Grade inflation set to end for next year’s Leaving Cert, says Foley

Return to traditional exams will see grades back at normal levels after record highs

Leaving Cert grades look set to return to more normal levels in next year’s exams, down from record highs of the past two years.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said on Wednesday that a return to more traditional assessments next year, without school-estimated grades, is likely to see a return to more normal patterns of achievement.

The move would mean the class of 2021 – and, to a lesser extent, the class of 2020 – will benefit from their high grades and CAO points if they reapply for college courses in future years.

However, it risks edging out some of next year’s Leaving Cert students in the hunt for high-points courses.

Ms Foley said this year’s record high grades reflected the impact of Covid-19 and a desire among students for a choice between school-estimated grades and written exams.

“Next year will be a very different year. We’re very much hoping we’ll be post-Covid. We’re planning for a return of the traditional exam, the established exam next year, with accommodations being made. The class of 2022 also experienced a loss of learning. If we’ve learned anything from Covid, we’ll keep everything under review,” she said.

School-estimated grades are not on the agenda for next year, though the exams will include more choice and, in some cases, fewer questions.

Lower grades

When asked if this meant a return to the kind of lower grades seen prior to the pandemic, the Minister said: “We’re talking about – all things being well – of moving to the more established Leaving Certificate, that would be reflected then, I would assume, with what is normally achieved.”

The scale of grade inflation since 2019 has been considerable. Average grades achieved in higher level Leaving Cert exams this year are about 17 per cent ahead of the normal pre-pandemic grades.

Ms Foley did not elaborate on whether there will be a gradual or sudden return to normal grades next year.

Universities are seeking a return to normal grades next year and say the impact of grade inflation this year on some candidates has been “cruel”.

In many cases, students who achieved maximum points – 625 – were unable to secure a course place due to the use of random selection, or a lottery, in Tuesday's college offers.

Grade inflation has also penalised an estimated 10,000 students who applied to the CAO this year on the basis of results achieved last year or in recent years.

Many found themselves without college offers due to the scale of CAO points increases this year.


Sean Clifford, one of the class of 2020, secured enough CAO points to study medicine in UCC and NUI Galway last year but fell short on his Hpat score.

After taking a year to focus and resit the Hpat this year, he scored highly but fell short of this year’s higher CAO cut-off by just a single point.

Meanwhile, Ms Foley has announced details of a catch-up education programme for thousands of pupils at risk of learning loss due to school closures.

Under the €53 million initiative, every school is due to receive an allocation of additional teaching hours, which they may use in accordance with the needs of their students.

Schools will receive their additional teaching allocations based on the number of pupils enrolled, with enhanced hours for special schools and Deis or disadvantaged schools.

“This investment today by Government is truly an investment in our children’s futures,” Ms Foley said.

Minister of State for special education Josepha Madigan said students with additional needs, in particular, will benefit.

She said sharing of knowledge and good practice by schools, along with a new research programme, will ensure that needs and impact are measured over the medium term.

“Teachers and school staff know the best ways to support their students and that sometimes what is needed is extra support with learning and wellbeing,” she said.

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