College entry to be based on wider range of students’ skills

Report on Leaving Cert reform envisages continual assessment, projects and modules

The Central Applications Office (CAO) points system will need to be revised to reflect a wider range of students’ skills and learning pathways, according to a major report on senior-cycle reform to be published shortly.

It proposes reforms to the Leaving Cert which reduce the focus on stressful end-of-school exams in June and the introduction of a “curriculum for all” that includes options such as apprenticeships, taster modules, voluntary work and life skills.

The Irish Times understands that the proposals are contained in an advisory report on senior-cycle reform due to be published by Minister for Education Norma Foley shortly.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment advisory report is based on extensive research and consultation with teachers, students, parents and others over the past five years.


There is broad agreement that exams should remain and that assessment results would continue to provide a means of selection into higher education, on the basis that externally marked exams are seen as enjoying widespread public trust.

However, the report envisages giving greater weighting to continual assessment, projects or other course components over a two- or three-year period.

The report acknowledges the current emphasis on end-of-school exams is seen by many as causing a “negative backwash” in teaching and learning, which is leading to “unacceptable levels of stress” in the run-up to exams.

It says future changes to the CAO system should at a minimum take account of new developments and flexible learning pathways in a redeveloped senior cycle.

“These developments could ease student and societal concerns that so much currently hinges on a few weeks of examinations at the end of senior cycle,” the report states.

It says the next generation of students, for whom learning will be a continuous feature of their adult and working lives, will be best served through the provision of more flexible learning pathways at senior cycle.

Taster modules

In addition to traditional subjects, it envisages taster modules for apprenticeships or other technical, professional, enterprise or creative areas of learning.

Some of these, it says, could be developed with external bodies or agencies and take place in “off site” settings, such as further education colleges.

It also emphasises the importance of “learning for life” which could be gained through voluntary or community work, PE and work experience, along with a revised sex-education course that meets the needs of students today.

It envisages fleshing out the proposals over a three-stage process, resulting in a new framework for the senior cycle.

It is likely to take at least three years, given that each stage will take between 12 and 18 months to complete, with some overlap between stages.

And it aims to “strike a balance between conservation and change so that every student can experience meaningful learning and achievement in a redeveloped senior cycle”.

To be successful, the report says it will require “collective initiative” on the part of all stakeholders; high-quality training for teachers, and guidance for students and parents to navigate redeveloped pathways and curriculum.

It says the consensus on the need for changes to senior-cycle education which emerged from the review has been strengthened by the major challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has heightened awareness of inequities of access, participation and achievement in education, which makes the redevelopment of senior cycle proposed by this advisory report “all the more vital”.

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