During the pandemic I was back at home with my parents and teenage brother for the first time in years. My brother was in the second term of transition year when we went into lockdown, and he was not looking forward to moving into the Leaving Cert years and going back to regular classes. He went to an all-boys school and had never settled in.
Over the pandemic his anxiety grew and manifested in fear about going back to school. At first, I’m ashamed to say, my advice to him was to grin and bear it. Everyone struggles in secondary school, some people are just better at hiding it, I told him. He got so stressed about it that Mam decided to talk to the school about his options. They decided Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) would be the best choice for him and would alleviate some of the pressure he felt.
When someone you love is struggling – especially your child, or sibling – you want to find any solution to alleviate that
It’s hard to admit to my reaction now but at the time my heart sank. There was such a stigma around LCA when I was in school – nine years earlier – that I was worried my brother would be judged. I was concerned he wouldn’t have the same opportunities that I had; college had opened a lot of doors for me. Once I allowed it to sink in, I realised getting him through the following two years was the main thing. He would still have the option to go to college, if that’s what he wanted, by taking a PLC course – which many young people would benefit from, rather than diving head-first into a degree. I had just become used to the idea and my brother was feeling less anxious about going back to school, when they told him they were pulling the LCA programme for that year.
The Leaving Cert was back on the cards and my brother’s anxiety developed into panic attacks. From the relief he felt at having another option, he was suddenly thrust back into the world of booklists and study plans. Like for so many families, it was a tough time for us: I was starting a job from my childhood bedroom, my mam was working from the kitchen, and all the while my brother was suffering under the same roof. I told him nothing was worth the distress he was feeling and that we would find another option. When someone you love is struggling – especially your child, or sibling – you want to find any solution to alleviate that. I told him we would sort something out, even though I didn’t have a clue what options were out there.
After some googling I found Youthreach, which offers an education, training and work experience programme, similar to LCA, to early school leavers. It turned out to be a lifeline for my brother. When I showed him the video on their website, I saw a wave of relief wash over him. My ingrained snobbery around formal education melted away when I saw the tension drop from his shoulders.
I’m so proud to say my brother is thriving now. At Youthreach he has met a great group of friends and has a newfound confidence I could have only dreamed of having at 18. He recently won a photography competition and, with the help of his art tutor, put on an exhibition of his work. It’s hard to fathom the turnaround in his life and the person he has become in such a short time.
It is good to see at least some recognition by the Government of the pressure on young people, and that’s a step in the right direction
My brother’s experience opened my eyes to how detrimental the Leaving Cert can be to some young people’s mental wellbeing. I just muddled through the Leaving Cert – doing well in the subjects I liked, badly in the subjects I didn’t – focusing on my ticket to college in Galway once the ordeal had passed. I was more worried about keeping a thick layer of Elizabeth Arden foundation on my face at all times than anything else. It’s difficult to understand why Ireland’s obsession with the rote-memorisation exam persists. In France it’s perfectly acceptable that young people branch into either academic or vocational fields at 15 – why can’t we adopt a similar approach?
I was glad to hear about the planned reforms to the Leaving Cert last week, aimed at reducing pressure on students by introducing more project work and spreading exams over two years. Although this will take years to implement across the board, it is good to see at least some recognition by the Government of the pressure on young people, and that’s a step in the right direction.
My American friend could never understand how, in Ireland, we are expected to choose our career path as a teenager. In the US, for example, college students usually try a number of courses before focusing on a major. How can we expect a 17-year-old to make that decision? For those who don’t grow up with someone around them who has a career they’re interested in, how can they know which path to follow? Add the pandemic and it’s no wonder young people’s mental health services are strained, and college drop-out rates are high.
As I learned from my brother’s experience, the snobbery around education here has to go in order to allow all our young people to reach their potential beyond the examination hall.