The lost Leaving Cert class of 2020: No debs, sports days, awards or exams

Student view: I expected to end secondary school with a sense of celebration and joy

‘My ultimate day of secondary school appeared, at the time, to be an incredibly anticlimactic end to my educational journey’, writes Sophie Coffey. Photograph: iStock

‘My ultimate day of secondary school appeared, at the time, to be an incredibly anticlimactic end to my educational journey’, writes Sophie Coffey. Photograph: iStock


For those us who were due to sit the Leaving Cert of 2020 it will go down in history for the simple reason that it did not happen.

In theory - and for the past few decades, in practice - 14 years in the education system is intended to culminate with the infamous exams at the end of sixth year.

In no way is this milestone anticipated to conclude on a random Thursday in the middle of March, following an abrupt announcement by the Taoiseach in Washington DC.

However, for myself and 61,000 other students, that is exactly how our school days reached their sudden end.

Our final days of secondary education excluded any cherished competitive sports days or nostalgic final assemblies.

We did not attend emotional prize-givings or graduations together. Nor did we exchange any sentimental hugs in familiar corridors - though in fairness, hugs in any form have been in short supply in recent weeks.

My ultimate day of secondary school appeared, at the time, to be an incredibly anticlimactic end to my educational journey.

Blurry bigger picture

Now, I am looking back at it with the perspective of someone who, like far too many others, has lost a family member to Covid-19 and has spent the past few weeks in a now familiar state of unease and concern.

The weeks that succeeded March 12th were awash with varying degrees of  stress, study and speculation.

On Good Friday, supposed clarity arrived with Minister for Education Joe McHugh’s declaration that the exams had been postponed. However, as time passed it became abundantly apparent that while a potential solution may have been drawn up, the bigger picture remained questionably blurry.

A glaring pandemic-shaped hole lingered in the proposed plans. One that on Friday May 8th, the Department of Education accepted was too great to overcome. Exams that we were assured were going ahead “by hook or by crook” have been replaced by the much sought after “predicted grades”.

At the time of the initial postponement, I wrote an article for The Irish Times in which I explored the sense that the finish line of our Leaving Cert journey had suddenly been moved.

As I write this piece, without even realising it, I have stumbled over that finish line.

However, I am not crossing this line with the sense of celebration and exuberant joy that I had always associated with the inevitable end of my State exams. On the contrary, the general mood is more sombre and the cautious relief experienced by my fellow sixth years and I is reflective of this.

That is not to say that my Leaving Cert journey is over.

Complex calculated grades

It is true that I will no longer be spending my days analysing the breakdown of time management for my maths papers.

Nor will I be trying to predict a poet’s chance of appearing on English paper two. Instead, it is a very different prediction that is set to determine my future.

“Calculated grades” are a complex process and although it answers some questions, there are many others it raises.

It assures we can commence college in the autumn, but how will the bell curve affect the allocation of those coveted third-level places? Our final year of school has been irrevocably adjusted but whether our first year of college will be, too, remains to be seen.

While it may alleviate stress for many of my peers and I, it can only add to the pressure for our teachers who now face an unenviable task. The outcome of this decision will be significant and not just for my fellow Leaving Cert candidates.

I have been asked on countless occasions over recent weeks what my personal preference has been regarding the exams., Frankly, despite the amount of time spent pondering this, I’m still not sure.

Sitting the papers would have been my personal preference. Yet, employing calculated grades is, at present, what I consider the fairest way to avoid further disadvantaging some students. In line with the present state of national health, it is also the option that places welfare at the forefront.

Calculated grades are perhaps the most inclusive option for the 61,000 candidates intended to sit this year’s exams. However, if we wish to have a system that is accessible and fair to all students - something we must unequivocally strive for - a complete reform of the Leaving Cert is essential.

The divide between students has become a chasm that engulfs too much potential each year. It is too late to benefit the class of 2020.

However, if experience is the best teacher then let this set of circumstances prove to us that the Irish Leaving Cert is in desperate need of a transformation. Now is the time to act.

Sophie Coffey is a Leaving Cert student