Leaving Cert 2017: Girls outperform boys in most subjects

Maths is one of just six subjects at higher level where male students performed better

Kate Collins, from Clontarf in Dublin, got 8 H1s in her Leaving Cert. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Kate Collins, from Clontarf in Dublin, got 8 H1s in her Leaving Cert. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins


Girls outperformed boys in the vast majority of subjects, a gender analysis of this year’s Leaving Cert results shows.

In all, girls secured a higher proportion of top grades – grades one, two or three – in 32 out of 38 subjects at higher level. A similar pattern is evident at ordinary level.

Maths was one of just six subjects at higher level where boys performed better.

Other subjects where boys performed better included applied maths, chemistry, agricultural economics, engineering and economics.

Figures show there are some stark differences in participation rates, indicating that gender stereotyping is slow to shift.

Of almost 4,586 students who took engineering at higher level, just over 260 were girls. Similarly, just over 6,700 boys sat the construction studies paper, compared to just over 700 girls.

Girls, by contrast, were also more likely to study higher-level languages such as Irish, French and Spanish. In all cases, just over 60 per cent of candidates in these exams were girls. Biology also attracted significantly more girls.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has insisted the new Leaving Cert grading system does not represent a “dumbing down” of the exam.

Under a new grading system designed to reduce pressure on students at exam time, candidates at higher level who score between 30 and 39 per cent – previously known as an E grade – are eligible for CAO points.

“The system is rewarding people who take the chance to do a higher-level course,” Mr Bruton said.

“The changes had been approved by higher education institutions he said as the aim was to expose students to more challenging demands such as problem solving. This was in line with best international practice.”

In response to the changes, the number of students opting for higher level papers across all subjects has climbed to a new high, while failure rates at higher level have dropped dramatically.


However, there is evidence of significant numbers struggling at ordinary level with failure rates in many ordinary papers increasing significantly.

Mr Bruton said that if you take the top performing lower-level students and get them to take a higher-level paper, “you are taking the cream out of that selection”.

He said that even if disappointed with their results today, students should take the time to examine other options.

“For the class of 2017 there are more pathways than ever before to help you to achieve your potential. There is a wide range of opportunities in the further education and training sector, including traineeships and apprenticeships, as well as in the third-level sector,” he said.

Employers’ group Ibec, meanwhile, has welcomed the continued increase in the number of Leaving Cert students taking higher-level subjects such as maths.

However, it warned that improvements in teaching quality are needed to deliver sustained improvements.

Bonus points

Claire McGee, Ibec’s senior executive for innovation and education policy, said: “The proportion of students taking the higher-level maths paper has almost doubled since the introduction of bonus points in 2012 and is a clear vindication of that decision. Perhaps it is now time to consider incentivising other key subjects for the economy in a similar way.”

While the introduction of the new grading system has encouraged students with the required aptitude to take the higher level paper, she said a focus on teaching quality was needed to these improvements to be sustained.

“The future of high-technology companies in Ireland will depend on sufficient numbers of suitably qualified graduates. If students want to pursue these disciplines, they must have a strong foundation in mathematics at secondary school,” she said.