Rethinking the Leaving Cert – the role of youth volunteerism

Rethinking the Leaving Cert – the role of youth volunteerism

One of the many consequences of the way in which the Leaving Cert students of 2020 are being assessed as a result of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is that there is a renewed interest in examining the overall purpose of education in Ireland. Part of the discourse, centres around what role the Leaving Cert should play in achieving that purpose.

The very etymology of the word ‘school’ or in Ancient Greek ‘scholē’ roughly translates as place of leisure, but not meant as a place to relax, but more a place to escape and think, a place to discover and a place to form ones identity, a place to learn to be.

‘Learning to Be’ is significant in the world of education as it brings to mind a seminal UNESCO report published in 1972. According to this report what is required of education is not Homo Sapiens (the knowing human) or the Homo Faber (the producing human), but what education should aim to produce is ‘Homo Concors’, the human being in harmony with himself and others.

This bringing about human flourishing, or what our old friends the Ancient Greeks would have termed Eudemonia is a concept that remerges again and again throughout history. The Prussians model of education, characterised by compulsory school attendance, organising learners by age, professionalised educators, set curriculums for all grades, governmental oversight and national testing, was constructed around the concept of Bildung. The word ‘Bildung’ has no direct translation but it evokes a set of ideas around cultivating a purpose for oneself.

In December of 2019 the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) published a consultation report on Senior Cycle Review, in which they explore the purpose for Senior Cycle education. The ‘emerging purpose’ as it is put, has something to do with fulfilling potential, developing skills knowledge, as well as personal and social development, and, the ability to participate fully in society as young people transitioning from school.

The Leaving Certificate was first examined in 1925. Over time the role it plays in education has altered and its purpose has become hazy. I suspect that when in 1990 the National Universities of Ireland senate abolished the matriculation exams for entrance to many universities by just 2 votes, they did not foresee that the view held by many 30 years later would be that the purpose of Senior Cycle education is a protracted entrance examination for third level.

In January 2019 the NAPD published a Report on Leaving Cert Reform, in it they report that 78% of students, 52% of parents and 60% of educators do not believe that the Leaving Cert adequately prepares them for third level education. Furthermore, 93% of students, 76% of parents and 71% of educators do not believe it prepares them for working life. Proof, as if proof were needed, that change is needed.

As this change materialises, and as policy is being developed to enact that change, it is extremely important that the educative experience of non-academic achievement is recognised and rewarded the way in which formal education is recognised and rewarded.

My area of interest is the educative experience of volunteerism. When we volunteer, we often think that our motivations should be purely altruistic and the thought that selfless actions could be personally beneficial seems odd. While it is difficult to extract why exactly young people volunteer as motivations are varied, personal and complicated, what we can be sure of is that volunteering places us in situations to which we are unaccustomed and it requires of us to be of service - to do something for someone else in response to a need. This dynamic facilitates a liminal space, a challenge to be overcome, so that we emerge as something more. This phenomenon is an associated factor in building self-confidence and competence because being of service to others and dealing with challenging and unfamiliar situations.

When students volunteer a connection is made between what is learned inside of the school and the world outside of it. The relevance of what is being studied is solidified and young people come to the realisation that they already possess many of the skills required to be successful in the future. Combining volunteering with academic study provides young people with the opportunity to acquire a variety of these skills more effectively than through academic study alone. The best security for the future is to prepare students to be ready for change, to take hold of what is different and to use their skill set to be adaptable to the rapidly ever-changing world.

We are presented with a historical opportunity to scrutinise the very purpose of education in Ireland, to rethink the role of the Leaving Cert, and to rethink the role of non-academic achievement in achieving that purpose. By responding to the needs of others we engage in a significant learning event that it can realise the very purpose of educations itself.

By Harry Keogh, Education Coordinator with Localise Youth Volunteering

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