That new grading system? Not so new anymore

Chances of securing an honour are much lower for science subjects

This year, a record number of students sat higher-level maths, and 79.3 per cent of them got between a H1 and H5. Photograph: iStock

This year, a record number of students sat higher-level maths, and 79.3 per cent of them got between a H1 and H5. Photograph: iStock


Last year, Leaving Cert students said goodbye to As, Bs and Cs, and hello to higher (H) and ordinary (O) 1s, 2s and 3s, all the way down to a grade 8 (fail). Now, with the grading system in its second year, it’s clear the Leaving Cert results, at both higher and ordinary level, have remained broadly the same.

Bell curve

The exams are marked according to a bell curve, meaning that grades through from 1 to 8 should stay reasonably steady from one year to the next – if the number of 1s (or any other grade) changes significantly from one year to the next, the marking scheme changes to reflect this. This means that, to an extent, students are judged against their peers, and those who secure top marks really are top of the class.

Easy and hard honours

We can all rail against this cynical world, but many students and parents have an eye on which subjects are most likely to secure them top marks. And who can blame them for working in the system they’re stuck with? This year, 100 per cent of the 13 students sitting the Czech exam got an honour, while the lowest number of honours were for students of the combined subject physics and chemistry, at just 67.8 per cent.

Yet again, students of most minority languages, art and music are statistically much more likely to secure an honour (between a H1 and H5) than those taking physics, agricultural science or accounting.

This year, 96.9 per cent of music students and 83.1 per cent of art students got between a H1 and H5, while 98 per cent of the 350 students taking Russian got an honour.

There’s no great mystery as to why art, music and minority-language students often excel in their chosen subject. Art and music tend to attract young people who have had a lifelong interest in them and have been practising their skill from a young age, while minority-language students usually either grew up in a household or came from a country which speaks that language, giving them a clear advantage.

By contrast,the chances of securing an honour are much lower for science subjects, with 72 per cent of physics students, 73.9 per cent of chemistry students and 74.2 per cent of science students getting there. However, science students stand a significantly better chance of getting a H1 than every subject outside of the minority languages and applied maths: 10.8 per cent of physics students, 11.2 per cent of chemistry students and 11.3 per cent of biology students got a H1 (it’s 15.1 per cent for applied maths).

However, 88.2 per cent of the 4,668 engineering students were awarded an honours grade in the subject making it – perhaps surprisingly to some – the easiest honour outside some curricular languages, agricultural economics (89.8 per cent) and Irish (88.2 per cent).

New subjects: politics and society, modern Greek

This year saw the introduction of two new subjects.

A total of 774 subjects sat the first ever politics and society paper, and students will be keen to see how “easy” or “hard” the paper is. The number of students who secured an honour was 78 per cent, which is above the honours rate for business (77.4 per cent), accounting (77.1 per cent) and classical studies (74 per cent) but below the honours rate for maths (79.3 per cent), economics (79.5 per cent), French (79.7 per cent) and geography (79.8 per cent).

Students and parents may be surprised to see it’s easier to secure an honour in maths than in politics, dispelling any notion that this is a doss subject or simply the Leaving Cert version of civic, political and social education (CSPE), which Junior Cert students, rightly or wrongly, regard as a very easy subject. However, 6.1 per cent got a H1, which is higher than the number of H1s in English, Irish, maths, geography or French. It will be instructive to see if the bell curve changes for this subject next year.

A total of 18 students sat the first-ever modern Greek paper, with a third of them securing a H1 and 88.9 per cent securing between a H1 and H5.

The old familiars

English, Irish and maths are unavoidable for the majority of students, although, in 2018, 3,851 student secured an exemption from Irish on the grounds of disability.

This year, a record number of students sat higher-level maths, and 79.3 per cent of them got between a H1 and H5. Meanwhile, 5.3 per cent got a H1, compared to 6 per cent of last year’s cohort, although the number of H2, H3 and H4s is up slightly. The fail rate is down by a statistically insignificant 0.1 per cent.

The English exam had an 84.9 per cent honours rate, but with just 2.8 per cent of students securing a H1, it’s one of the toughest subjects to secure the very top mark in, with only construction studies, where 2.1 per cent got a H1, proving more challenging.

The Department of Education is reviewing the Irish exemption rules after it emerged that 60 per cent of these students were studying other foreign languages. It’s widely believed some students seek to get out of compulsory Irish because it is seen as a very difficult subject, but the evidence tells a different story: students are excelling in Irish.

Outside of minority languages and agricultural economics, Irish has the highest honour rate, with a full 88.2 per cent of those taking the higher-level paper securing between a H1 and H5, and 4.8 per cent securing a H1 – significantly higher than those who take top makes in the allegedly more familiar language of English.