Einstein never failed maths, by the way: musings on the Leaving Cert

In a week of Leaving Cert and A-level results, there’s been a worrying amount of “don’t worry if you’ve done horrifically, lots of brilliant people failed exams!” going around. It bothers me. It bothers me because far, far, far, far more non-brilliant people failed their exams. Because the path is often that much harder when you’ve failed, or you haven’t done as well as you would have liked, at exams.

(Einstein never failed maths, by the way. Just saying.)

I think the Leaving Cert is hideous. I also think that it does matter, hugely, to people in their late teens and early twenties. It’s affecting their career/education choices now and for the next few years – years when, some of them, people are figuring out what they want to do (lots of people continue to figure this out for many many years) and looking at the various paths open to them. People don’t always find their career or learning passions at seventeen or eighteen. I would guess most don’t. But so often the starting point is that end-of-school exam and what doors it opens for you.

And it’s hard. It’s hard whatever you’re doing, whether you’re the 500+ points student going off to study the course you’ve wanted for years, or whether you’re the person figuring out whether to repeat or to look for work or to take that place on the tenth-preference course you don’t really want, or somewhere in between. It’s hard because there’s a whole other step now. (And then a step after that. And after that. And after that.)

But as with everything, the step we’ve only just completed is what matters to us, at least for a while. I don’t think it does any Leaving Cert student any favours to dismiss it entirely, any more than it does to suggest that eight A1s is the only way of being successful at that exam (though fair play to them, even though they’re clearly insane).

It’s a big one, when you’re seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. It’s not going to define your life – but for most, it’s going to be a really crucial factor in an area of your life for a few years. I know it seems silly to suggest that we go for this middle-ground attitude towards the wretched exams, but I’m sick of the hype at both ends of the scale, from the ‘it’s the biggest deal ever!’ to ‘it’s totally meaningless!’ Wishy-washy middle ground, folks, it’s the way to go.

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

16 responses to “Einstein never failed maths, by the way: musings on the Leaving Cert

  • Lisa

    It’s been two years since I did my Leaving, and I still remember it fondly. No sarcasm. I was a complete hobo, and barely studied at all. Took the whole year as a doss. Thanks to a rather good memory I managed 450 points. I remember the very first day – people sat in the corner crying their eyes out with worry.

    The Leaving Cert is a joke, especially given that the majority of what is learned is never used again. >_< A more practical Leaving Cert would be a godsend.

    • clairehennessy

      >> The Leaving Cert is a joke, especially given that the majority of what is learned is never used again. <<

      Oh, absolutely. But is it trying to be a practical, real-world exam, or is it trying to be a university assessment test and/or provide the foundation for further academic study? All three it seems, which is part of the problem.

      I’m less concerned about the actual subject matter than I am about the way in which it doesn’t encourage and develop critical thinking skills, or research skills, or, well, learning skills. The subject that demands the most understanding from students is maths, and that’s a disaster area.

      • Emerald

        I think the real purpose of the Leaving Certificate — and the reason it’s obvious flaws are never addressed — is that it’s a cultural milestone. A rite of passage, in the anthropological sense. It’s not so much about the content of the test as it is about enduring the stress and tension and nonsense of it all.

        But, I mean, it could be worse. Some people’s rites of passage involve giving old men blowjobs. Seriously. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etoro_tribe

        • Emerald

          *its obvious flaws.

          Bah. I hate making spelling/grammar errors on a writer’s blog…

        • clairehennessy

          Hmm, good point. Not sure if those with the decision-making-power would articulate it quite like that, but I think an underlying sense of ‘we’ve all suffered through it and come out the other side’ probably accounts for a lot of the stagnation.

          Have recently read several books on rites-of-passage, actually – only thing madder than the wacky do-this-and-now-you-are-an-adult rituals are the various scholarly, jargon-y dissections of it all!

          • Ben

            Yes, but sadly comfort is the biggest risk to progress. Sticking with what we have because it is, rather than going with something that isn’t. Same reason it’s taken IT so long to reach the classroom, and to a large extent we’re barely seeing the beginnings of classroom tech now reaching (state-run) schools.

  • Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Einstein never failed maths, by the way: musings on the Leaving Cert

    […] “In a week of Leaving Cert and A-level results, there’s been a worrying amount of ‘don’t worry if you’ve done horrifically, lots of brilliant people failed exams!’ going around. It bothers me. It bothers me because far, far, far, far more non-brilliant people failed their exams …” (more) […]

  • Laura Cassidy

    Agree! Whilst I don’t think exams or university are for everybody, and think the amount of information you’re expected to retain for the Leaving Cert is insane, I find it odd that people are like ‘At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.’ I think it diminishes the achievement of somebody who got all As, or somebody who worked really really hard for 300 points and is overjoyed. Working hard in order to get want you want in life does matter after all!

    • clairehennessy

      Oh, the Leaving Cert is nuts. Completely and utterly. And while information-wise it is of very little use, and the learning/studying etc skills it teaches are often dubious, the fact that it is used for so many things means that it still matters in that sense.

      I would love to see more of a focus on people who got ‘average’ or even ‘averagely good’ points rather than the ‘perfect students’, or people whose goal was just to get their Leaving Cert – working for and meeting your own target rather than the ‘ideal’ is what matters!

  • Margaret

    Absolutely agreed. Yeah, the Leaving Cert. isn’t the be-all-and-end-all and there are other options if you do badly on it (or even if you do well, but just not well enough for what you really wanted, which is as bad), but this “it doesn’t matter anyway, because here’s a list of people who succeeded despite dropping out of school at an unusually young age” isn’t really helpful either. As well as being a bit dismissive of the achievements of those who’ve done well, I also think it’s kind of dismissive of the disappointment of those who didn’t get what they want. Like “hey it doesn’t matter that you didn’t get that course you really wanted because look at all these people who succeeded in areas you have absolutely no interest in without it.”

    I think both the whole “you have to do well in the Leaving Cert. or your whole life is ruined” and the “it doesn’t matter how you do in the Leaving Cert. because it doesn’t predict how well you will do in life” come from a kind of one-size-fits-all definition of success (although admittedly the latter is probably a bit closer to accurate than the former). Neither seems to consider that the Leaving Cert. may have a different level of significance in the lives of different people.

    And yeah, a middle ground, saying that the Leaving is not going to determine the whole rest of your life and doing badly isn’t the end of the world, but that it does have an effect on what options are available to you in the immediate future would be nice, but I guess balanced views don’t make good headlines!

    • clairehennessy

      >> As well as being a bit dismissive of the achievements of those who’ve done well, I also think it’s kind of dismissive of the disappointment of those who didn’t get what they want. Like “hey it doesn’t matter that you didn’t get that course you really wanted because look at all these people who succeeded in areas you have absolutely no interest in without it.” <> I guess balanced views don’t make good headlines! <<

      You are very wise. 🙂

  • Well None Of It Really Matters Anyway « La Vie En Ross

    […] I read this blog from Claire Hennesey today and it reminded me of the number one thing that annoys me about […]

  • Ben

    Claire, I think you missed the point of what people mean when they say stuff like “Sure, the LC isn’t that big a deal anyway”. I’ve always thought of it being said in a kinda “Well, listen, no point in panicking now… you have plenty of options look at them. Don’t think because you’ve failed your LC that you’re screwed, because you’re not.” rather than it being a complete dismissal of the LC as a whole. I think you’re also forgetting that the LC does not suit everyone, it does no favours to those who want to get into certain industries anyway.
    Unfortunately in Ireland a free university education is seen as a right to go to university no matter what, but realistically a university education should ultimately be limited to those who it is suited to. We have lost sight of our universities being a place of academia and instead we now see them as just another step on the ladder towards a career when they really should not be.
    So, that’s just my thoughts on it… hopefully they’re fairly coherent!

    • clairehennessy

      >> I think you’re also forgetting that the LC does not suit everyone, it does no favours to those who want to get into certain industries anyway.<<

      Oh, absolutely – completely agree with you. The Leaving Cert definitely doesn't suit everyone (or anyone?), but my point is that over-emphasising the handful of success stories (and often success stories in industries where it IS infinitely easier when you're going in with an educational background) isn't necessarily helpful or sympathetic for people who are disappointed with their results. There's a big big difference between "don't think you're screwed, there are other options" and "exams are stupid and have no relevance whatsoever to people's career success!", and the latter really gets to me. It's not true, for a start, and because of the free university ed, because we have crazy numbers going on to third-level, the Leaving Cert has become much more of a basic – well, not quite *requirement*, exactly, but it's *expected* that people will have at least a LC much more than it would have been when many of the people spouting the "exams are irrelevant!"-type stuff were finishing school. For many things, not getting the LC you wanted does make things harder – yeah, there are options available, but not nearly enough of them (which I think relates to what you're saying – we *shouldn't* be expecting that everyone will follow an academic path, absolutely, but it's the one almost everyone's trained for and the one that's perceived as valid, including by many employers). We have a system which heavily, heavily privileges the traditional academic route, which means that in many cases, the ‘other options’ make it really tough for people, and I don't think it does students in those situations any favours to pretend like that's not the case. Plus, y'know, saying "the LC isn't a big deal" *after* people have gone through it… slightly cruel; it'd be different if there was more of this before and during the exams to counteract all the silly hype.

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