Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Leaving Certificate Examinations on Youth Volunteerism


Localise Youth Volunteering had been empowering young people to be of service to their communities since 1972. Our Youth Volunteering programmes provide a liminal space that amplifies personal, social and economic outcomes for young people. Localise hopes the proposed reforms to the Leaving Certificate will address barriers to education for those who excel in ways other than in exam-like conditions.

There are many shared educational aspirations between youth volunteerism and formal education. Recognising youth volunteerism in the way in which we do academic performance creates alterative pathways by which young people can evidence skills and attribution that better inform access to tertiary education.

As Ireland’s National Youth Volunteering Agency, we concur with the NCCA that the Leaving Certificate, and its emphasis on a narrow definition of intelligence, has been a huge barrier for many young people which limits opportunities for multi-faceted successful lives. (NCCA, 2019, p. 7).


The most significant challenge of education policy is to make determinations as to how we best prepare young people for uncertain futures. This challenge becomes more acute when we consider the community of diverse learners our education system caters for. At Localise we have witnessed the positive effects of volunteerism on many aspects of the lives of young people across a wide socio-economic and multi-cultural spectrum. These benefits include but are not limited to education attainment, identity formation, transversal skills development, active citizenship, pro-social behaviours, humanity and autonomous independent thinking. Our observations reflect the research on the topic. (Holdsworth 2010, Grönlund 2011, Kechagias 2011, Roberts 2017, McFadden & Smeaton 2017, Khasanzyanova 2017, Harris 2019, Barton, Bates & O’Donovan 2019).

Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman outlines how ‘Achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success… Achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills such as conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and curiosity, which are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. Until recently these skills have largely been ignored. However, in recent research economists and psychologists have constructed measures of these skills and provide evidence that they are stable across situations and predict meaningful life outcomes.’(Heckman & Kautz, 2013).

The Future of Jobs Report, prepared by the World Economic Forum, outlines how current job profiles are rapidly changing and that the vast majority of employers surveyed expect that skills required to perform most jobs will shift considerably. We only need to consider the prospect of self-driving vehicles and its implications for the taxi, logistics and other transport industries to imagine how jobs will evolve in the future. In order to mitigate against such changes, the report explains how upskilling in new technologies is only part of the solution. What it refers to as human skills (we prefer the term transversal skills) such as creativity, resilience, flexibility, leadership and service orientation, will see ‘an outsized increase in demand relative to their current prominence’ (World Economic Forum, 2020).

If we take it that skills are the deployment of knowledge, there ought to be structures in place whereby young people have the opportunity to develop these much-vaunted skills. What youth volunteerism allows for is the development of a series of skills clusters of that are hugely significant for the future world of work. We are in the process of developing to build a national infrastructure whereby the voluntary contribution of young people is not only facilitated and actively encouraged but recognised, affirmed and accredited. We are building an online mechanism whereby young people can digitally record their skills gained through volunteerism.

The EU Commission and the EDOS Foundation/ImproVal project views ‘The recognition and validation of non-formal and informal learning as highly relevant in the European educational area’ (EU Commission, 2020). We envision a scenario whereby certain courses of study in Further and Higher Education will take into consideration a profile of volunteering achievements as evidence of accomplishments when allocating places for study.

We are in the early stages of developing an infrastructure whereby the volunteering contributions of young people are not only facilitated and actively encouraged but recognised, affirmed, and accredited. We are in advanced talks with DCU faculty of Education to pilot an education pathway using this mechanism.  

Education’s Purpose

Fundamental to any discussion of reform of education is to determine education’s purpose. In the NCCA Senior Cycle Review: Consultation Document one of the key findings on the ‘emerging purpose’ of education is that it is concerned with fulfilling potential, developing skills knowledge, as well as personal and social development, and, the ability to participate fully in society as young people transitioning from school (NCCA, 2019, p. 19).

Professor Gert Biesta of the Centre for Public Education and Pedagogy in Maynooth, succinctly outlines the three functions of education; Qualification, where the students are provided with skills and knowledge to do something new, Socialisation, which is about the multitude of ways in which we become part of the social, political and cultural fabric of society as it exists, and Subjectification, which in a way is the opposite to socialisation in that education should bring about new ways of being that are independent of society as it exists. He elaborated on the notion of Subjectification when discussing trends in modern education.

