Leaving Cert students’ stress levels ‘virtually disappeared’ due to assessments

School managers say there is a ‘compelling’ case for reform of our ‘dated’ senior cycle

Stress and anxiety among Leaving Cert students “virtually disappeared” over the past two years thanks to the introduction of teacher assessments instead of high-stakes exams, according to school principals.

Paul Crone director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said it was important to learn lessons from the successes of the recent accredited grades model.

“We have learned that it is possible for teachers to assess their students. We have learned that entry to third level must be decoupled from terminal exam results. We have learned that students’ anxiety and stress were significantly reduced when they had options. Students’ voices were heard and they want flexibility,” he said.

Mr Crone was speaking at an Oireachtas committee on education meeting which heard from school managers and principals' representatives on options for Leaving Cert reform.


He said research undertaken by the association in 2018 found that 83 per cent of students felt the Leaving Cert exam in its traditional form was not the best way to assess their educational achievement.

The same survey found that 55 per cent of parents were in favour of their children being assessed by their teacher and 65 per cent of teachers were in favour of comprehensive reform of the Leaving Certificate.

While the Government is planning a return to a more normal Leaving Cert exam next summer, Mr Crone suggested that teacher assessment could continue to play a key role in future.

“We need to learn the lesson that students trust their teachers. There is a really positive learning and relationship there; teachers are guiding students learning.That needs to be built on.”

John Curtis, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, the school management association for more than half of secondary schools, said there was scope for a much wider variety of assessment approaches in a reformed Leaving Cert.

He said school-based projects, portfolio-based assessments, end-of-year interviews and credit-based modules offered “rich experiences” in the assessment and reporting of students’ learning.

Mr Curtis said students support the idea of continuous assessment by way of assignments, tasks and interviews which promote their independent learning and offer them better preparation for further education.

‘Much to reflect on’

“Our experience around assessment at Leaving Certificate over the past two years has given us much to reflect on in this regard and opens up possibilities some may never have thought possible,” he said.

He said the Leaving Cert Applied and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme were good models to examine with their emphasis on course work, case studies and work experience.

“The opportunity for practice in the world of work is offered alongside the taught curriculum, and this could well be replicated in future,” he said,

On the issue of higher and further education options, he said one Cork school has developed an “apprenticeship pathway programme” which exposes students to further education and training options.

Paddy Flood of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) said there was a "compelling" case for reform of our "dated" senior cycle.

He said there have been moves to include more project work, oral presentations and performance as assessment methods in the traditional Leaving Cert.

However, he said they were effectively overshadowed by an exam process condensed into a stressful three weeks at the end of 14 years of schooling.

“Examinations have a role to play but should not dominate. The assessment of learning for senior cycle students should reflect student voice and capture the wide range of their abilities and knowledge and should not be a slave to matriculation for higher education.”

John Irwin of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools agreed that there was scope for different types of assessment to allow students to display a wider range of learning. Technology offered potential to do this, he said.

He also questioned the need for “reasonable accommodation”, which is designed to enable a candidate to access the State exams on an equal basis with other students.

“This scheme is one which is designed to modify examinations focussed on promoting academic rigour,” he said.

“The existence of such a scheme raises questions about the examination model and its focus.”

The experience of the Leaving Cert oral exams in 2021 had also shown the importance of the relationship between student and teacher, as many students reported feeling less anxious and performing to a better standard when the oral exam was facilitated by their own teacher.

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