Number of Leaving Cert students who secured top grades soars by 1,600%

Move to teacher-assessed marks linked to dramatic increase in grade inflation

The number of Leaving Cert candidates who secured top grades – eight H1s – surged from just seven students in 2019 to 119 last year, an increase of 1,600 per cent.

The new figures, released following a freedom of information request, came as senior university figures warned that grade inflation risks undermining the credibility of Leaving Cert awards.

Student, parent and school principal representatives have called for a hybrid Leaving Cert this year – a choice between teacher-assessed grades or exams – due to Covid-linked disruption to education.

However, the university sector said teacher-assessed grades were linked to a dramatic increase in top grades since they were introduced in 2020.


State Examinations Commission figures showed the scale of grade inflation among all students and high achievers.

In the last set of exams before the pandemic in 2019, just 4 per cent of all grades awarded to candidates were H1s (90-100 per cent).

This climbed to 7 per cent in 2020 (when teacher-assessed marks and delayed exams were introduced) and 10 per cent in 2021 (when a hybrid system of teacher-assessed marks and exams was introduced).

When broken down to high achievers, the data showed that no student secured nine H1s in 2019. However, three candidates did in 2020 and 2021.

The number of students who scored eight H1s climbed from seven in 2019 to 46 in 2020 and 119 in 2021.

Similarly, the number who scored seven H1s climbed dramatically, up from 69 in 2019 to 243 in 2020 and 544 in 2021.

The number of Leaving Cert candidates with six H1s climbed from 196 in 2019 to 419 in 2020 to 910 in 2021.

2022 exams

An opinion poll conducted by the Irish Second Level Students’ Union indicated that up to one in three senior-cycle students want a hybrid Leaving Cert this year.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals also said it would support such a move on the basis that students have missed out because of school closures, along with student and teacher absences.

However, the Irish Universities Association has warned that having a hybrid Leaving Cert this year could result in more students missing out on first-choice college courses due to increased use of random selection.

This is on the basis that teacher-assessed marks are linked to grade inflation and higher CAO points.

As a result, it said a hybrid approach could mean that many high-scoring students risk missing out on their first-choice college courses.

In addition, Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh, deputy president of NUI Galway and chairman of the CAO, expressed concern that a hybrid system could result in students gaining college places without ever having been tested in a State exam.

“That means some will be going into university without ever having sat a State exam. Do they expect to get a degree without exams? What kind of preparation is that? There are pressure points in life, not just in school or university, where you have to perform. All this is preparation for that,” he said.

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