Reforms needed to tackle Leaving Cert anxiety, say principals

‘There’s a reason grown adults still have nightmares about it’

School principals say Leaving Certificate reforms are urgently needed to ease some of the anxiety it is causing among students.

The warning comes as almost 121,000 students prepare to begin their Junior and Leaving Cert exams on Wednesday.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals said pressure caused by the high-stakes, terminal exam was causing some students to spend much of their time at second level in “perpetual anxiety”.

The association’s director Clive Byrne said: “There’s a reason grown adults still have dreams – or nightmares – about re-sitting their Leaving Cert.


“Revising for exams is gruelling at the best of times, but when you’re repeatedly told that a fortnight in June will determine the rest of your life, it’s no wonder young people spend much of their school life in perpetual anxiety.”

Research indicates there are rising levels of anxiety among schoolchildren which experts say may be linked to factors such as social media and a growing culture of expectation around students.

Many fresh-faced undergraduates receive a nasty shock when their first college assignments receive middling marks

Some clinical experts say pressure around the Leaving Cert, in particular, is contributing to anxiety among students.

Mr Byrne also said the system was not serving students well in preparing for college or the world of work.

Critical thinking

It relied too heavily on rote learning which meant students were neglecting key skills such as critical thinking, he said.

“College lecturers continuously complain that Irish students lack the study and thinking skills required of them at third level, especially in scientific and mathematical subjects,” he said.

“Further education asks a lot more of people than the Leaving Cert, like original thought, innovation, argumentation, and an ability to read between the lines and understand context.

“Indeed, because of their deficits in these areas, many fresh-faced undergraduates who otherwise excelled within the boundaries of the secondary system receive a nasty shock when their first college assignments receive middling marks.”

I'd like to remind everyone that although these exams are important, they are just one pathway in education

The Department of Education’s advisory body on the curriculum this year commenced a review of the Leaving Cert, though it is likely to take several years before there are significant changes.

Students, meanwhile, have received best wishes messages from the Minister for Education Richard Bruton, principals and teachers’ unions in advance of the exams.

Mr Bruton said students have put in huge effort to get to this point and should be very proud of their work to date.

“Almost 58,000 students are sitting the Leaving Certificate examinations this year, including students taking the Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme,” he said.

“I’d like to remind everyone that although these exams are important, they are just one pathway in education. There are now a range of opportunities available to you to fulfil your ambitions.”

Broad range

In addition to higher education and further education courses, he said there were a very broad range of apprenticeship and traineeship programmes available in new areas, such as ICT and financial services, as well as the traditional craft courses.

“These are very attractive options that lead to very rewarding careers, when considering your next steps,” he said.

He also said he was delighted that approaches to teaching and learning in the junior cycle are supporting students to engage in active learning and to develop the skills needed for the 21st century.

He said progress is continuing to be made on the rollout of the new junior cycle subjects, with the introduction of five new subject specifications in the next academic year.

“I’d like to pay tribute to all the teachers, principals and of course parents for their role in supporting their students in preparing for these exams,” he said.

“We are very fortunate in Ireland to have such a dedicated and committed teaching profession. Teachers and school leaders have a transformative impact on a child’s life and make an invaluable contribution to our society.”

The ASTI and TUI teachers’ unions also wished student well ahead of the exams.

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