Government decision on exams-only Leaving Cert is ‘appalling’, Mary Lou McDonald says

Opposition criticises move not to proceed with hybrid model for State exams

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said the Government has made the “wrong call” on this year’s Leaving Certificate, describing it as “an appalling decision” and “massive mistake” not to have a hybrid model for the exams.

Ms McDonald also said the way in which this decision was communicated to students was “equally awful” and that it had been “cynically leaked to media late last night”, adding that “an incredible level of disrespect” had been shown to young people.

Minister for Education Norma Foley confirmed on Tuesday that this year's Leaving Cert will be held as exams only and ruled out a hybrid approach to the State exams. The hybrid model of students being able to choose between receiving calculated grades and sitting written exams had been adopted in the previous two years due to disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest decision has come despite repeated calls from students and the Opposition for another hybrid Leaving Cert, on the basis that many current students have experienced significant disruption to their studies due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Ms Foley said the exams will be “tailor-made” in recognition of the challenges faced by students, and there will be more question options available and less material for students to cover.


Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, Ms McDonald said stressed-out students had been waiting for months for the Government to make a decision on the format of the exams and had found out through social media or from a WhatsApp message on Monday night “that the dye had been cast”.

“An incredible level of disrespect has been shown to these young people. Their voices have been ignored and set aside and I believe Government has failed fundamentally to understand the level of disruption that they have been subjected to. Fairness is the victim in all of this,” the Dublin Central TD said.

“Students have been very coherently calling for choice, for a blended approach, because it makes sense, because it is fair. This year’s Leaving Cert students have had their entire senior cycle disrupted – fifth year and sixth year – by Covid-19. They’ve had to overcome massive academic challenges and that is even before we consider the incredible pressure on their mental health.”

Ms McDonald said students faced two months of full school closure last year, with many struggling with access to devices and wifi issues, and there had also been a high level of absences among teachers and students due to the virus.

She said that mock exams were pushed back in some schools because students were so far behind.

Student response

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said her office had already been receiving "lots of calls and emails" from students and parents who are "extremely anxious, confused, and many of them angry".

“Taoiseach, as a former secondary school teacher yourself you know that the Leaving Cert is a two-year exam and that the curriculum covers those two years,” she said.

“This year’s cohort have not had two years to prepare. There have been lengthy school closures [during that period].”

In response, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said an accredited grades system “could not have been applied [this year] as fairly as it was last year”, as 25 per cent of Leaving Cert students this year did not sit the Junior Cert.

“Their data would not have been available for a grades alternative,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody put forward an alternative to that in any meaningful way.”

Mr Martin said most papers will have content cut by one-third, while also pointing out that other countries were returning to their pre-Covid assessment approach, “so we’re not out of line with what’s happening in Europe”.

He said clarity had been provided to students this year much earlier than last year and acknowledged it had been a challenging year for them due to Covid-19.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times