Leaving Cert: Will changes to calculated grades be enough avoid UK-style meltdown?

Analysis: Government hopeful it has defused key landmines ahead of next week’s results

When calculated grades were awarded to students across the UK in recent weeks, chaos and controversy ripped through the political establishment.

The algorithms used to help calculate students’ grades resulted in up to 40 per cent of students having their grades lowered with disadvantaged students faring worst of all.

All four jurisdictions were forced into humiliating climbdowns as they abandoned the algorithms and opted to go with teachers’ estimated grades only.

So, will there be a repeat here when grades are released on Monday next?


Or has the Government done enough to adjust the system to ensure as many students as possible get a fair result?

Its response, in essence, has boiled down to a simple choice: ensure grades are consistent with previous years, or, emphasise teachers’ predicted grades?

We now know the answer.

Department officials say the Irish system gives “primacy” to teachers’ grades rather than algorithms or the standardisation process.

This is in contrast to the UK, where historical and school data played a much more central role in shaping students’ grades.

Track record

Officials here also say the fact that the teachers' grades in Ireland are based on percentage marks rather than grades means our system allows for more nuanced adjustments.

There are also in-built systems to identify exceptional students, irrespective of the school they attended, unlike in the UK’s more blunt system, say officials.

In addition, the Department of Education has dropped plans for controversial “school profiling” in the standardisation process.

This took account of an individual school’s track record in the last three years to help determine whether teachers’ estimated grades were accurate.

Officials say it has been dropped after learning lessons from the UK, which saw disadvantaged students disproportionately downgraded.

The result, latest figures show, is that final calculated grades in Ireland do not impact unfairly on students in disadvantaged or Deis schools.

If anything, Deis students seem to emerge better and are less likely to have been downgraded and more likely to have been upgraded.

The net result of this light-touch standardisation process is that students’ Leaving Cert grades this year will be significantly more generous than previous years.

About 17 per cent of students have had their teachers’ estimated results downgraded; this contrasts to about 40 per cent in the UK.

It may keep most students happy, but it creates another problem.

Teachers’ grades are generous and this year’s results will be higher than any previous Leaving Cert year.

This, in turn, is likely to push CAO points up for many courses.

This would disadvantage the 20,000 or so students applying for courses this year on the basis of results achieved in previous years. This is because their results were not marked as generously as this year’s cohort.

The points race, then, is not a level playing field this year.

Precious commodity

Department officials counter that they had to achieve a balance between adjusting this year’s results to ensure they were in line with results in previous years – and ensuring “fairness and acceptability” for this year’s cohort of students.

They opted to place a heavier emphasis on the latter.

They say, however, that the creation of more than 1,000 higher and further education places should ensure that more students than ever will be able to get their first place preference.

This remains to be seen and may well become a source of controversy next week.

What seems clear, overall, is that Irish officials have had the most precious commodity available to them in preparing for the release of calculated grades: time.

The UK meltdown allowed policy-makers over here to make crucial adjustments and learn valuable lessons.

At a statistical level, they seem to have defused most of the obvious landmines. At an individual level, however, it may be another matter entirely.

But we will only know for sure when up to 60,000 individuals receive their results on Monday morning.