What ‘alternative options’ are under review for 2021 Leaving Cert?

Unpublished examination options paper sheds light on choices facing Government

The outcome of a legal challenge to last year’s predicted grades – due shortly – may indicate if there is an appetite to press ahead with calculated grades. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The outcome of a legal challenge to last year’s predicted grades – due shortly – may indicate if there is an appetite to press ahead with calculated grades. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times


It is the question 60,000 students and their parents all want to know: what’s going to happen with the Leaving Cert?

Until recently, Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was the Government’s “firm intention” to press ahead with traditional exams. Now, however, the Department of Education is examining “possible alternative options”.

Previously undisclosed records of contingency plans examined last year and interviews with key stakeholders this year throw fresh light on some of the options facing decision-makers.

Where do teachers, students and schools stand?

An advisory group which includes representatives of second-level students, parents, principals, teacher unions and management bodies has been meeting to consider options for the exams.

Teachers’ unions and principals want exams to take place, as do school management bodies; it’s also understood to be the preferred option of department officials and key Government Ministers.

On the other side are students who want a choice between sitting the exams in June and calculated grades.

In the past, the student voice did not carry much weight. But this has changed thanks to an organised Irish Second Level Students’ Union – which has been conducting surveys of its members – and the power of social media.

It’s no coincidence that Opposition parties have sided with students in recent days and backed their call for candidates to be given a choice.

Can ‘traditional’ exams take place?

Most education partners agree that if exams as we know them are to take place – that is orals, practicals and written tests in June – students will need to be back in school soon.

The “point of no return” for orals and practicals to take place, say some key stakeholders, will be a return to school no later than after the mid-term break – Monday, February 22nd.

Even then, it will be a challenge. Finding teachers for oral exams is a problem in normal years; more so in the middle of a pandemic.

“The State Examination Commission (SEC) is concerned that it will not be able to secure the services of sufficient numbers of teachers to conduct these tests,” according to an advisory documents prepared for the then minister Joe McHugh in March last year. “Given the uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus situation, the SEC cannot guarantee that these oral and practical exams could be rescheduled . . . ”

The idea of conducting orals and practicals online has been floated with education partners, as has holding them during the Easter holidays when schools are off.

Last year, the Government ended up cancelling oral and practical exams and awarded full marks for these components, which range between 25 and 50 per cent of students’ exams.

While doing the same this year could buy some time, some key education stakeholders believe students will need to be back in school by mid-March at the latest if written exams are to proceed, due to the loss of in-school tuition and inability to hold mock exams.

Delaying the written exams is an option, though it would cause logistical problems for the CAO and admission to higher education.

What could modified exams look like?

A contingency plan drawn up last year involved staging “truncated” exams of about two hours in duration.

However, an internal department advisory paper drawn up in April last year noted the SEC’s view that this option would be “difficult to stand over”. It would require sample papers, redesign, translation and printing of new papers. There would also be significant challenges for students with additional needs and those in disadvantaged homes.

If there are written exams, some believe giving students even greater choice within a traditional format would be more palatable to make up for lost tuition time.

Could calculated grades return?

The longer schools remain closed, the more calculated grades loom as an option once again, agree most sources.

According to the internal department options paper from last April the advantages are that it “treats all candidates equitably”, removes the “psychological stress and risk to health” for students, as well as giving most an “acceptable CAO offer”.

However there would be new challenges this year if calculated grades go ahead, say education partners.

For starters, teachers would have less material to draw on when assessing students’ grades. The release of class-ranking data – that showed where each student ranked in a class as judged by teachers – was a key concern for teachers’ unions. There is little appetite to repeat this.

Adjustments to the calculated grades system would also be needed to win back the confidence of schools which felt they lost out last year.

The outcome of a legal challenge to last year’s predicted grades – due shortly – may also indicate whether there is an appetite to press ahead with calculated grades.

A choice of exams or calculated grades?

While the idea of giving students a simultaneous choice between exams or calculated grades is attractive on paper, in practice it faces major challenges, say many sources.

Last year, students received their calculated grades and (where relevant) CAO offers in early September before deciding whether to sit the postponed Leaving in November.

What many students and Opposition parties want this year is to give students a choice between exams and calculated grades in June.

Teachers feel this is “impossible” given that some students in a class would be preparing for an exam and others would not.

It is also likely that many more students would end up sitting the June exams this year compared to the delayed November exams last year. This, say some, would pose real problems in trying to standardise grades across both calculated grades and exams. A much easier option, they say, is simply settling for one option: calculated grades or exams.

Either way, most agree the option of calculated grades seems likely in some form.

It is striking in the department’s exam options paper drawn up last year that calculated grades were identified as a “fall back option” in every contingency plan envisaged.