Traditional Leaving Cert to go ahead: How can we win real change?

By Myriam Poizat 

On Monday, 31 January, the Department of Education announced that this year’s sixth year students would have no other option than to sit the traditional Leaving Cert exams in the summer. This is despite students having missed at least four months of their senior cycle, and, when able to attend school, having to study in freezing classrooms without proper contact tracing or testing.

Even before the pandemic, the Leaving Cert had a debilitating impact on students. Not only was it described as “traumatic” by the UN committee on the rights of children, but a Studyclix survey from 2019 revealed that the vast majority of students experienced extreme stress and mental or physical illness as a result of the exam.

One can only imagine the added pressure created by a years-long global pandemic, during which students have had to juggle lockdowns, absent teachers, and often while having a family member or themselves affected by the virus. One also needs to take into account the extra pressure for students from low-income backgrounds, or affected by any other pressure (i.e. homelessness, disability, etc) unable to access grinds, extra educational support or a quiet place to study at home.

Even the Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, stated at the end of last year that “the current Leaving Cert system does not prepare students for life beyond school”. It is therefore not only highly hypocritical that the exams would go ahead, but it is truly disgraceful that the Government did not try to bring clarity at an early stage. They waited months to clarify what fate the class of 2022 was to face.

Norma Foley normalises inequality…

A greater disgrace was the fact that the Government has once again failed young people by refusing to listen to their opposition to a traditional, exams-only Leaving Cert, or grant the minimum demand of a hybrid Leaving Cert, as in the previous two years. Yet, this comes as no surprise as the Government’s primary focus is to protect the status quo, and to ensure that so-called “normality” is maintained at all cost.

As a matter of fact, the Leaving Cert serves an agenda that isn’t about developing young people’s different skills and abilities. It’s about cramming an 18-month curriculum into one single exam, so that students from very different backgrounds and abilities can unequally compete to enter third level. And so, while a hybrid Leaving Cert would have been preferable for a majority of students who would have felt alleviated from a lot of unnecessary and inhumane pressure in those abnormal times, it would not have challenged the fundamental nature of the Leaving Cert itself. 

This system of examination is an unequal rat race to enter third level due to the very limited funding that exists for university and college places. The Government refuses to progressively tax billionaires, multimillionaires and big businesses in order to invest in third level education and ensure a college place for all those who want one. In the past two years, predictive grades have seen points being inflated. This led to many students, despite getting maximum points, missing out on their course choices because there weren’t enough places for the number of students that applied.

…Young people normalise opposing it

While issues around this year’s Leaving Cert developed, and students organised significant grassroots protests and school walkouts nationally, as the slogan ‘end the rat race’ resonated from Dublin to Wexford to Carlow; at the same time hundreds of vigils and standouts, gathering tens of thousands emerged nationally in a outpouring of grief and anger at the murder of Ashling Murphy, the 244th death at the hand of male violence since 1996. This was followed by two ROSA – Socialist Feminist Movement online assemblies of hundreds which organised the launching of an active campaign against gender violence with a key focus to make this year’s International Women’s Day a day of mass protests and strike actions in schools, colleges, communities and workplaces.

These active responses to injustices have led to the Government feeling under pressure, from the Minister of Justice having to publicly pledge zero tolerance to gender violence, to the Minister of Education not only announcing a cancellation of the Leaving Cert exams fees for this year, but proposing significant changes on this year’s exam papers. None of those concessions on the exams would have ever happened if it wasn’t for the wave of pressure from below that forced change – including the role hundreds of students played in participating in an online rally organised by Socialist Party TD Mick Barry on 7 January, and in organising protests on 19 January (the day the Dail reopened).

‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’ – Frederick Douglass

These are real examples of why young people need to get active in grassroots campaigns, fights and struggles against all the injustices, inequalities and oppressions that the type of society we live in perpetuates. The Socialist Party therefore fully supports students’ initiatives to put pressure on the ISSU, their student union, to call for a meeting open to all students to discuss the Government’s plan and whether anything can be done to challenge it, and win a better alternative to this year’s exam.

Yet, these are only snippets of the impact a bit of pressure can have. In 2018, the impact of Repeal showed us the full potential of a real grassroots, multi-gendered and multicultural mass movement from below. While in 2013, young women were told abortion rights could be won neither easily nor quickly, they refused to settle for minimum change, and they refused to wait. They organised a real living struggle to demand what the majority of young and working-class people deserved. In less than six years, this led to a historic change in the Irish constitution through the repealing of the eighth amendment, along with the implementation of real pro-choice legislation. 

In the past decade, but particularly in recent years, young people in Ireland and internationally have played an important role in spearheading protests and movements, from Black Lives Matter, to climate strikes, to struggle against femicide and misogyny, to uprisings in Chile and revolutionary situations in the Middle East and North Africa. These uprisings have also led to important victories and helped forge solidarity amongst many oppressed and working-class people against exploitation and oppression. This resulted in the ending of the Pinochet regime’s (a murderous dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990) pro-big business constitution in 2020 in Chile and the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the US – the killer cop that murdered George Floyd. The impact of Black Lives Matter was felt here in Ireland as thousands protested across the country in the summer of 2020, and in November 2021 with student walkouts against racism. One victory of these protests was the winning of an inclusivity forum in a school in Cork after school students took strike action. 

What way forward for an equal and fair education system? 

As the crisis of capitalism worsens and big businesses continue to be protected by pro-big business governments at the expense of frontline workers, women, LGBTQIA+ people, people of colour and our planet, the issues facing young people – from struggling to access education, healthcare, housing and decent jobs and pay, to experiencing gender violence, racism or transphobia – are not going to go away. Our anger that has been reflected through many outbursts during the pandemic can only grow further and stronger in a system that puts profits over our needs.

Only by learning lessons from past movements and understanding how the system we live in works to create all the issues we are affected by, can working-class people overcome division, and come together in a movement to build a new society where the most basic needs, such as a quality, progressive and equal education system are cultivated.

While significant gains in education can be won under capitalism – such as the cancellation of the points system and free open access to third level education, or real anti-racist training and sex education in schools – a real equal education system would only be possible in a society in which the wealth and resources are publicly owned and democratically planned in the interests of all people and the planet – a democratic socialist society. Only then could the education system be run by students and teachers, for students and teachers, ensuring an education free from any form of discrimination or oppression, with proper pay and conditions for workers, and the development of college courses based on what society needs. It would also ensure free access to education and the development of curriculums based around young people’s aspirations, making exams like the Leaving Cert, which put competition and elitism on a pedestal, completely obsolete.

Young people, who have led the most powerful struggles of our times and of the previous ones, have a key role to play in this. If you agree, join the Socialist Party today! You can sign up to learn more about it here:  

Why you should be a socialist 

  • Give young people a future – we deserve to live in a society with a world-class education system that allows all young people to develop their talents and capabilities to their full potential. 
  • End oppression and discrimination – we deserve to live in a world free from all forms discrimination and oppression, a world free from gender-based violence, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism. 
  • “Don’t Look Up” – we should not tolerate the destruction of the planet by big business, fossil fuel companies and banks for the insane, short term drive for profit. 
  • End inequality and exploitation – the richest 10 billionaires in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 3.1 billion and the richest 252 men have more wealth than the poorest 1 billion women and girls in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.  
  • Get organised for real change – these injustices are systemic. The capitalist system we live under is rotten to the core. Workers – the people who create society’s wealth and make our society function – have the power to end its rule. 
  • Together we can build a truly democratic socialist society where the wealth is democratically and publicly owned by the majority and utilised to meet our needs and those of our planet
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