Anne Marie McNally: Failing Before We Start


From top: question on the Leaving certificate Politics and Society exam; Anne Marie McNally

Last Wednesday saw 900 students sit the very first Leaving Cert “Politics and Society” exam, a subject that seems like it really has the potential to have a huge impact on our country.

It’s miles away from the kind of rote learning that’s so familiar to those of us who sat the Leaving in the last generation.

These students are being asked to critically engage with big political ideas and pressing social issues. It aims to make sure that they don’t just randomly inherit opinions, but develop ‘informed’ opinions.

There are two “Phase One” (Pilot) schools in my constituency and I’ve been lucky enough to have visited three different classes and contributed to a podcast for the students. I’ve also popped in to visit them as they have taken tours of the Oireachtas under the supervision of the newly appointed Oireachtas Education Officer.

I’d have loved to have had that opportunity growing up and am delighted to contribute where I can as the subject roles out nationwide with 100 schools involved this September.

What I want to do, though, is to focus on just one question of last week’s exam. Section A, part (h) asked the students to “Name two consequences of income inequalities in Ireland on an individual’s life chances.”

It doesn’t take a Social Democrat to recognise that socio-economic deprivation leads to lower education, physical & mental health, and employment outcomes, but the irony of Politics and Society as a subject is the way in which it has been implemented. In a pattern to which we’ve become increasingly familiar in recent years, schools are being asked to do ‘more with less’.

The subject was introduced without giving additional resources – no additional timetable provisions were granted to schools from which to find the teaching hours to deliver the new subject.

That’s fine at the moment, but we all know that when the next round of cuts come, it’ll be the DEIS and public schools who will feel the pinch most. It will almost inevitably be the ‘Private’ schools, who can subsidise additional classes like these, which will end up dominating this form of ‘Citizenship’ education.

The result could well be increased political power and influence remaining within the already narrow band of schools that disproportionately dominate our current political representation. It would be a travesty if this subject pitted one school against another, and one subject against another within each school, rather than democratising our already two-tier education system.

So what’s the solution?

Anybody who has ever talked with me will know that I’ve always considered education to be the ‘silver bullet’. It was for me, and I know countless others for whom this has also been the case.

Well, why not invest properly in this new form of education in the Irish system equally across the schools and guarantee that all students have equal access to that important form of classroom engagement. I want to see it in all our schools, our Adult Education classes, our prisons, and given proper resources to do so.

Obviously, studying citizenship in school isn’t the only way to learn about politics. The recent Marriage Equality and Repeal referenda have seen people who were previously apathetic or disillusioned come to politics in droves.

I was lucky. I licked politics of the stones at home because I was both lucky enough to have parents who were aware of the importance of education; and also stubborn enough to want to know why politics didn’t represent me or my community.

But it shouldn’t come down to the social lottery of having a supportive family or a stubborn streak to be politically active. Just think of all of the political talent that has been and might be squandered that way in the future.

And, NO, I don’t just want the students to learn about Social Democracy, but about the whole political spectrum. They need to be able to engage with a wide range of traditional and controversial ideas in a constructive manner, otherwise we all languish in the dreaded echo chamber.

I was particularly struck by the statement that the ‘Pol Soc’ [Politics and Society Teachers Association of Ireland] teachers issued after the exam. They noted that while the exam was important, they know that “the real test takes place every day, for the rest of the students’ lives. That’s the real prize.”

It’s a prize worth fighting for, for all of our young people and all our citizens. Maybe then we’ll start seeing the kinds of change that the country needs.

Anne Marie McNally is Social Democrats Political Director and General Election candidate for Dublin Mid-West. Her column appears here every Monday.

13 thoughts on “Anne Marie McNally: Failing Before We Start

  1. ben

    I sat the Leaving Cert in 1992 and:

    * It was not all “rote learning” — the English exams, for instance, were two 3-hour papers entirely of essay questions

    * It was not “miles away” from this sort of question where you had to write an essay on complex and abstract topics

    * “Rote learning” is not a terrible evil. There are a lot of things you need to learn by rote.

    1. Fact Checker

      Exactly. A lot of life, and work, is about absorbing lots of information and re-producing it on demand. The LC is not a bad test of this.

      1. Cian

        Really? What job, outside of a sports commentator, involves rote learning of lots of information and re-producing on demand?
        Most common jobs are [14% of people]:
        1. sales and retail assistants, cashiers and checkout operators
        2. Farmers
        3. Other administrative occupations
        4. Nurses and midwives

        I’m not sure if any of them need to regurgitate 3 hours of information.

        1. The Old Boy

          Sales and retail assistants have to (or should) memorize a great deal of product information that may be meaningless to them.

          Nurses and midwifes have to memorize vast amounts of pharmacological and other medical information these days.

          I imagine the point is really “we can have both, you know”, but I think you’ve given poor examples.

        2. Rob_G

          @ Cian –

          Lawyers, computer programmers, doctors… all of these jobs involve learning and and being able to recall a large volume of information.

  2. TheOpposition

    Do we prioritize additional resources for schools?


    Do we prioritize more pay for graduate teachers?

  3. Elron

    “It’s a prize worth fighting for, for all of our young people and all our citizens. Maybe then we’ll start seeing the kinds of change that the country needs”

    This generic bullpoo could be written by literally any party about literally any issue.

    Up your game. Say something original. You can’t do all your campaigning on the back of the McGill Summer school and referenda.

  4. Fact Checker

    “It doesn’t take a Social Democrat to recognise that socio-economic deprivation leads to lower education, physical & mental health, and employment outcomes”

    Or maybe lower education and health lead to greater socio-economic deprivation?

    It is very glib to say that the ‘chain of causation’ runs one way. Having a low income is not good for your health, but having poor health is not good for your income either.

  5. Termagant

    Christ, I wish this subject had been around when I was sitting, having seen the sample papers and the project outline it looks like the easiest points you could ever hope to pocket. What an absolute load of bullpucky.

  6. pok

    So if “politics doesn’t represent you or your community” ( and whatever about your own views how can you claims to know the mind of “your community) then why are you in a political party ?

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