CAO system must change to reflect wider range of students’ skills – Harris

Universities ‘won’t get additional funding’ unless they broaden entry routes

Universities must review the CAO points system to ensure it recognises a wider range of students' skills or risk losing public funding, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has warned.

Mr Harris was speaking during a conference on senior cycle reform which heard of how the Leaving Cert can be reformed to recognise a wider array of learning such as life skills, work experience or apprenticeship modules.

When asked how colleges will be persuaded to move away from a narrow CAO points system for entry to college, he said: “It’s very simple because they won’t get any more additional funding if they’re not willing to have that conversation. I’m not here to provide new money for old rope.

“I’m not here to protect institutions. I’m here to make sure that every student in this Republic, every individual, has an opportunity to reach their full potential.”


The conference on senior cycle reform was organised by the Joint Managerial Body, which represents about 400 voluntary secondary schools.

The Minister said he felt many university leaders were “really up” for broadening how we recognise students’ achievements and wanted to ensure our senior cycle allowed all students to reach their full potential.

One way of doing this, he said, involved forging closer links between third-level institutions and further education colleges.

This would ensure there are more solid pathways to ensure school leavers can study areas such as nursing or law, regardless of their CAO points.

He also said he wanted to review restrictions which limit the recognition of top students’ achievements in further education at the equivalent of 390 CAO points when transferring into higher education.

Mr Harris said it was only right that a student who didn’t do as well in the Leaving Cert but was “passionate and gifted” had another entry route that was separate from the CAO points race.


The conference also heard that despite a public perception that student performance in the Leaving Cert hinged on the written exams, most subjects now included marks for projects, practicals and other components.

Andrea Feeney of the State Examinations Commission said 27 out of 41 exams this year involved second or even third components. These can be worth up to 40 or 50 per cent of marks.

On the question of whether there should be more continuous assessment in a bid to ease exam stress, she said policy makers needed to be careful about creating an “overload” of assessment.

She said it was important to “test the thinking on this” because providing more assessments could create even more stress, even if the proportion of marks awarded was quite small.

Ms Feeney also signalled that future reforms could see students complete more of their Leaving Cert exams using digital devices.

This was a recognition, she said, that students were using pens when writing their exams, but may not be using them much of the time otherwise.

She said steps were already being taken in this direction, with students submitting some of their projects and components online.

Minister for Education Norma Foley, meanwhile, confirmed that she had received the advisory report on the reform of senior cycle produced by the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment.

She said it was important that her department considered it fully before responding and setting out a programme of senior cycle redevelopment and reform over the coming years.

Ms Foley said the Government was committed to delivering a “senior cycle for all”.

"We must also ensure we prepare students for the Ireland of tomorrow – the society and economy of tomorrow. Our students must be able to function in that society and find employment and fulfilment in that society and economy."

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