Simon Harris on Leaving Cert: ‘The panic and fear we are instilling in people demands change’

My Leaving: Minister says we obsess too much over CAO points for entry into college

Simon Harris is Minister for Further and Higher Education. He sat his Leaving Certificate at St David’s Holy Faith Secondary School in Greystones, Co Wicklow, in 2004.

What is your most vivid Leaving Certificate memory?

I don’t think I will ever forget the morning of the first exam. That moment when you take your seat and wait for the English paper to be given to you. It was the longest few minutes of my life. Only my wedding day compares!

Who was your most influential teacher and why?


I am going to be a bit cheeky and pick two — Ms Brosnan and Ms Bolger. They taught me debating and public speaking. They helped me find my voice and taught me things I use every day.

What was your most difficult subject?

Irish. I found it really difficult to learn. As I have grown older though, I have discovered a new grá for the language. I am embarking on a new journey to learn the language. It isn’t any easier but I am bit more patient now.

And your favourite?

History and English. I have a real interest in history, particularly Irish history.

Can you recall how many points you got in the Leaving?

I do remember and was very happy but, to be honest, I think we obsess too much about points in this country. It is a national obsession. On Leaving Certificate results day, the students who got top points are celebrated, and it is right that they are, but there is not the same celebration for every student.

Instead of asking what do you want to do, and how do we get you there, we ask what points did you get and what course will that get you. I want to end that, not feed into it.

What did you do after secondary school?

I studied journalism and French in what was DIT and now TU Dublin, but now undertaking an apprenticeship in politics!

What would you change about the Leaving Certificate?

I have said this a million times before but we are putting too much pressure on young people. The Leaving Certificate is very good at what it does but it does not capture a person’s ability. A person who can perform well during a rote exam is no better than a person who has practical skills. I have been travelling around the country and the panic and fear we are instilling in people demands change. I believe we need a fair and consistent assessment system that can give students feedback and a clear understanding of their strengths and talents so they can make reliable choices.

What advice would you give to your Leaving Certificate self?

Take a deep breath. Do your best. And remember this exam does not define you or your ability.