Senior cycle needs to move into 21st century, says Minister

Overemphasis on Leaving Cert written exam is bringing stress and challenges for students

It is critical that we seize the opportunity to overhaul the Leaving Cert, says Minister for Education Norma Foley. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It is critical that we seize the opportunity to overhaul the Leaving Cert, says Minister for Education Norma Foley. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


There is a pressing need to bring the Leaving Certificate and senior cycle “forward into the 21st century”, Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), she said the Leaving Cert has come to dominate the entire senior-cycle experience.

“Everything seems to be invested in the final exam; that brings with it considerable stress and challenges for students,” she said.

“We’ve an ideal opportunity, on foot of all we learned and what will emerge from the NCCA [National Council for Curriculum and Assessment] senior-cycle review to look at a variety of pathways for students… There is a huge body of work to be done in reimagining senior cycle going forward.”

A draft of the report is understood to emphasise the need to spread assessment over the course of senior cycle.

Sources say it also acknowledges that the current Leaving Cert is widely seen as an entrance exam for third level, which neglects broader skills and limits students’ exposure to vocational options.

‘Critical point’

Ms Foley said we were facing a “critical point” and it would be a “wasted opportunity” if we did not learn from all that has happened over the past 12 months.

However, she said any discussion should also acknowledge that there is much that is working well about the current senior cycle.

It should be possible to build on this, in addition to being open to ensure the system meets the needs of students, she said.

“At the end of the day that’s our only focus: that we are serving students to the best of our ability and meeting their needs to the best of our ability,” she said.

Ms Foley said she strongly believed in a collaborative approach and any change should follow the widest possible consultation.

Rachel O’Connor, the NAPD’s vice-president and principal of Ramsgrange Community School in Co Wexford, said Covid-19 has exposed our education system’s over-reliance on written exams.

She said it is critical that we seize the opportunity to overhaul the Leaving Cert.

“Such reform of the senior cycle should enable a continuation of the holistic approach to learning and examination that has been implemented for the Junior Cycle. Furthermore, we must strive to support our young people in developing the skills and qualities they need to be positive contributors to both the economy and society in future,” she said.

“An overdependence on league tables and the points race has left Leaving Certificate students overly reliant on rote learning. This has resulted in grading and assessments based on memory, not competency.

“For all school communities, particularly Deis schools, this memory-based examination does not reflect the full academic and personal development of our students.”

‘Game changer’

At an earlier session, the conference heard that the Government’s plans to develop a combined CAO and further education applications system for students could be a “game changer” in building up the status of alternatives to third level.

Jim Breslin, secretary general of the Department of Further and Higher Education, said it was Minister Simon Harris’s aim to have the system in place for school leavers in the coming school year.

“It is a potential game changer, culturally,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into making that happen and to make it a reality from next year.”

A discussion document published by Further Education Colleges Ireland – a subgroup of the NAPD – also calls for a single unified system for all applications for higher education from both the Leaving Cert and further education courses.

It says the current pathway for further education learners who wish to move into higher education courses is “complex and lacking in transparency”.