‘Many educators see their task not simply as that of modifying or conditioning behaviour of their students. They want their students to become independent, autonomous, to be able to think for themselves, to make their own judgements, and to draw their own conclusions’ (Biesta, 2013, p. 78).

The Danish educator Knud Illeris maintains that the most important thing for young people to learn is how to orientate themselves, how to make choices that they alone are answerable for.

‘The best security for the future is not to learn a subject on what are perceived as traditional premises, but to be ready to change and take hold of what is relevant in many different situations. Uncertainty cannot be countered by stability, but by being open, flexible and constantly orientated to learning’ (Illeris, 2007, p. 193).

As well as providing the opportunity for young people to become connected, respected contributors to their communities (Outcome #5, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures BOBF), inculcating a planned programme of volunteerism does much to orientate young people so that they can become independent, autonomous active citizens that are capable of managing inevitable change.

The Voice of Young People

At Localise we conducted a survey of 11,167 young people and we found out that 61% are actively engaged in volunteering. We also found universal agreement that young people view volunteering as part of their future. The Localise survey participants encompass those who have little or no interest or experience in volunteerism, what they are telling us is that despite not being interested or involved presently, they do anticipate that volunteering will play some role in their lives.

Civic Leaders of the Future

Civic leadership is often most noticeable where it is absent. The Mulvey Report, An Outline Plan for the Social and Economic Regeneration of Dublin’s North East Inner City has highlighted the need for local civic leadership to be built within the community involving the new and next generation, one of the ways it suggests to do this is to develop youth led leadership programme based around volunteering.

This thinking is not limited to the North East Inner City of Dublin, international research has found that “If suitable ways of volunteering are offered to young people, volunteering can actually serve as an arena in which identity and values can be acknowledged. Moreover, suitable roles and arenas of responsibility for the future can be sought. This will benefit young adults personally but can also build interest and responsibility in social issues and pro-social action, with volunteerism being an integral part of it.” (Grönlund, 2011).

The Backwash Effect

In 2011 the Higher Education Authority and the NCCA held a seminar on Entry Into Higher Education in Ireland. Professor Áine Hyland prepare a discussion paper that outlines the significance of the Leaving Certificate and how this high-stakes exam has a ‘back-wash’ effect on teaching and learning. Because of the way in which points are awarded for grades achieved in the Leaving Cert, the accumulation of points is, in the main, the determining factor in accessing Higher Education. This has implications on what is learned, why it is learned and how it is taught.

‘The points system influences an individual student’s subject choice; the examination becomes the determinant of what is studied and how; non-examination subjects get little or no attention and, in many cases, broader co-curricular activities are ignored or minimised. Student stress levels increase as the June examination looms and for some students their final year in school is an unhappy experience which they simply want to get through as quickly as possible.’ (Hyland, 2011, p. 4).

Valuing youth volunteerism in the way in which we do academic performance creates alternative pathways by which young people can evidence skills and attribution that better inform access to tertiary education. It also creates a culture of volunteerism, this is the type of backwash effect that will have a positive effect on the lives of young people, their communities and the future of our nation.


The ATAR (Australian Territories Admissions Ranking) is similar in may ways to the CAO points system. In Australia, as well as in many jurisdictions around the world, are developing alternative pathways to higher education because students are ‘… subjected to narrow curriculum areas and stressful forms of high stakes assessment for little gain. Assessments by high stakes exams can drive pedagogy focused around memorising and recalling content’ (O’Connell, Milligan & Bentley 2019). There is a concerted effort to broaden pathways through secondary education and create a better combination of outcomes, opportunities and capability for the futures of young people.

Leaving Certificate has been found to have an adverse effect on the wellbeing of students and on teaching and learning, which permeates much of the educational experience. Inculcating a planned programme of volunteerism does much to redress these adverse effects as young people, become connected, respected and contributors to their communities.

If we truly believe that volunteering helps young people to have successful lives, and that volunteering helps to create the civic, social and community leaders of the future, then a structured approach to building a youth volunteerism framework is essential and valuing volunteerism in the way we do academic achievements is a must.


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