More students taking higher level subjects and fewer failing

New grading system sees major increases in higher-level participation

The introduction of a new marking system for the Leaving Certificate this year has resulted in students taking subjects at higher level in greater numbers across virtually all subjects and fewer failing exams.

The numbers taking the higher level course in the three core subjects of Irish (22,122), maths (16,395) and English (38,749) increased 10, 8, and 6 per cent respectively.

Given that the fail grade now falls at under 30 per cent, the numbers failing these three core subjects at higher level have also fallen by approximately 50 per cent.

Only 66 students failed Irish at higher level in 2017, 344 in maths and 232 in English, in contrast to 120, 684, and 439 in 2016.


The changes introduced to the Leaving Cert in these three core subjects over recent years, such as the allocation of 40 per cent of marks for the oral Irish component, and the awarding of bonus points in maths, has resulted in substantial increases in higher-level participation.

In 2017, 71.6 per cent of candidates sat English at higher level, as did 46.2 per cent in Irish and 30 per cent in Maths. Whether academic standards have been compromised to achieve these increases in higher level participation is a question for debate.


One of the most interesting aspects of the distribution of grades in the 2017 Leaving Cert relates to the numbers who secured under 40 per cent compared to 2016. There has been a marked increase in the number of students in this situation across almost all subjects.

One explanation for this pattern of results may be that those additional students who opted to take higher level due to the H7 band have achieved their natural result at this level. In Geography for example an additional 625 students took higher level. The number of students securing less than 40 per cent rose from 2.1 per cent (392) to 5.1 per cent (894) or 502 additional students.

This explanation breaks down when we look at subjects where numbers at higher level have not increased and yet the numbers securing less than 40 per cent have increased.

Art was taken at higher level by 7,737 students in 2017 compared to 7,789 in 2016 a drop of 52 students. The percentage securing less than 40 per cent increased from 1 per cent to 2.5 per cent.

In physics the numbers increased by 4.5 per cent to 6,271, an increase of 268 students at higher level. The numbers securing less than 40 per cent rose from 10.2 to 17.8 per cent and 8.2 per cent of students failed the subject in 2017.

A contributory factor to this significant increase in numbers scoring less than 40 per cent is that there may be a natural tendency among correcting teachers to seek to pass students where possible.

Successful outcome

Now that 39-30 per cent band constitutes a successful outcome for a student the numbers of students dropping under the old pass mark of 40 per cent may increase.

The number of students who do not sit the Irish examination paper now constitutes about one in eight of all candidates. Many of those who did not take the subject were formally exempted by the Department of Education and Skills from partaking in Irish tuition due to the age at which they entered the Irish education system or a diagnosis of a disability which entitled them to an exemption.

In maths the numbers at higher level at 16,295 are the highest ever and close to double the numbers who traditionally took the subject prior to the introduction of the 25 bonus points in 2012.

With only 344 students failing to secure the 30 per cent grade and a further 1016 securing the H7 there are 15, 035 students holding an additional 25 CAO points going into the competition for college places.

At the other end of the spectrum 10 per cent of ordinary level maths students failed the subject in 2017. The total number failing across all three levels stands at 3,867, which is an improvement on the numbers in recent years, but still constitutes a serious problem for the students concerned who may find it difficult to secure a college offer without a pass in maths.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times