Archive for Leaving Certificate

Leaving Out

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 7, 2020 by telescoper

This morning students across Ireland have been receiving their Leaving Certificate grades. First of all let me congratulate the 2020 Leaving Certificate Class for their success in what has been a very difficult year!

The release of Leaving Certificate results will trigger even more of a scramble than usual for university places through the CAO process. This year things are likely to be very different from previous years as (a) the process is much shorter in duration (students who get into university will be having their first lectures just three weeks from today) and (b) the distribution of grades is unlike previous years because they are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. This has led to an increase in top grades across many subjects. Here is a useful summary from the Irish Times:

(I know it looks small but you can click on it to make it legible…)

Note the number of top grades in Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics has gone up because of the general grade inflation and because the number of students taking them has gone up. This is potentially good news for our recruitment here in Maynooth but it’s probably not so simple. For example, it may be that bigger departments elsewhere try to offset the lack of international students this year by recruiting more home students. We’ll just have to wait and see. By the start of next week the picture will probably be clearer.

At any rate, a certain local celebrity is looking forward to welcoming the new students onto campus shortly…

The Year Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 6, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow sees the release of the 2020 Leaving Certificate results which this year are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. It seems that for about 79% of students these grades will be the same as the teacher’s assessment, about 17% will be lower than the teacher assessment and in about 4% of cases it will be higher. It remains to be seen whether the results will create the sort of stir that this year’s A-level results did.

That seems to imply that CAO points will be a bit higher on average than previous years so more students will make the grade for their first choice of course, which may have a significant impact on recruitment.

We’ll find out all about that next week when the details come in. Teaching term starts on Monday 28th September so there’s very little time to get things organised for the new cohort, especially on the Omnibus Science course on which students have a wide range of alternatives from which to pick their first-year subjects.

Next week at Maynooth University we also have our repeat Examination Board (a week later than usual). After that we will have a good idea of how many students will be returning for Years 2, 3 and 4 and how many will not progress.

So soon we will have enough information to fine-tune our teaching plans. These are challenging this year because of the reduced capacity of the rooms we use for lectures and tutorials due to physical distancing. Some rooms are affected more than others – it’s far worse for large lecture theatres than for tutorial rooms – so we have to look at each module separately.

We had a (virtual) meeting of teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics to coordinate the approaches to different modules. Among other things, that showed how very sensitive everything is to numbers of students taking. If a room can take N students then if the actual number taking the class is less than or equal to N then the class can proceed as usual but if it exceeds N, even by just one, then we have to split the class somehow.

Having detailed numbers is essential to sorting all this out but students can change modules during the first few weeks of teaching, we’re likely to be reorganising as we go along.

All this causes multiple headaches but, despite the extra complications this year, I’m looking forward to seeing the students on campus again. I haven’t given a ‘proper’ lecture since March 12th.

I was so busy last week, grappling with these and other matters, that I missed the fact that I took over as Head of Department on 1st September 2019, a year ago last Tuesday. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

The U-turn and After …

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on August 18, 2020 by telescoper

One of the many things that Winston Churchill never said (referring to Americans) is that they “…will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives”. Yesterday the UK Government performed a U-turn on its approach to A-level results but only after extensive protests and after causing immense stress to a great many students. All of this could have been avoided had the Secretary of State for Education bothered to look at the results of the downgrading algorithm. This morning he said that he “wasn’t aware” of what the outcomes would be and tried to put the blame on OfQual. Well, it’s actually his job to be aware of these things and that statement shows he’s not doing his job.

While many students will be mighty relieved that their official A-level grades will go up, that won’t be the end of this fiasco. Many students will find that their places have been already been filled through last week’s clearing process. The Government has lifted the number cap on places in imposed earlier this year, but that won’t help many departments, especially those in the sciences, who have severe constraints on, e.g., laboratory capacity (more so with social distancing in place).

I feel very sorry for friends and former colleagues in UK universities having to deal with this shambles. The Government will be quite happy that it has managed to throw this particularly hot potato into the hands of admissions tutors across the land. Ministers will be hoping that whatever blame now accrues will be attributed to universities being “inflexible” when it is entirely down to incompetence elsewhere. As always it’s the front-line staff who will have to deal with it, as if their job was not stressful enough having to deal with Covid-19.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, the Government’s plan for “standardisation” of this year’s Leaving Certificate results looks alarmingly similar to the failed approach tried – and subsequently abandoned – in the United Kingdom. Minister for Education Norma Foley has been making statements about the accuracy and reliability of her Department’s plans that sound eerily similar to those issued by officials across the Irish Sea. I hope that I’m wrong about this – and that there’s some frantic activity going on behind the scenes to change the approach ahead of the release of this year’s Leaving Certificate grades (due on September 7th) – but I have a feeling that we’re going to see yet another slow-motion car crash. It wouldn’t be the first time that, having observed something truly shambolic happening in the UK Education system, an Irish Government then proceeds to do exactly the same thing…

Examination Shenanigans

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 12, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am in my office while the first batch of our repeat examinations gets under way here in Maynooth. They seem to have started correctly so I’ve taken a break to have a cup of coffee and catch up on the news.

