The Secret Teacher: Must we go back to State exams as we know them next year?

We have here a real opportunity to conduct proper reform

With the new style in-house Leaving Cert grades very much on my mind, I’ve been trying to establish how much past data and how much future speculation I’m permitted to use as I calculate and/or predict.

I find it entertaining to observe whether fellow teachers refer to the in-house grades as “predicted” (future orientation, surely?) or “calculated” (past orientation, surely?), as this might reveal what will inform their grades.

Many things have changed since last year and yet many things have remained the same. A new company has been appointed to oversee the process and there’s a new algorithm. Nobody quite knows whether to lament or celebrate this. A case of “better the devil you know”, perhaps? The students are way ahead of us all: they tell me not to worry too much. “It’s all designed so the marks won’t be too high this year,” says one particularly outspoken young man. “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” I reply.

I've seen many students give their all to the Junior Certificate to be rewarded with a clean sweep of top grades

"I LOVE Kevin Spacey, " shouts another student, recognising the Francis Urquhart quote and we drift into talk of Netflix, which only comes to a (hasty) close because one of them asks me if I have seen Sex Education. I have. But this isn't SPHE.


For all its flaws the Leaving Certificate has been the cornerstone of Irish education for decades. Talk of reform never came to anything, and then in 2020 we were propelled into finding an emergency alternative. This year it’s less of an emergency but still very much an alternative to the main, live event as we have known it. This two-year hiatus has massive consequences for any formal and paced reform. The Leaving Cert cohorts of 2020 and 2021 will progress through the ranks of post-secondary life deprived in some ways, but perhaps richer in many more as a result of the especially challenging time endured in late teens.

But it is the Intermediate Certificate, later the Junior Certificate, that may hold the key here. It may not have qualified as high currency in terms of an academic passport but it proved a great real-time motivator for students throughout the early years of secondary school. State exams ensured that they had a frame of reference for learning and developing study/revision structures with a view to being formally assessed.

I've seen many students give their all to the Junior Certificate to be rewarded with a clean sweep of top grades. Others took it handy to walk away relatively empty-handed. Of those who aced it, some became complacent and did less well when it mattered more. Others kept up a "winning streak" approach for the Leaving Cert. Those who were disappointed with their Junior Certificate results didn't forget that feeling easily, and it served as a powerful motivator in senior cycle. The tables were often turned between Junior Cert and Leaving Cert and this taught students valuable lessons – about both learning and life.

The new junior cycle has been akin to the toddler who keeps bumping into things and cannot quite get sturdy on its legs

We are on a real break from formal State exams as we have previously known them. Do they have to resume as soon as it is physically possible? I would argue that they don’t, even that they shouldn’t.

We have here a real opportunity to conduct proper reform – perhaps unlike any our education system has ever seen. Full consultation with all stakeholders. Proper piloting. Review and evaluation of the pilot phase in order that the finished product can be rolled out in a timely manner when it is ready. Why can’t this happen? The benefits are obvious: a thorough and well-paced reform process would truly transform what Ireland’s education system can offer its young people.

The new junior cycle has been akin to the toddler who keeps bumping into things and cannot quite get sturdy on its legs. It has gathered far more doubters than believers. In its fragile infancy it needed to gain real traction, and these Covid years have meant that an increasing number of subjects have never been examined formally.

On a national scale the CBAs (classroom-based assessments) have simply never taken off properly. Perhaps they have been embraced locally here and there, depending on the subject and the collective willingness or enthusiasm of a department. My one personal journey through CBAs goes something like this: first I drowned out the begrudgers to embrace CBAs and give them a fair chance (I genuinely saw potential). I enthused the students only to discover that they had already picked up on the anti-CBA vibes, so I had my work cut out for me.

Slacking off

My colleagues in the department were great and we had some genuinely positive experiences, but seeing the benefits of the time spent on CBAs proved a problem. We weren’t covering as much material as we normally would and it became hard to justify this. Lack of reform at Leaving Certificate level meant it became increasingly difficult to make choices in junior cycle, which we felt would potentially disadvantage our students pedagogically later.

And then came the deal-breaker: students started visibly slacking off. Why? Because they were getting superb feedback from other subjects in their CBAs and getting it relatively effortlessly. The students didn’t find CBAs hard work; they were time out from the pressures of more formal and challenging assessments. Had this really been the plan? Not unlike with the Leaving Certificate in-house grades, I’m not sure where I am.

What I do know is that the credibility of the new junior cycle, which was proving seriously difficult to build anyway, is well and truly compromised by the non-event assessments in 2020 and 2021. Past and present combined mean we can both calculate and predict challenging times at that level.