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Leaving Cert Begins

6 Jun

Today is the first day of the Leaving Cert, the Irish college entrance exams by which high school students gain admission to universities. The testing period goes on for two and a half weeks and tests all the basic subjects. Students find out their scores and where they will be attending college in mid-August. My daughter’s Irish friends are all sitting for the exams and so there was a lot of well-wishing going on Facebook last night.

Many countries use examinations to determine admission: China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the list goes on. I don’t know which is more stressful, the American way of applying to colleges or these national entrance exams. I know when I lived in Taiwan, the pressure and awareness of the importance of college entrance exams began at a young age, during middle school. I heard tragic stories of students committing suicides because they could not get into college. When such a story surfaces, there would be the inevitable hand wringing over the immense pressures borne by students. Around the time Leaving Cert results are released, the Irish newspapers run articles about handling disappointing scores, along with articles cautioning against excessive celebrating and drinking (legal drinking age in Ireland is 18).

Having just gone through the college application process, I have come to appreciate that there is a college for every level of student performance, here in America. Anyone who desires to attend college should be able to find a school and, based on my experience, there is a dizzying array of choices. Where we lack and other countries excel, is making college affordable without saddling graduates with enormous debt. We just received an estimate of tuition for one year at Barnard College and the figure approaches $42,000. In contrast, tuition at Trinity College Dublin is approximately $2,600.

Best of luck to everyone taking the Leaving Cert.


A Different View: Irish Education

3 Feb

I was away in Dublin, Ireland, for several days last week, visiting friends.  As some of you know, my family and I lived in Ireland for a couple of years during the heyday of the roaring Celtic Tiger.  Our daughter attended an Irish secondary school and we obtained an inside view of the Irish education system.  Here are some of the significant differences from the American education system:

  • There is no prohibition against teaching religion in public schools.  In fact, over 90% of primary schools (comparable to elementary schools for kids age 4 to 12) are affiliated with the Catholic Church while the rest are associated with the Church of Ireland and other Christian denominations.  I know of one private Jewish secondary school and there are at least two state-funded Muslim primary schools in the country.  Teaching about faith is an accepted part of the curriculum.
  • After primary school, students attend secondary school beginning from age 12 or 13 through age 18 (comparable to American middle and high school).  At the end of secondary school, Irish students take a series of college entrance examinations in six to eight subjects, collectively known as the Leaving Certificate Examinations or Leaving Cert for short.
  • Unlike in the United States where students apply to individual colleges for admission, Irish students apply to the Central Applications Office for college admission.  Admission to university is determined solely upon the number of points accumulated on Leaving Cert exams.
  • The Leaving Cert exams take place over a two and a half week period in June, and to make it especially galling to test takers, this time period usually coincides with some of the best weather in Ireland.
  • Test results are released in mid-August so Irish students have to wait until August to find out where they will be attending college.
  • The government pays tuition fees at Irish colleges for Irish and European Union citizens.  Students are charged a registration fee, which fee for the 2009-2010 year was 1,500 euros or approximately US$1,995.  No wonder my friends in Ireland who follow this blog are  aghast at the high cost of attending college in America.  The days of low tuition fees may come to an end as the Irish government grapples with ways to reduce its budget deficit.  Still, the tuition has a long way to catch up to exorbitant American tuition.


Despite differences in education systems, one thing is the same on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to college admissions – stress, stress, stress.  The Leaving Cert exams are a source of great anxiety and pressure for Irish students and their parents.  Because everything rides on the Leaving Cert results, the last year of secondary school is a frenzy-whipped marathon of studying and test preparation.  I remember around Leaving Cert time, the newspapers would publish various articles giving advice on stress reduction and test taking strategies (e.g. getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthy foods, no cramming the night before).

During this visit, an Irish friend spoke of her anxieties about the Leaving Cert, only five months away.  She worried that her child was not applying himself to his studies.  As she talked, I could see the apprehension and frustration in her eyes and I was reminded of an American friend who lamented that her child was going to end up at a “no-name” college.

Concerns about children’s academic futures will always lay claim on parents’ hearts, regardless of culture, education systems, or national boundaries.


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