I find that examinations seem to be making headlines in the United Kingdom. First there was a to-do and a hoo-ha in Scotland that resulted in school examination results that had been downgraded being upgraded again. The downgrading involved using some sort of statistical model to `correct’ teacher-assigned grades and coursework but this model apparently generated significant anomalies.

Then, not to be outdone by the Scots, the English government has announced that estimated A-level grades, presumably obtained by a similar process to that deployed in Scotland, were to be upgraded too. Or not. It seems they will get the original grades but be able to appeal the results.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, presumably without irony, Gavin Williamson explains the decision not to upgrade A-level results automatically:

Increasing the A Level grades will mean a whole generation could end up promoted beyond their abilities.

Gavin Williamson wrote that. Gavin Williamson.

Universities in the UK receive A-level results a few days before the students in order to make admissions decisions, but this year the results students eventually receive may differ from those the universities got. I can imagine the chaos this is causing behind the scenes.

If I understand correctly the new `Triple Lock’ on A-level results means that a student’s grade will be whichever is the highest of:

  • their mock exam result;
  • the grade estimated by their teacher;
  • an A*.

(OK, I made up that last bit.)

Some people think this approach might lead to grade inflation, but I imagine the authorities are less concerned about that than they are by the prospect of getting sued.

Another issue with the downgrading/upgrading situation is that students who took the International Baccalaureate (IB) and have received algorithmic grades have not had their grades increased, which seems to put them at a disadvantage with respect to students who took A-levels and may cause them to miss out on UK university places.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, we await the School Leaving Certificate results. These are not due until 7th September but I think the plan is to moderate them as in the United Kingdom. Delaying these results gives Ireland the chance to learn from the UK but whether the process will end up being any fairer here is anyone’s guess!

Leaving Late

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on July 18, 2020 by telescoper

The time of Covid-19 was already an “interesting” time to be an academic in Ireland but yesterday it got more interesting still, as news emerged that this year’s (estimated) Leaving Certificate results will not be published until 7th September, which is three weeks later than usual. The first round of CAO offers will be made on 11th September. All this is about three weeks later than the usual cycle of examinations and results.

Here at Maynooth University the start of the academic year has been delayed by one week to September 28th, so the three week delay in Leaving Cert means we have to speed the processes up of getting everything in place for new students to start by two weeks. That is going to be a challenge, and even if we manage it we will only find out very late in the day how many students we have to accommodate in first-year lectures.

The current plan for teaching next semester at Maynooth University is that all modules will be allocated the same timetable slots and rooms as last year. However, most lecture rooms have had their capacity reduced by more than half. Lecturers need to know how many students they have in order to decide how to use the available lecture slots and how to strike a balance between live and online delivery.

To give an example, I had about 90 students in my first-year module last year for which I had three lectures per week in Physics Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90. Next year the capacity of this room is likely to be around 30 with social distancing so. if I have the same numbers as last year, I will have to split the class into three groups and have one weekly session with each group. The material not covered live will be put online. I’m planning on that basis now, but if I find we have more students in Year 1 than last year I’ll have to have a Plan B. I won’t know that until just before teaching starts.

And then there is the possibility that teaching will actually start later for first-year students, requiring the lecture content to be revised. That’s not the current plan at Maynooth University, but a lot can happen between now and September…

We do indeed live in interesting times.

Of course I’m not the only one to be facing such challenges. Mine is a relatively small class by first-year standards and other bigger courses will experience far more serious difficulties.

If any prospective student is getting worried reading this, I can promise you that we will be doing the best we can to provide the best education we can in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this September. Please bear in mind that workloads on academic staff (including Heads of Department!) are going to be very heavy after a summer in which very few will have been able to take any holidays at all. So please bear with us. We didn’t want any of this any more than you did, but we just have to make the best of it.

Leaving Off

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 9, 2020 by telescoper

So yesterday the Government of Ireland announced that this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations will be cancelled. That decision seems to have surprised quite a few people but to me it looked inevitable once the Covid-19 Roadmap was published last Friday. If you recall these examinations would normally take place in June but this year had been initially been postponed to happen in late July and into August. Now they’re cancelled altogether.

