Today is the first day of Ireland’s Leaving Certificate examinations. This is a rite of passage for all sixth or final year secondary (high) school students: a series of exams, usually in 7-9 subjects, that take place over a couple of weeks in June and not only mark the end of their compulsory education but, from their perspective, may very well determine the rest of their lives. When students sit these exams they are normally 17 or 18 years old; I sat mine in June 2001, a month before my nineteenth birthday – ten years ago this month.
The Leaving Cert, students are told by their teachers, advisers and family, is a Very Big Deal. Who gets Ireland’s college and university places is determined by mathematical formula and so every percentage in the exam results count, as they’ll determine how many points the student will have to win a place. Different grades have different points, so getting an A1 (A+) on a Higher Level (advanced) exam paper nets you 100 points, an A2 nets you 90, etc. while getting an A1 at Ordinary Level nets you only 60. Your top six results are added together to give you your overall points tally; the maximum or perfect score is 600 but most people get somewhere between 380-480, I’d imagine.
So let’s say you want to study English Literature. There will be required subjects you’ll have had to have studied in the last two years of Leaving Cert preparation but after that it all comes down to points, or what you got in subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with English Literature or anything else in your life from here on out, for that matter. Perhaps there’s 100 applicants for 50 places on a English Literature course. The Central Applications Office (CAO) takes the first 50 applicants, starting with the highest achiever on down, and offers them places. If the last person on the list has 450 points, that makes the entrance requirement 450 points and you certain of an offer if you got that and applied for the course. Each student can apply for up to 10 degree and 10 diploma courses and there’s more than one round of offers, so after the dust has settled everyone usually ends up with a place – if they’ve got enough points, of course.
To say that Leaving Cert students are stressed is like saying that the Pope’s Catholic. Worse, they’re encouraged to be stressed. For the first three years of their secondary school career, they study and prepare for the “baby” Leaving Cert, the Junior Certificate. After that it’s the two years of Leaving Cert cycle. So, from the age of 12 or 13, all Irish teenagers are hearing about is the Leaving Cert this and the Leaving Cert that. Points determine everything. College determines everything. Academia determines everything. If they fail the Leaving, they fail life. (A life, mind you, that has barely even begun.) And as for their education, nothing will stick – they just have to remember it for the exams, answer the questions in a way that will get them the best marks, pass go and collect those points. There’s endless revisions aids, books, test papers, grind schools, private grinds and even helplines for students to call when the exams themselves start. There was even a reality-style TV show a few years back following Leaving Cert students. On the morning my exams started, half of us had bottles of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the other half clutched boxes of Marlboro Lights and the one girl who apparently had neither ended up fainting from the stress of it all.
I didn’t do particular well in my Leaving Cert – mainly because I didn’t study for it at all – and although I got my place in Lancaster University, I dropped out three weeks in. For a while afterwards I stood blinking in the sunlight of a post-Leaving Cert world, one my teachers had neglected to mention existed. Free from the pressurized cocoon of school and study, I found there was other things I wanted to do with my time. Friends of mine were already stuck in college, hurtling towards the days when they’d be stuck in a permanent job. I didn’t have a long-term plan, but my short-term one was simple: be unstuck. And so that’s what I did. That’s what I’m doing. And although it’s taken the best part of a decade to figure out where I’m supposed to be, I’m almost there. And boy, was the journey here a lot of fun.
Yes, the Leaving Cert is important, but only if your dream is to be something that requires a university education, and one that starts now. I wish ten years ago someone had reminded me that I was now 18 years old and so an adult, and that if I wanted to, I was free to head out into the world and explore it. Instead I was being told that if I didn’t ace the Leaving Cert and get to college right this minute and then get a job as soon I graduated, my life would be a desolate wasteland of poverty and regret.
I didn’t listen, but most students do. They don’t know that they don’t have to, and they’re under an awful lot of pressure. But I have a theory that pushing young people into boring 9-5s just so they have a job and preventing them from figuring out and then pursuing their dreams (because, according to the Powers That By, they’re doomed to fail) is one of the causes of our nation’s binge drinking problem. If you were stuck in a life you didn’t want thanks to someone else, wouldn’t you go out and drink yourself into oblivion every Friday night? What else could you do to relieve the pain and monotony of it all?
I think thanks to the recession our national mindset is improving, but as a race Irish people need to dream more and fear failure less. If you could live the life of your dreams, wouldn’t that make it all worth the risk? And that doesn’t mean we should all try to be Hollywood actresses or Formula 1 drivers – everyone has different dreams, and they are all different sizes. But you should at least try to find out what yours is, and attempt to achieve it.
Your first goal once you reach adult life should be to figure out what you love to do, and then figure out a way to get paid to do it. I think if we told our school-leavers that and then gave them some time and freedom to do it, Ireland would be a much better place.
And there’d be no fainting on the morning of the Leaving Cert.