Give me a crash course in . . . CAO points

Changes to grading and points systems have helped dampen down the points race

Ben O’Leary Fitzpatrick: received his Leaving Cert Applied results this week.

Ben O’Leary Fitzpatrick: received his Leaving Cert Applied results this week.


So, what’s up and what’s down this year?

The CAO points required for more than half of all honours degree college courses have dropped. Some of the biggest decreases were in nursing, teaching and engineering. Points increased for almost 40 per cent of courses, mostly in courses linked to the growing economy such as construction, law and business. Arts remains the most popular option.

Does that mean the frantic points race is cooling down?

Some of the points reductions were linked to fewer applications for courses or bigger intakes for particular courses, which leads to fewer points. This year, however, there were also big changes to the Leaving Cert grading system and adjustments to the way CAO points are calculated. Policymakers say these also helped dampen down the points race.

What exactly changed this year?

The CAO points scale is now broader and no longer increases in multiples of five points. The idea is that by creating fewer grades, candidates must score higher to secure better grades, creating less pressure on students to secure marginal gains.

The system also means fewer students arrive at the same overall points tally, reducing the need for “random selection” – a cruel process by which some don’t get a course place even though they secured the required points.

Under the grading reforms, the old system of 14 grades – As, Bs, Cs, etc – has been replaced by a simpler system with just eight grades – H1s, H2s and H3s – separated by bands of about 10 per cent. Significantly, the old E grade is no longer considered a fail by most colleges and earns points.

So, basically, we’re dumbing down the system?

Some maintain this – though authorities insist this is not the case. The State Examination Commission says, for example, there has been no change to the way exams are assessed this year.

As for the CAO’s move to adjust the points system, the stated intention for giving points for E grades was to reward effort and encourage students to take on higher-level papers.

Why are so many of our school-leavers going to college anyway – surely there are alternatives?

We now have one of the highest proportions – about 60 per cent – of school-leavers who progress on to higher education in Europe. This may be partly down to the low status of further education and training options.

For example, just 2 per cent of school-leavers progress to apprenticeships, compared to about 60 per cent in Germany.

The Government is planning to expand the apprenticeship system over the coming years, while there are moves to try to boost the status of further education options.

Why are we so obsessed with the Leaving Cert and points anyway? Other countries don’t do this.

There are doubtless historical and social reasons, such as education being a route out of poverty for much of the population.

In addition, the Leaving Cert in unusual internationally is that so few marks are available through continual assessment or project work. Instead, a students’ performance in based mostly on a high-pressure, high-stakes exam. It’s no surprise, then, it’s such a big event.

In addition, the fact that we send so many to higher education means these issues affect a lot of families. Whether all this is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view.