Leaving Cert: Senior cycle review seeks update to 21st century

With rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence, skills for work success are changing fast

There is a strong consensus on the need for change to the Leaving Cert.

There is a strong consensus on the need for change to the Leaving Cert.


The Leaving Cert was introduced almost a century ago and its basic structure has remained broadly the same over the past 50 years or so.

At a time when society and the world of work is undergoing rapid change, it poses the question of whether our senior-cycle system is fit for purpose for the 21st century.

Against the backdrop of rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence, the skills required for work success are changing fast.

Some must-have career attributes for graduates these days, according to the World Economic Forum, include creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Education experts say a combination of a high-stakes exam and a hugely competitive points system means there is often little emphasis on a more rounded education.

Many of these views have emerged in the course of consultations with schools, teachers, students and parents during the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) review of the senior cycle.

While sources say there have been differing views so far on the nature, pace and scale of any future changes, there is a strong consensus on the need for change.

Consultations show there is an appetite for the senior cycle to better reflect the skills needed for life in the modern world; greater flexibility for pupils to learn at their own pace; increased focus on student (and teacher) wellbeing; and a hunger to incorporate some elements from transition year – such as work experience – into the senior cycle.

Leaving Cert Applied

The irony is that many of the suggestions resemble a programme that already exists but which has been neglected by policymakers and damaged by the stigma: the Leaving Cert Applied.

More than a third of secondary schools offer this programme, though it is taken up by as few as 5 per cent of students.

A key difference with the Leaving Cert Applied is its modular structure which allows students to earn credits on completion of modules over the course of two years.

Assessment includes assignments, tasks, interviews and oral examinations in addition to written exams.

The final result is a single award of a pass, merit or distinction based on the accumulation of credits over the two years.

Students who leave the programme before completion can return to the programme with their previous credits “banked” and continue their studies.

Work experience is also a significant portion of the course, and marks are awarded for final exams, attendance and course work.

The problem with the programme is its perception. It doesn’t qualify for CAO points, which limits options for students wishing to progress to higher education.

Whether this will be a model for the senior cycle remains to be seen; it is very much the early days of the senior-cycle review.

Either way, the NCCA should be commended for the inclusive manner in which it is consulting stakeholders over the potential shape of the senior cycle.

More than 2,500 students across more than 40 schools have had their voices heard in meaningful consultations so far, along with hundreds of teachers, parents and others.

While key themes have emerged in consultations, they do not yet represent an agreed path forward. The attitude of teachers’ unions, too, will be critical if reforms are to see the light of day.

While policymakers are ultimately aiming to reach consensus on the future shape of senior-cycle education, this will almost certainly be easier said than done.