Not many details are available about the scheme proposed to replace the examinations but it will be based on an assessment made by schoolteachers based on previous performance moderated in some way by the Department for Education & Skills, which has oversight of the process.

Most of the reaction I’ve seen on social media from students is that they’re delighted they won’t have to sit the examinations. Questions arise however about how fair the new system will be, especially given that it is being assembled at such short notice.

I note that the Government press release states that

Students will also retain the right to the sit the 2020 Leaving Certificate examinations at a date in the future when it is deemed safe for state examinations to be held.

The Leaving Certificate isn’t just about entry into Third Level Education but it does raise specific issues for that sector. One is how many students who would potentially enter Higher Education in September will defer until they can take the Leaving Certificate proper. If many do that then the implications for University finances in the short term are significant.

Another issue is that Universities have been planning on the basis that because of the delayed Leaving Certificate, newly enrolled students would not be arriving until November. Now it looks like they will come in September along with the returning students, so we now need a Plan B.

On the face of it, it seems good news that we will no longer have the staggered academic year required in Plan B to contend with. On the other hand, if institutions have to operate with strict social distancing measures in place when they reopen, as is likely, the increased number of students in September will make this even more difficult – especially since first-year classes are the usually larger ones. I can’t see any way of coping unless a significant part of our teaching is done remotely. Recorded lectures and virtual tutorials look set to be part of the “new normal” for some time.

The decision to cancel the Leaving Certificate raises other questions but I don’t want to get into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of that decision (in which it seems Ireland’s universities had very little influence) . All I will say – and I’m sure that I speak for all my colleagues at Maynooth University – is that we will do our utmost to operate the new admissions system in a way that is as fair as possible to potential students, and to deliver the best education we can with the resources available within whatever constraints we are under in September. Whatever we do won’t be perfect, but we’ll do our best.

Until then there is no need for students or staff to get even more stressed than we are already, so I hereby invoke the calming influence of Maynooth University Library Cat.

The Riddle of the Leaving Certificate

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 3, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been studying the ‘Roadmap‘ outlining the gradual relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions that, all being well. will begin on May 18th. There are five phases of this process, each lasting three weeks. At any point the process can be stopped or reversed if the data suggest things are going wrong.

It’s quite consistent with how I imagined it might work when I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago:

As a physicist I see the change being rather like an adiabatic process, carried out in quasi-static fashion, in a series of reversible steps…

Some measure of social distancing will remain even after the completion of all five phases, and will probably stay in place until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available.

I first noted this in Phase 1:

Which suggests that some staff may be allowed onto campus. At my University (Maynooth), however, teaching will have finished by May 8th. By May 18th the exam period will have started but it is not obvious that the above can be interpreted as allowing staff into their offices to mark examinations and project assessments. Speaking for myself I would find that useful. I suppose we will find out fairly soon what it means.

On the whole the Roadmap seems to me quite reasonable. It is rather broadbrush in character, which is understandable, though that does mean many details need to be worked out. There is however one very surprising omission which leads to a serious contradiction and is causing considerable confusion.

According to the Roadmap, Irish schools will not reopen until Phase Five, which commences on August 10th, just in time for the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

On the other hand it has already been announced that the School Leaving Certificate examinations (which start in June in a normal year) would commence on July 29th. Moreover the Education Minister has previously indicated that these examinations would only happen after two weeks of classroom teaching for students who have been having only remote teaching during the Lockdown.

If schools are not to reopen until August 10th then it is not possible for the Leaving Certificate to start on July 29th. Even if the classroom teaching bit is scrapped there won’t be anywhere for students to sit the examinations!

There’s no mention of the Leaving Certificate in the Roadmap which suggests that the Government hasn’t thought it through yet. It seems to me virtually certain that a u-turn is coming up and the Leaving Certificate is going to be cancelled after all. Students will probably welcome this outcome but I’m not sure what it would mean for this year’s University admissions!

On the other hand I am informed by a reliable source that the Government is adamant that the Leaving Certificate will go ahead on 29th July as planned. The question is how?

Lockdown Prolonged, Leaving Certificate Postponed

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on April 10, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just listened to the latest update on the Covid-19 situation in Ireland. One entirely predictable announcement made this afternoon was that the current restrictions on movement will continue until Tuesday May 5th at the earliest. Monday May 4th is a Bank Holiday in Ireland.

I would personally be surprised if the measures now in place were eased before June, actually, but it seems sensible to wait and see if the situation improves before making a decision on further extensions.

