‘I’m more scared than excited’: Meet the Leaving Cert class of 2024

Students are older than previous generations, nervous about the exams and hopeful for the future

Leaving Cert students Leah O’Callaghan (18), Megan Glynn (19), Seán Cleary (18), Ratzinger Monteiro (19) and Daksh Wadhwa (16) at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School. Photograph: Fran Veale

With most children nowadays not starting school until they turn five and transition year programmes increasingly becoming mandatory in secondary school, students who once finished school when they turned 17 are now, often, 19 years old when they sit the Leaving Cert.

In many schools this means that sixth years can legally drink with their friends, but they need permission to go to the toilet. They can drive a car and make their own decisions, but face detention for skipping homework.

It can be tricky for both students and teachers to navigate this, but Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in Dublin may just provide a template that works.

Like all Educate Together schools, students don’t wear a uniform. And when we visit, it’s pyjama day.


“As it is the last day of formal lessons for the sixth years, they had a farewell breakfast and, with that theme, they were allowed to wear pyjamas,” says Alice O’Connor, the school’s guidance counsellor.

Things are about to get serious, though.

The class of 2024 didn’t get to sit Junior Cycle exams, as they were cancelled due to the pandemic. For most, Wednesday morning will be their first taste of what it’s like to sit a State exam.

Five students from the school will, individually, share their exam highs and lows during the first week of the Leaving Cert exams in The Irish Times, as well as their hopes for the future.

Leaving Cert students Daksh Wadhwa (16), Megan Glynn (19), Ratzinger Monteiro (19), Seán Cleary (18) and Leah O’Callaghan (18) at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School. Photograph: Fran Veale

‘I haven’t sat the Junior Cert, so it makes me a bit more worried’: Ratzinger Monteiro (19)

“Being a grown adult in school can be hard. There are people my age in university, but I am just sitting my Leaving Cert,” Ratzinger says. “We need permission to do certain things, but our teachers are understanding and they give us freedom and space.”

Ratzinger plays basketball and table tennis, he was in chess club and also serves on the student council.

Stepaside Educate Together runs a “house” system, where students are placed into “Harry Potter” style houses in first year, and can win points for their house through contributing to the school in different ways. Ratzinger is captain of his house.

He wants to study commerce at UCD or accounting and finance at DCU.

“But I haven’t sat the Junior Cert, so it makes me a bit more worried. The mocks are a decent replica but it didn’t feel like a State exam; it felt like a school exam.”

Leah O’Callaghan (18), Leaving Cert student at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School. Photograph: Fran Veale

‘We learn about practical things and real life skills’: Leah O’Callaghan (18)

Leah is one of the school’s Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) students. LCA students engage in much more project work and there is a stronger emphasis on vocational learning, continuous assessment and practical skills.

“We are a smaller group with smaller class sizes,” Leah says. “We learn about practical things and real life skills.”

She is slightly nervous about the exams because she did not sit a Junior Cert, but she has already got most of her points from LCA assignments.

For policymakers looking at Leaving Cert reform, a model already exists in Ireland. And yet, Ireland lags behind our European counterparts when it comes to recognising the value of vocational education. In Germany, for instance, about half of all learning is vocational, and vocational school leavers earn slightly more than school leavers from general or more academic schools.

In her spare time Leah likes dancing, rollerblading and art. She has already been accepted into an art portfolio preparation course after school, and hopes to study 2D animation.

‘I hope to move into costume design’: Megan Glynn (19)

“It isn’t easy being an adult in school, but luckily we have a good relationship with our teachers, so it’s better than if I was in a more traditional school,” Megan says. “In this school, teenagers are treated like adults, and that works better; more communication works for us.”

With many students now looking beyond the traditional CAO entry routes to third level, Megan has been accepted into an art portfolio course at the Bray Institute of Further Education.

“This reduces the stress of getting high points,” she says. “I then hope to get into IADT’s [Institute of Art Design and Technology] design for film course, and then move into costume design.”

Despite the Junior Cert having been cancelled due to the pandemic, she says “the mocks gave me enough insight into State exams, what I am going into and how to deal with the timing and pressure. I don’t think I am impacted by not doing the Junior Cert.”

Seán Cleary (18), Leaving Cert student at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School. Photograph: Fran Veale

‘The dream course is veterinary medicine or veterinary nursing’: Seán Cleary (18)

Seán is the only one of the five students studying Mandarin, and will sit the exam in the coming weeks. “We got to study it as a taster, and it stuck with me,” he says.

He’s also studying physical education – another relatively new subject – for the Leaving Cert, which he enjoys because he is a qualified athletics coach outside of school.

“I want to be a vet, so the dream course is veterinary medicine or veterinary nursing in UCD,” he says. “It’s always been veterinary for me, but the points are high. I have already secured a place in a PLC that can get me into the UCD veterinary nursing course, and I could maybe do postgraduate veterinary training after. Or I could study abroad.”

The pressure of exams has taken time away from his hobbies and interests – chess, athletics and music – but he hopes to get back to them. A good all-rounder, he also sings and plays the piano.

‘I’m more scared than excited of college’: Daksh Wadhwa (16)

Daksh’s age stands out: he is unusually young for a Leaving Cert student.

“When I came here in 2020, there wasn’t space in second year, and they saw my results and said I would manage in third year. So I was 13 in my Junior Cert year – although of course we didn’t sit it because of the pandemic.”

He is, his classmates concur, “a bit of a genius”. But he is nonetheless apprehensive about what’s next.

“I’m more scared than excited of college. I want to do economics and finance in UCD, as it’s a good course and a great college.”

Daksh was elected as one of the two school captains, where he is a liaison between school management and students. He is also involved in Model United Nations and the debate club.

Principal Barbara Mulhall and guidance counsellor Alice O'Connor at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School. Photograph: Fran Veale

At the school, meanwhile, staff place a big emphasis on building positive relationships with students.

In its whole school evaluation, inspectors noted that “all lessons were characterised by a high-quality rapport between teachers and students, and between students. All teachers modelled kindness and respect.”

Alice O’Connor, the school’s guidance counsellor, says: “We put a lot of trust in our students, and we give them the space to grow and learn from their mistakes.”

The school has occupied its new, permanent building only since September 2023, and had its first Leaving Cert cohort only in 2022.

“In a new school, we get to determine the culture and build our own traditions,” says Barbara Mulhall, the school’s principal. “And our primary values are kindness and respect. If a student doesn’t display kindness and respect, we will often just ask them why and what is going on for them,” she says.

The school has strengths in basketball and athletics, says O’Connor. “But we also have a Dungeons & Dragons club, a Lego club, a coding club, a chess club, and our digi-ninjas [a team of students who support classmates with digital issues]. If there is a club or society that a student wants to start, we’re always open to it, and we will support them.”

Academically, the school takes innovative approaches. Twice a year, students undertake phenomenon-based learning projects via an amended timetable that allows them to cover curricular content while exploring real world phenomena like neurodiversity, climate and other real-world topics.

Stepaside Educate Together is a “school of sanctuary”, which means that inclusion is at the heart of its identity. Students learn about migrants, refugees, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups, including LGBT+ students, and diversity is actively celebrated.

It has autism classes and autism-friendly spaces which, Mulhall explains, can double as refuges for anyone who needs some downtime.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow devised the well-known hierarchy of human needs, while the educator Benjamin Bloom created a taxonomy of educational objectives. Both are influential in the school.

“But it’s Maslow before Bloom here,” says Mulhall. “This means that we address every student’s personal needs as a way of being able to optimise their educational opportunities and potential.

“Ultimately, if the teachers and the students are happy, and the relationships are right, then learning can happen.”