Conor Murphy, INOTE Chairperson, on proposed changes to Leaving Certificate English

On Tuesday the 29th of March Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, announced changes to the Leaving Cert. These reforms will take years to develop and implement. With this in mind Minister Foley has decided to move two exams from the end of 6th year to the end of 5th year: Irish Paper One and English Paper One. This will apply from those starting senior cycle in 2023 on.

We at INOTE (Irish National Organisation for Teachers of English) ask that the Minister reconsider the decision to move English Paper One.

The English Leaving Cert exam is broken up into two papers. Paper Two is most familiar to people: here the students’ knowledge and critical appreciation of texts is assessed. Paper Two is where you will find Shakespeare, novels, those poets that are constantly debated, drama, and film.

Paper One is where the students get to express themselves, get to give their opinions, get to be creative. It is here that you will find the developed, original, essay, worth 25% of their overall English grade.

Here they can write short stories, personal essays, opinion pieces, discursive essays, persuasive speeches. It is in this paper that the students can show off their ‘creative thinking’ (NCCA report page23). It is in this paper that the students can ‘reflect their evolving sense of self’ (NCCA report page 21).

The word ‘evolving’ is important in the context of Minister Foley’s decision.

The core element of the study of English, from Junior Infants to the end of Sixth Year, was the development of individual student voice in whatever creative expression (or ‘creative thinking’) they find best suits them. It has typically been in the forum of Paper 1 that students ‘reflect their evolving sense of self’.

This process takes time to evolve.

That vital last year of maturation - where students are exposed to a variety of voices through study of various texts for Paper 2, where students experiment in the time available to them over the two years, where students hone their writing skills - has been compromised. Paper One’s knowledge and skills are developmental; a student can’t just learn them off after one or two classes. They write, get specific feedback, write again, receive more feedback, continuously over the two years. The more time they have the more they develop.

This will now stop at the end of Fifth Year.

If ever there was an example of ‘dumbing down’ it is here.

An obvious alternative to this decision would be to examine elements of Paper Two. Paper Two is all about developing the students’ critical and analytical skills. But the paper is text heavy and requires ‘hard study’ (learning off quotes, revising themes, images etc). By examining texts, like the Shakespearean play, at the end of 5th year the students will have removed one large area of study for 6th year, yet they will still develop those critical thinking skills through the study of the other texts, like the poets and novels.

This does leave some fundamental issues unresolved.

What happens to students that want to move levels? Will results be available 6th year? Will a poor result demotivate? Will this affect the study of the other subjects at the end of 5th year, will they just concentrate on Irish and English? Why wasn’t Maths included in the move? Will having two leaving cert exams create pressure in 5th year where before there was none? Will having nine instead of eleven exams in 6th year really relieve pressure?

The Minister’s announcement says that this move is ‘to ensure a positive impact on students as soon as possible’, yet it will result in the opposite in terms of their overall education and particularly the nourishing of their sense of self and their creativity.

English is a core subject. Every student studies English. English is the only area of the Leaving Cert where the creativity of every student is guaranteed to be nurtured, where they are given the opportunity to express themselves.

This is at the heart of English. This is what we cherish. This is Paper One.

The Minister has said that the move is to relieve pressure on students. This indicates that the student-centred paper one is being moved because of the CAO points race, as this is the fundamental pressure on Leaving Cert students. Thus, the reasons are reactionary, not education-focused. Decisions made in this fashion often result in damage to the education of our students, as is the case here.

We do not want to be misunderstood; reform of Senior Cycle is indeed to be welcomed in its vision to provide greater inclusivity and flexibility in education for all students. The idea that, in the future, our students might be able to work on short stories over the two years as part of a 40% continuous assessment is exciting to us boring English teachers.

But the NCCA’s Senior Cycle Advisory Report explicitly draws attention to the time needed for the curriculum development work necessary, and the implementation of the changes.

The Minister has called this an ‘interim measure’. If we look at how long the Junior Cycle took to fully reform, we can see that this ‘interim measure’ could last for over a decade.

Why then the rush for students to sit the English Paper One Leaving Cert exam at the end of Fifth Year in 2024?

On April the 10th the INOTE Executive, after representation from teachers of English, sent an email to the Minister to reconsider her downgrading of student voice and creativity, elements at the centre of English, a subject the Minister once taught. At the time of writing all we have received back is an acknowledgement of the email.

We haven’t received any further correspondence.

It is worth noting that INOTE is part of the Teacher Professional Network and thus partly funded by the Government.