Give me a crash course in... Leaving Cert reform

Some exams will take place in fifth year – but bigger reforms will take years to deliver

The Leaving Cert as we know it is over, right?

Not quite. Minister for Education Norma Foley announced details of planned reforms to the Leaving Cert this week. The most immediate change is that students entering senior cycle in September 2023 will sit paper one in English and Irish at the end of fifth year.

In addition, a number of pilot schools will road-test two new subjects for students starting fifth year in 2024: drama, film and theatre studies; and climate action and sustainable development.

In the longer term, 60 per cent of marks for all Leaving Cert subjects will be based on written exams and 40 per cent on additional assessment components such as project work, orals or practicals.


Some new and revised subjects will be available in pilot schools from September 2024, when students entering fifth year will study updated subject curricula with updated assessment models in chemistry, physics, biology and business.

If exams are being spread over two years, what happens to students who repeat?

Authorities say repeat students will be permitted to sit all relevant exams and assessments in a single year.

So, when will my child actually get to see these changes?

Unless your child is in one of the pilot schools – to be decided shortly – it is likely to be 2028 or later before new and revised subjects begin to roll out across all schools.

In other words, if your son or daughter is currently at second level, chances are they’ll miss out on most of the changes. Today’s primary school pupils are more likely to see the full benefits.

An end to Leaving Cert nightmares for future generations of children, then?

The biggest criticism of the current Leaving Cert is its heavy emphasis on high-stakes written exams over three weeks. While this will ease, some say there is a risk that spreading out exams and project work could lead to over-assessment and ongoing stress over a longer period.

The competitive CAO system for entry to college isn’t likely to change any time soon, so many students will still feel pressure to secure points.

Are teachers’ unions on the warpath yet?

Unions' biggest bugbear is a plan for teachers to assess their own pupils for the project work, practicals etc, which would make up 40 per cent of students' marks. The idea is that these additional components will be externally "moderated' by the State Examinations Commission to ensure fairness and consistency. The Teachers' Union of Ireland says its members are fundamentally opposed to assessing their own students for State certificate purposes, while the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland insists certification in State exams must be "entirely externally assessed".

I thought they assessed their own pupils for the last two years?

They did. Due to Covid-19, the traditional Leaving Cert was changed to include predicted grades based on teachers’ input. However, unions insist this was done on a “no precedent” basis.

What will happen with the Leaving Cert Applied?

Until now the more hands-on Leaving Cert Applied has been kept separate from the established Leaving Cert. However, LCA students will have improved access to maths and foreign languages from September 2022.

A new qualification will also be introduced to provide an appropriate level of assessment to some students with special educational needs.

Anything else?

Further reforms are being examined which aim to recognise a wider variety of students’ skills and aptitudes. Work experience, volunteering and citizenship form part of the senior cycle experience. Students may also get an opportunity to complete taster modules of further education and training courses. The changes may be key to easing pressure and helping shift the focus away from the CAO points race.