(Incidentally, I am keeping track of the Covid-19 numbers in Ireland on a page here.)

Another announcement made today is likely to be more controversial: that this year’s School Leaving Certificate examinations, due to start on June 3rd, will postponed until “late July or early August”.

Among many other things, this will cause those of us involved in University teaching quite a few problems to solve. A lot of thinking caps will be getting dusted off right now!

On the normal cycle, Leaving Certificate results are available in mid-August and successful students begin their University courses in mid-September.

Assuming that there is a delay of two months in sitting the exams and no time can be made up in the marking and moderation process, we’re looking at students not being able to start their courses until mid-November, just a few weeks before the normal end of the First Semester. I have heard suggestions that new students could start in October but these have not included any explanation of how to speed up the process enough to make this possible.

It seems possible to me that, because starting in November would create more problems than it would solve, new students might actually have to defer entry until January, which means in turn that their Second Semester would have to take place during the period June-August. That, in turn, will require staff to abandon any plans for summer research activity and, for some science disciplines, will involve labs being kept open when they are usually closed for upgrades.

Presumably the proposal will be that returning students will follow the usual academic year timetable, but there’s a problem there too if students have to repeat modules from the 1st year which are to be taught on a different calendar.

I’m sure that none of these problems are insoluble but I’m equally sure that the powers that be haven’t really thought about them. Ireland’s current Government does not give the impression of being that interested in universities or the staff who work in them. In recent weeks lecturers have worked exceptionally hard to switch to online teaching and assessment only to have these efforts conspicuously ignored in a recent statement by the Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’connor. No doubt the Government will again just take it for granted that we’ll sort things out on their behalf.

Maynooth Offers

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 16, 2019 by telescoper

Well I’ve had a busy week here in Maynooth marking and checking repeat examinations (just finished this morning) during which from time to time I’ve been keeping an eye on things to do with students admissions for the forthcoming year, both here and in other institutions across Ireland. Universities and students received their Leaving Certificate results earlier in the week, but institutions then had a couple of days to decide on the basis of course capacity and the results obtained which students would receive offers of a place on which courses. This is usually expressed in terms of a points total: the more popular the course, and the better the results for applicants to that course, the higher the points required would be. Yesterday first-round offers went out from CAO across the country – there’s a summary in the Irish Times. Students who don’t get an offer from their first choice course can try in subsequent rounds to get a place at another institute.

As of yesterday afternoon, Maynooth University is expecting to admit 3,225 new first year students this year. This is the largest ever intake for the university and represents an increase of 3% from last year. This growth reflects a strong demand for places: more than 4,200 students chose Maynooth University as their first preference, an increase of 7% from last year (which I mentioned earlier this year).

At the moment it looks like being a particularly good year for our BSc Course in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I’d rather wait until the process is over and numbers are confirmed before commenting further.

Anyway, as the CAO process is ongoing, I thought I’d include this little video about what Maynooth has to offer undergraduate students with particular emphasis on the flexibility of its programmes whether they be in Arts & Humanities or Sciences. I wrote about the advantages of the `Omnibus Science’ programme here. If you are reading this and didn’t happen to get the points for your first-choice course then you could do a lot worse than consider Maynooth!

Admissions Matters

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

Well, the wait is almost over. Tomorrow is the day that students in Ireland get their Leaving Certificate results. Tomorrow’s date is Tuesday 13th August, so I hope that’s not a bad omen! A couple of days later this week, on Thursday, UK students get their A-level results.

Here in Ireland, University admissions are dealt with through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which, for UK readers, is roughly equivalent to UCAS. Earlier this year we heard Maynooth University received its highest-ever number of first_preference applications, which is a very positive sign, but we don’t know yet exactly how many of those actually made the grade needed to start here next month.

As is the case in the UK with A-level results, Irish institutions receive the Leaving Certificate results a bit before the students do, which means that on both sides of the Irish sea higher education institutions will be very busy sorting through their applications to see who has made it onto what course. This is a very stressful time for all concerned, not only the prospective students but also the university staff involved in processing the results and academics wondering how many students they will have to teach next year.

From time to time one hears suggestions that the system could be made much fairer and less stressful if students could remove some of the uncertainty by applying  to university after getting their Leaving Cert (or A-level) results rather than, as is the case now, before. UPDATE: here’s a piece in the Guardian by Angela Rayner arguing this.

The problem is that there are only two ways that I can see to achieve this:

  • have the final school examinations earlier;
  • start the university academic year later.

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of late Septembe. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research. The summer recess (July-September), wherein much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?