opportunity due to loss of jobs, but many are also the frontline workers who are hailed for bagging groceries today, but who will be forced to sit the biggest exam of their lives come July.

It is crucial that we use the Covid-19 pandemic to fight for educational reform to overcome the inequalities in the Irish education system. Education is a right and should be free and accessible for all to end the discrimination against disabled, poor and working-class young people. The Leaving Cert favours neurotypical middle-class students from stable families, who have quiet study spaces and can afford private education such as grinds. Moreover, the termination of years of learning in two to three weeks of exams puts an absurd amount of strain on students; a 2019 survey conducted by revision website Studyclix reported that 75% of Leaving Cert students experienced “extreme stress” as a direct result of the exams, with 28% suffering with depression. 

Why have we created an annual tradition of burdening youth in Ireland with pressure in a race for places in further education? The Leaving Cert does not measure intelligence or ability, nor does regurgitating reams of quotes and definitions improve our cognition. Its point system simply reflects the repressive values of capitalism and the consequent devaluing of education. Young people have to compete for third-level education places because of a supply-and-demand system based on a shortage of places. Rather than fund public services so that young people can study what they want to, the Irish establishment choose to mollycoddle corporations, epitomised by our government’s refusal to accept the €15-plus billion Apple tax.

In the context of such uncertainty and unprecedented crisis, where any form of assessment could have a dangerous impact on the mental and physical health of young people, the wealth and resources available in society should be used to fund third level institutions massively and to open places, so that young people can receive and access their first or second CAO choice – if public health conditions permit the reopening of colleges.

  1. What next?

It is obvious that we need an end to the points system that pits students against one another. Following the pandemic, students and teachers must come together to discuss alternative forms of assessment that do not discriminate against the most vulnerable section of society, so that secondary students are less restricted in their choices after school.

To end the points system also means to end competition for limited places in third-level education. We need massive funding of third-level institutions so that all students can access college courses free of cost. Ireland has one of the highest rates of the super-rich globally, with 3,000 new millionaires in 2018 alone, meaning wealth is available in society to massively invest in third-level education and to end competition for third-level once and for all. Resources aren’t lacking either: numerous precariously-paid and employed postgraduates and tutors could be made permanent to teach in third-level education and to reduce the number of students per class. 

Education systems under capitalism aim to churn out obedient workers that will fulfill the demands of the capitalist class. Rather than nurturing inquisitive and intelligent youth, values of productivity and competition are emphasised. A socialist alternative – where the economy would be democratically planned by workers and communities to put people’s needs before profit – would teach students to love learning and think with curiosity. Secondary education would be rid of exams such as the Leaving Cert, and further education institutions would not be the bureaucratic centres of elitism they are today. Education would be controlled and managed by teachers, parents and students to ensure workers’ rights (pay, conditions, etc.) as well as the development of curriculums based around young people’s aspirations. Education at all levels would be free and accessible to all; education free from the reins of commodification.

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School students have launched a petition to cancel the Leaving Cert Exams, sign it here:

https://www.change.org/canceltheleaving2020