Leaving Cert results: grade inflation evident across most subjects

Cancelled exams and calculated results lead to widely anticipated grade inflation

The results are in – and the number of top grades have shot up.

Normally, the Leaving Cert results as a whole are predictable as sunrise and sunset, with the bell curve ensuring that there’s no significant deviation between grades from one year to the next.

This year, however, the pandemic meant that the exams were cancelled and teachers predicted their own student grades. Through no fault of teachers themselves, it was widely expected that this would lead to grade inflation – and it has.

For most subjects, however, the mode (the most common grade) remains at H4, with a smaller number of subjects having a H3 mode.


As a result of higher grades, CAO points seem likely to rise, although this may be mitigated by a lower number of international students coming to Ireland (especially in medicine) and the provision of an additional 1,250 third-level places.

So which subject grades have risen the most, and which have stayed reasonably consistent?


Since 2012, Irish has had the highest amount of top grades in any subject besides minority languages and music – a fact that is often lost in somewhat trite chatter about Irish being badly taught.

This year, the number of H1 grades awarded has risen from 6.1 per cent in 2019 to 9.1 per cent in 2020. Overall, “honours” grades (H1-H5) have risen to 94.3 per cent, up from 87.3 per cent last year.

H8 (fail) grades have fallen very slightly from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent.

At ordinary level, O1 grades are up from 0.3 per cent to 1.9 per cent, O2 grades from 5.2 per cent to 8.7 per cent, O3 grades from 18.6 to 19.4 per cent and 26.2 to 26.3 per cent. Lower marks have fallen slightly, with the fail rate falling from 2.7 to 1.5 per cent.


English is traditionally one of the hardest subjects to secure top marks in, but it also has one of the lowest higher-level fail rates.

This year is no different: while the number of H1s in English are up from 3 per cent in 2019 to 4.3 per cent in 2020, this is, by some way the lowest amount of top marks awarded in any Leaving Cert subject. For contrast, the next lowest number of H1 grades is in geography (6 per cent) followed by construction studies (7.4 per cent) and French (7.7 per cent).

English “honours” grades as a whole are up from 84.8 per cent in 2019 to 90.1 per cent this year, while the fail rate is down slightly from 0.6 to 0.3 per cent.

At ordinary level, O1 grades have doubled from 1.5 per cent in 2019 to 3 per cent this year, with O2 grades up from 7.3 per cent to 10.6 per cent and O3 grades rising from 20.3 to 22.9 per cent. H8 grades – a fail – are down from 2 per cent to 1.2 per cent.


Maths matters to students and policymakers alike. For students, a basic pass is a requirement for most third-level courses. For policymakers, successive Governments have sought to encourage more students to take higher-level maths and, ultimately, to enter into more science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) courses at third level.

In 2019, 6.4 per cent of students got a H1, while that figure has risen to 8.4 per cent this year – an increase of 31.25 per cent. The overall “honours” rate has gone from 78.8 per cent to 86.7 per cent. Failure rates have more than halved, falling from 1.7 per cent in 2019 to 0.5 per cent this year.

The third-level sector will be particularly wary of the surge in higher maths grades this year, because many lecturers on Stem courses have been repeatedly warning that too many students are entering without a sufficient level of maths.

At ordinary level, O1 grades have jumped from 1.7 to 4.4 per cent, though top grades have stayed reasonably steady. Fail rates are down from 4.3 per cent to 1.8 per cent.

Minority languages

Year after year, minority language subjects – sat by students who are almost always bilingually raised in a family where at least one parent speaks the language – have the highest grades.

Croatian had the highest number of H1 grades of any Leaving Cert subject, with 70.6 per cent securing a H1 compared to just 9.8 per cent last year – a grade inflation of 720 per cent.

This year, 455 students sat the Polish exam (compared to 780 sits last year), with 36.3 per cent securing a H1 compared to just 8.3 per cent last year, and H2 grades up from 16.7 per cent to 34.9 per cent.

Other subjects

Top grades in higher-level physics have risen from 10.9 per cent in 2019 to 15.6 per cent this year, while fail rates have tumbled from 7.3 per cent to 0.9 per cent.

“Honours” grades in higher-level chemistry are up from 75.2 per cent in 2019 to 88.8 per cent this year, with fail grades down from 7.4 per cent to 1.2 per cent.

Top marks in higher-level biology are up from 8.2 per cent last year to 10.8 per cent this year, with “honours” grades up from 73 per cent to 84.2 per cent. Fail rates are down from 4.8 to 1.3 per cent.

Business students have seen the number of H1 grades more than double, from 4.2 cent last year to 8.5 cent this year while top marks in accounting have soared from 6.9 per cent to 17.4 per cent.

Last year, 6.9 per cent of history students got top marks, while this year 10.8 per cent secured a H1. The number of “honour” history grades (H1-H5), is up from 84.1 per cent to 90.3 per cent.

The number of top geography grades are also up, from 3.9 per cent last year to 6 per cent this year, while “honours” grades have risen from 80.9 per cent to 87.2 per cent.

The failure rate for classical studies has always been persistently high compared to other subjects, with the chance of top marks correspondingly low. This year, H1s have more than doubled, from 6.6 per cent in 2019 to 12.3 per cent in 2020, while the fail rate has fallen from 3.2 per cent to 0.6 per cent.