Students could miss out on preferred courses under hybrid Leaving Cert, universities warn

Candidates who have never had to sit a State exam may struggle in college, CAO chair says

Universities have 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.

Students, parent groups and many school principals have called for Leaving Cert candidates to be given a choice between teacher-assessed grades and sitting the exams in June due to disruption to their education caused by Covid-19.

However, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has warned the Government that teacher-assessed marks will lead to grade inflation and higher CAO points. This, it says, means that high-scoring students risk missing out on their first-choice college courses.

"We understand the desire of students to have a hybrid approach to the Leaving Cert, but it would result in equally challenging issues for students further down the line," said the IUA's director general, Jim Miley.

“It means significant numbers of students will get their exam results later, and more college places will be issued on a random basis. This has consequences such as unfairness for students and greater pressure on accommodation.”

Never tested

Pól Ó Dochartaigh, deputy president of NUI Galway and chairman of the CAO, also expressed concern that a hybrid system would mean some students could end up in college without ever having been tested in a State exam.

It is estimated that about 25 per cent of this year's Leaving Cert candidates did not sit Junior Cycle exams on the basis that the exams were cancelled in 2020 and they did not have a transition year.

“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.

Mr Ó Dochartaigh said he was not surprised that students supported a hybrid model when they were offered a choice in a recent opinion poll.

“If you say to someone you can have a good prize doing an exam and a better prize by not doing on, they will opt for the latter,” he said. “If we admit students who genuinely haven’t been tested, some, genuinely, won’t be able to cope. Are we giving them false hope and wasting another year or two of their lives?”

He said everyone was trying to do their best by school leavers, but stakeholders had different views over how to achieve this.

“We need to do right by students. It’s just about this summer, for it’s for their long-term future.”

Unfairness

Mr Ó Dochartaigh said grade inflation linked to a hybrid system would drive CAO points upwards, creating unfairness for high-scoring students in particular.

“If you’re very good, there’s not much further you can go up points-wise. So, you end up getting joined by other students who would not normally perform to that level. So, it creates unfair competition and bunching towards the top,” he said.

Meanwhile, an advisory group on planning for the State exams is due to meet again in the coming days amid continued calls from students’ representatives for a hybrid Leaving Cert this year.

The Department of Education said Minister Norma Foley was “very aware” of the pandemic-related disruption experienced by students who are due to sit State exams this year, and that she was committed to continued engagement with all education stakeholders in the “short period ahead”.

The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union and the National Parents Council Post Primary have produced survey results which indicate that most students and parents wish to have a hybrid option available for the Leaving Cert this year, with a choice of accredited grades and sitting the exams.