Leaving Cert to be cancelled: But will 'Plan B' be fair to students?

Most candidates want it – but some may change their mind if they miss out on points

Tens of thousands of students and their parents have been clamouring in recent days for the Leaving Cert exams to be cancelled and replaced with predicted grades.

It now looks like they will get their wish.

The Government looks set to scrap plans for exams during the summer and introduce a system where students will get grades or points based on a combination of their in-school assessments and class rankings.

It will be a huge wave of relief for Leaving Cert candidates who have been living under a cloud of uncertainty for months.


But will the system be fair?

Will troublesome students be penalised? Will those who feel they have underperformed in class assessments lose out? Will students quickly change their mind about fairness if they lose out on their dream course by just a few points? And will it prompt a wave of legal actions from students and their families?

These are all questions which remain to be answered over the coming days and months. In the conservative world of Irish education, this is a huge leap in the dark.

The basic structure of the written Leaving Cert is strikingly similar to the first set of exams that were first sat almost 100 year ago. There is precious little research in Ireland to suggest that predicted grades can be done with any degree of accuracy.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh himself described the system of predicted grades as “inherently biased” just over a week ago.

Predicted grades are used in the UK,  where students receive university offers based on their predicted grades.

The biggest research study to date  on how they operate is by Dr Gil Wyness of University College London.

She found that only 16 per cent of applicants achieved the grade points that they were predicted to achieve. The vast majority – 75 per cent – were over-predicted.

The level of accuracy also varied dramatically between disadvantaged schools and independent schools.

Among high-achieving students, applicants from low-income homes were more likely to have their grades under-predicted compared with those from high-income backgrounds.

The Department of Education is doubtless aware of most of these arguments and unanswered questions.

That’s why it is keen to avoid using the term predicted grades – a term which tends to raise the hackles of teachers – and will settle on another euphemism for that is, in essence, the same thing.

Instead, sources say it will refer to a national standardised grading system , where schools will award grades to students under the guidance of the department.

The plan will also involve giving students the option of appealing their results, according to sources.

In addition, unhappy students may also opt to take the written Leaving Cert exams, though this may not happen until late 2020 or early 2021.

This would be too late for a student to take up their course in the coming academic year – but it may be just enough to head off legal actions from unhappy students.

Will the grading be transparent?

This is likely to be a key area of ongoing controversy.

The plans, say sources, involve using a combination of students' in-school assessments, Junior Cert exams and rank ordering in class.

The awarding of these results will likely to be overseen by school principals and senior management.

Bell curve?

This, in turn, will feed into a process where final grades could be awarded using a “bell curve”. It may also include a form of school profiling, though this is not yet confirmed.

This bell curve refers to the practice of adjusting the marking process to ensure a similar proportion of students secure the same numbers of H1s, H2s and H3s each year.

School profiling relates to the average exam results produced by individual schools which, in itself, is controversial.

This relates to the average exam results produced by individual schools which, in itself, is controversial given the class gap in school achievement. For example, a glance at the annual feeder schools data in The Irish Times - which shows the proportion of students who progress to higher education broken down by individual school - is a graphic snapshot of the country’s educational divide.

Students from the most affluent schools are many times more likely to secure top university places the those from poorer areas

Will teachers buy into the new plan?

Early indications are that they will. The issue of teachers grading their students has been a source of major opposition within teachers’ unions in the past.

However, sources say unions recognise the urgent need for an alternative to the Leaving Cert and for unions to be seen to support students.

As for whether this latest move is the right call? In truth, the Minister was in a very tricky position,

There were no good options. Going ahead with the Leaving Cert exams was risky from a health point of view. It was also wide open to criticism, given the digital divide among students without proper access to online tuition.

Predicted grades - or whatever the department calls them - will likely be dogged by questions over fairness and transparency over the months ahead.

There’s little doubt, though, that the decision will cheered by the vast majority of students and families who have had to endure weeks of uncertainty.