June 11, 2012

No Plath + no Heaney = 35,000 panicked Irish students


Sylvia Plath

It’s a wonder we couldn’t hear the panicked riffling of papers from New York. On Thursday of last week, 35,000 Irish students sat for their English lit Leaving Certificate paper, the final exam in the Irish secondary school system. Traditionally, students have predicted the likely contents of these exams using a time-tested formula: Who came up last year? Is there a female poet? Or an Irish one? Though the official advice is to prepare to answer on five of eight poets taught on the syllabus, many students prepare far fewer, using this forecasting method.

This year, all bets were on Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney — so much so that some students reported teachers themselves all but ignoring the other poets on the syllabus. When neither came up, many students were left with nothing to write on, and presumably a lot of critical commentary to invent.

Teachers last week were calling the test a ‘game-changer’, though in fairness this situation (unlike the exam itself) wasn’t impossible to foresee: earlier this year the Irish Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn complained about the predictability of Leaving Certificate exams, and called for the body that sets them, the State Exams Commission, to compile a report. Seems like life just got a lot harder for next year’s Leaving Cert candidates.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.