Reform of Leaving Cert science subjects risks giving ‘unfair advantage’ to pupils in private schools

University lecturers say access to laboratory equipment and technicians is better in fee-charging sector

Plans to reform Leaving Cert science subjects risk widening the social divide by giving an unfair advantage to students in fee-charging schools with better access to laboratory equipment and technicians, university lecturers have warned.

The comments are contained in a report by Irish University Association (IUA) representatives in response to the draft curriculum specifications for Leaving Cert biology, chemistry and physics, drawn up by the State’s advisory body on the curriculum.

Leaving Cert students will be required to complete “research investigations” worth 40 per cent of marks from fifth year onwards in subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry under major changes to the senior cycle.

It is proposed that a total of 20 hours will be spent by students working in school laboratories on these research projects.


The changes, aimed at reducing pressure facing students in the written exams at the end of sixth year and broadening how they are assessed, will be introduced to schools from September 2025.

However, the IUA report says feedback from lecturers in these subjects is that the high percentage of marks – 40 per cent – for research projects that take 20 hours “makes no sense” given that it is recommended that the entire course is taught in 180 hours.

It also questions the availability of laboratory equipment or resources in schools to supply all students undertaking their research projects and the “additional stress” on students who take two or three science subjects.

The report also warns of a “widening of the social divide within schools, and also between fee-paying schools that have additional sources of income and Deis schools that cater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

It adds that provision of laboratory technicians to all schools is important, but at present laboratory technicians are “mainly confined to fee-paying schools”.

“It is clear that considerable funding would have to be provided to schools which are inadequately equipped. In addition, laboratory technicians would have to be appointed to schools – the majority of schools do not have them at present,” the report states.

“The additional stress on teachers may have the unintended consequences of making the profession of science teaching very unattractive to young graduates and hasten the retirement of existing science teachers. This will exacerbate the problems being encountered by school principals in recruiting science teachers.”

The report also criticises a “lack of clarity” in a large number of learning outcomes in the Leaving Cert physics, chemistry and biology draft specifications.

The report says it is “impossible for universities involved in initial teacher education to adequately prepare student teachers to teach these specifications without more detail being provided”.

It goes on to describe the three draft specifications as “bare documents without any information” on the structure or format of the exam papers or types of questions that will be given in the Leaving Cert written exam.

“This is not in keeping with international best practice in curriculum design where sample examination papers, teacher guidelines, sample marking schemes and details of student laboratory practical work are provided in addition to the detailed published syllabi,” the report states.

The IUA report is in response to a call from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment regarding submissions on the planned reforms.

The report comes as Minister for Education Norma Foley briefed hundreds of school principals on planned senior cycle reforms at a conference in Croke Park on Tuesday.

All revised senior cycle subjects will have an additional assessed component which will account for at least 40 per cent of the marks, including two new subjects: drama, film and theatre studies; and climate action and sustainable development.

When asked if all schools will have access to laboratory equipment in the same way, she said: “I’ll be straight up and honest and say we cannot do everything overnight ... but it be our absolute intention that, where schools are stepping forward in any of the new subjects, that they will be supported to meet the challenges that the new subject provides. We’re committed to doing that.”

She said additional teaching hours will be provided to schools for new subjects and said a key factor behind the reform is demand for change from students.

“Since becoming minister, a consistent message coming through is that our senior cycle students want broader choice and reduced pressure,” she said. “That is why we are developing new specifications for senior cycle subjects with additional assessed components, so that a student’s overall result will not be determined by their performance on one day in June,” she said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent