School profiling should not dictate Leaving Cert grades, warns Ombudsman

A-level results show pupils from poorer backgrounds hit hardest by downgrades

Leaving Cert students’ calculated grades should not be dictated by the past performance of their schools, the Ombudsman for Children has warned.

Dr Niall Muldoon’s comments come amid controversy over the use of calculated grades in the UK which have seen hit disadvantaged students’ hit hardest by downgrades of their teachers’predictions .

The system of calculated grades used in the UK is similar to the Irish approach and involves combining teachers’ proposed grades with a national standardisation process.

There was anger among students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales on Thursday after A-level results show almost 40 per cent of students' grades were lower than teachers' predictions.


In Northern Ireland, more than a third – 37 per cent – of estimated grades allocated by teachers to A-level students were lowered in the final results.

However, there was an overall rise in grades and a record highs for the top A* and A grades.

In England, a detailed analysis shows pupils from poorer backgrounds were most likely to have grades proposed by their teachers downgraded compared to those in wealthier areas.

The pattern was similar to, but less dramatic than in Scotland where pupils and schools in disadvantaged areas were marked down the most harshly by the statistical model used to replace exams. The controversy forced the Scottish government to reverse all downgrades earlier this week.

Some schools said they had "no confidence whatsoever" in the system. Teachers from Bangor Academy said 63 per cent of their school's grades had been lowered, while Glastry College in Co Down said 56 per cent of their grades had been reduced.

About 28,000 pupils across Northern Ireland received their results on Thursday morning.

Dr Muldoon, meanwhile, said he was concerned that while Scottish authorities tried to ensure the system was fair, disadvantaged pupils ended up being penalised more than others.

“So, that suggests that the previous history of the school plays more against children from deprived backgrounds, so they ended up doubly disadvantaged,” he said.

“It was not the intention of the system – nor is it here. So, I am writing to the Minister for Education to ensure the department is cognisant of that when calculating students’ grades.”

He said much of the unfairness and downgrading seemed to stem from the need to ensure this year’s results are comparable to last year’s. However, Dr Muldoon warned against this.

“This is a totally different year for students, so we need go with fairness and equity first. Comparability of results to previous years should not be as important. Fairness and equity should trump comparability,” he said.

This, he said may require discussions with third-level institutions to ensure students who sat exams in previous years and are applying through the CAO this year are not disadvantaged by grade inflation.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has sought to reassure thousands of Leaving Cert students that the new calculated grades system will be "accurate, reliable and fair to all students".

A Department of Education spokesman said the statistical process in Ireland will take account of whether a group of students taking a subject in a school this year is academically stronger – or weaker – than in previous years.

“This means that the distribution of grades emerging from the school is not pre-ordained to be the same as it was in previous years,” the spokesman said.

He said the process is being overseen by international experts and an advisory group.

“This process is still ongoing, and work is continuing to ensure that all students are treated fairly,” the spokesman added.

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, A-level grades saw pupil performance increase across all grades.

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