Key parts of education system face overhaul as Ruairí Quinn announces review

College admissions, Leaving Cert grading and exam predictability to be tackled

Students sitting the Leaving Cert: a review of grading bands and an external analysis of the predictability of exam papers are on the way. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Students sitting the Leaving Cert: a review of grading bands and an external analysis of the predictability of exam papers are on the way. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Thu, Mar 28, 2013, 06:00

A significant reduction in degree programmes and an end to “problematic predictability” in the Leaving Certificate have been announced as part of a major overhaul of the final State exam at second level and the third-level admissions system.

Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn also announced a review of grading bands at Leaving Cert level.

The strategy, Supporting a Better Transition from Second Level to Higher Education , was outlined yesterday by a joint body representing the Irish Universities Association, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Institutes of Technology Ireland, the State Examinations Commission and the Higher Education Authority.

The plan was formulated in response to “collective concern” over the pressure placed on students by the points race, the Minister said.

He outlined three key “directions for action” – a reduction in the number of Level 8 programmes at third level (honours degree courses), a review of Leaving Cert grading bands and an external analysis of the predictability of content on Leaving Certificate exam papers.

The number of Level 8 programmes on offer in the universities and institutes of technology has tripled in the last 15 years, to 946.

Points instability
Philip Nolan of the Irish Universities Association said the proliferation of courses was artificially inflating points requirements and creating points instability from year to year.

“Many of these courses are simply variants of the main discipline. Students face very complex choices and early specialisation. The number of Level 8 courses must be radically reduced,” he said.

Mr Nolan confirmed he had the commitment of the seven university presidents to move together to recommend to their academic councils a significant reduction in entry routes.

An expert group has reported a reduction in Leaving Cert grading bands could also reduce pressure on students. In 1992 the old ABC system was broken down into 14 smaller bands such as A1 and A2.


‘Sole focus’
“Our current granular grades system is becoming the sole focus for some students and teachers,” said Anne Looney, chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

“The feedback we received from teachers is that in order to optimise student performance, learning in the real sense of the word is being ‘driven out’.”

The group will now work on finding an approach to grading that reduces the bands.

The third element of the joint initiative involves the first external examination of the Leaving Certificate.

The review, to be carried out by the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, is set to establish areas of “problematic predictability” in the Irish terminal State exam system and make recommendations.

The Minister stressed that commitments made yesterday would not affect students currently in the Leaving Cert cycle. “I expect to see a full implementation plan before the end of the year, with clear plans for phased implementation beginning for students entering the fifth year in 2014,” he said.

“Major changes will not occur without due notice being given to schools, parents and students.”

Employers group Ibec has welcomed the decision to broaden the entry routes into the arts, science, business and engineering faculties.

“In a fast-changing business environment, it is difficult to predict future skills needs precisely, so it is more important for students to have a thorough grounding in a core discipline,” said Ibec’s Tony O’Donohoe.