Leaving Cert Irish reform plans could backfire

Opinion: Irish-language groups have good alternatives to inadequate draft proposals

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is currently undertaking a review of the overall senior cycle curriculum having invited submissions from members of the public. This is not the first time that the senior cycle has been reviewed. Reviews have taken place every decade since the 1980s but in spite of widespread criticism of how students between 15 and 18 are taught and assessed, the Leaving Certificate has changed little in the past half century.

The argument has been made that teaching and learning at senior cycle has become overly focused on university selection and it has been suggested that the solution is to decouple the Leaving Cert from higher education selection.

The general consensus, however, is that decoupling is not the answer and that the Leaving Certificate should be retained both as certification of second-level completion and as a mechanism for higher-education selection.

In addition to the review of the overall senior cycle curriculum, the NCCA is also currently reviewing and revising individual Leaving Certificate subject syllabuses/specifications and plans to introduce new Leaving Cert Irish specifications in 2023.


These new Leaving Cert Irish specifications have been circulated for consultation and draft specifications will shortly be circulated for the science subjects physics, chemistry and biology. It is essential that these new specifications provide clear, detailed and comprehensive information on subject content and how student performance will be assessed. Syllabus content should be aligned with assessment to ensure national consistency and coherence.

Skeletal specifications

Unfortunately, the approach being taken by the NCCA in designing the new draft specifications does not provide such clarity. The draft Irish specifications are skeletal and provide only the vaguest outline on content and assessment. They consist only of learning outcomes with no detail on the material to be taught, teaching approaches, literature/ texts or assessment.

The NCCA proposes to abolish the current foundation level Irish, a level which caters for the learning needs of an important cohort of students and the abolition of this level could well lead to an increase in the numbers of students seeking an exemption from the study of Irish.

In place of the current foundation, ordinary and higher levels, the proposed new Leaving Cert Irish comprises two separate Irish specifications, one catering primarily for students in Gaeltacht and Irish-medium schools (L1) and one for all others (L2).

As each specification would be offered at two levels (higher and ordinary) there would be four examination levels. The draft specifications, however, give very little information about the standard required at the various levels, making it almost impossible for teachers, students or parents to provide informed feedback in the consultation.

Another issue of great concern to stakeholders in Irish medium and Gaeltacht schools is the lack of clarity on whether the L1 specification will be optional or compulsory and as to what, if any, incentives will be provided to encourage uptake of the more challenging L1 specification. Failure to provide any detail on assessment suggests that no consideration has been given to addressing current concerns about the overloaded examination in June of the students’ final year nor has any creative thought been given to the format and timing of assessments.

The proposed new specifications do not appear to be aligned with Government policy on the Irish language. The specifications are not linked in a transparent manner with the common European Framework of Reference for Languages, an approach recommended in the 20-year Strategy for the Irish Language and also in the Department of Education’s own strategy for the teaching of modern languages Languages Connect.

While it is clear that learning needs of native and able Irish speakers need to be addressed, there are other and arguably better ways to cater the learning needs of all students in Leaving Cert Irish than those currently proposed by the NCCA.


Two options have been proposed by Irish-language organisations – both of which would enable the foundation course to be restored and would provide for the first time for the needs of another minority, native and able Irish speakers.

(1) The first of these options would be to provide a new advanced-level course in Irish language, culture and literature which L1 students and those who have a special interest in Irish could take in addition to one of the other Leaving Cert Irish courses (higher, ordinary or foundation level courses). CAO points should be available for this advanced course in the same way as points are available for the current applied maths course.

(2) The other option would be to provide four Irish courses – at advanced, higher, ordinary and foundation levels. Students would opt for just one of these courses – but an incentive (such as additional CAO points) would need to be made available to encourage L1 and high-achieving students to take the advanced course. (There are currently 25 additional points available for students who achieve at least a H6 in the Leaving Cert higher maths course).

I argued 10 years ago that policymakers should “think outside the box” and come up with new and creative solutions to long-standing concerns about the Leaving Cert.

No such thinking has gone into the draft Leaving Cert Irish specifications currently being circulated by the NCCA. The time for change is now – and the Irish-language organisations are debating and suggesting good and necessary alternatives to the inadequate and skeletal specifications currently being provided by the NCCA. Let’s hope that the NCCA listens to the voices of the students, teachers and parents who are engaging with the consultation process.

Áine Hyland is emeritus professor of education, University College Cork