Where next for the Leaving Cert?

Calculated grades process has gone very smoothly so will there be any going back?

“Teachers will predict the grades of their own students and there will be no Leaving Cert exam” – if you’d suggested this at the start of 2020, teachers, unions, parents, students and the Department of Education would have assumed you were sleep-talking through a far-fetched Leaving Cert dream.

The Covid-19 crisis changed everything. The cancellation of 2020’s Leaving Cert exams came in the middle of an ongoing process of senior cycle reform which has seen students, teachers, parents, unions, education officials and policymakers acknowledge that the current system of one big bang terminal exam needs to change. So, could all of this be the final nail in the coffin for the Leaving Cert as we know it?

"The pandemic has shown there is a capacity to be flexible and agile when it comes to policy," says Dr Emer Smyth, research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, which worked with teachers and parents across 42 pilot schools to gather views on the Leaving Cert and senior cycle.

This process ran alongside research carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) which gathered student views.


“Parents and teachers see positives in the current senior cycle including subject choice and transition year,” says Smyth. “The challenges are well rehearsed: stress, the high-stakes nature of the exam, the lack of follow-through from the junior cycle programme, the neglect of life skills and the emphasis on academics which can squeeze out more authentic forms of teaching and learning that don’t cater for special educational needs or less academic students.”

In the reform process, the two teacher unions – the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland – have indicated an openness to change but insisted that whatever happens, future exams must remain State-certified and externally assessed, while students must also have anonymity to protect against conscious and unconscious marking bias.

After the long battle over teachers refusing to assess their own junior cycle – a battle they won – there’s no real appetite on the part of education authorities to push back here.

The unions have a written guarantee from the Department of Education, backed up by the caretaker Government, that teachers are providing predicted grades on a one-off basis only because of the current pandemic, and that they won’t be expected to do so in normal circumstances.

And yet, the general consensus from union officials, teachers and school principals is that calculated grades have gone relatively smoothly.

"It was a response to an unprecedented threat," says Prof Damian Murchan, head of the school of education at Trinity College Dublin.

“The pandemic will concentrate minds on senior cycle reform. We know that there is faith in the transparency and fairness of the system, notwithstanding challenges around rote learning and pressure on students. I think there will be alterations but perhaps nothing too fundamental.

“Open-book exams with longer time limits or modifying exams into assignments have happened at third-level and for school end-of-term exams but could they happen for State exams? I doubt it: State exams are higher-stakes than teacher-made tests and instituting them online would be difficult.”

Ultimately, only a new education minister will have the authority to drive forward and implement permanent changes.

“We were already moving towards a different type of Leaving Cert and the pandemic has shown that the current approach is not sustainable,” says one highly-placed education source.

Another senior figure points out, however, that this year’s approach was agreed between students, teachers and parents and a reformed senior cycle should have the same level of engagement and consensus.

In this regard, the pandemic has cemented the centrality of the student voice through their representative body, the Irish Second-Level Students Union.

"The student voice was strong, coherent and expressed in an articulate and considered way," the insider says. "The ISSU were very effectively represented by [president] Ciara Fanning and [student voice development manager] Alison Dervan.

“Their stance was not merely positional; they properly participated in the deliberative process. And it shows that, whatever reform comes about, the Department of Education has learned from the junior cycle debacle: it [reform] won’t come after a battle but after wide consultation and consensus. It might move like a glacier, but glaciers never stop moving.”

Grade expectations: what a reformed senior cycle might look like

Students and their representatives say that the pandemic has highlighted the need for a permanently changed assessment system, but what could this look like?

John MacGabhann, general secretary of the TUI, says the current Leaving Cert is trusted because it is anonymous and externally assessed, but that consideration could be given to spreading assessment out, possibly through sixth year – as long as that assessment remains external.

“This would mean students have more marks banked before the written exam. The oral exams could possibly happen long before Easter of sixth year. But there have been evolutionary changes to the Leaving Cert outside this reform process, with major changes to subjects like engineering and design & communication graphics.”

There appears to be a widespread acceptance that a reformed senior cycle should break the strict distinction between the Leaving Cert Applied and the traditional Leaving Cert.

“The programme has been let down by society,” says MacGabhann. “It’s treated as a holding pen for students who might otherwise leave school. Numbers are dropping because employers – including public sector employers – have failed it by not carrying it through.”

Andrew Brownlee, chief executive of Solas, the further education and training agency, says that in schools where 100 per cent of students go directly to higher education, there must be some who are more suited to a vocational route or apprenticeship.

"In Scotland, further education colleges offer vocational modules , such as nursing studies, hospitality and so on, as an integrated part of the senior cycle. Here, this would change our higher-education, CAO points focused approach and give every student a chance to try out different approaches without any stigma."

One of the most radical suggestions comes from Cathal MacSwiney Brugha, emeritus professor of decision analytics at UCD’s College of Business. In the context of this crisis, he proposes trying a new approach: don’t use the Leaving Cert to allocate college places at all.

“Students could do a ‘college progression year’ in the local institute of technology, with screening for college places and other career courses taking place at the end of this year. This community college approach works in the US, would allow secondary schools to focus more on good basic education, level the playing field and allow students more time to choose their career. Colleges will need some months to consider such a new system, but now is the time to discuss it.”

Fifth-year students fret as Leaving Cert 2021 considered

Before senior cycle reform ploughs ahead, incoming sixth years have a more pressing concern: they’ve missed months of school, so will any allowances be made when – or if – they sit the exam in 2021?

"Every classmate I have talked to has the same worries," says Alice Matyshchenko (17), a student at Coláiste Pobal Setanta, Dublin 15. "We're worried about the silence from the Minister for Education when we have missed nearly three months of school, a semester without access to teachers. I'm lucky that our school is advanced in terms of IT, but what about students in rural areas or schools that haven't used IT before? Most teachers have been amazing but we have fallen behind."

An Instagram post from "5th Years not Forgotten" has received over 16,000 likes while, at time of writing, a petition has nearly 15,000 signatures.

Adam Lambe (17) from Monaghan, and Roksana Segiet (17) and Ríona Nolan (17) both from Carlow are on SpunOut.ie's youth action panel.

They all say that fifth years are on edge and want to see provisions put in place to help them. Lambe says that many think calculated grades may be used next year if the virus resurges. Sieget says that ongoing assessment should be introduced from September and form a key part of a revised senior cycle beyond that. Nolan says the department needs to engage with schools and listen to them.

“The full curriculum can’t be delivered if students don’t have full access to workshops and labs,” says John MacGabhann, TUI general secretary. “A plan needs to be in place sooner rather than later. Do we decide not to deliver a particular element of a course? If so, what about those that have concentrated on that element up to now? Or will they modify the structure of papers to allow for a greater element of choice so those who have done that element are not disadvantaged?

“This solution would recognise the autonomy of teachers to approach the course in the way that best meets their students’ needs.

A statement from the Department of Education said it is aware of the challenges faced by fifth year students at this time. “In the context of schools reopening in September, guidance will [be issued] to schools on the logistical and curricular arrangements to be put in place. This will include advice to schools on how to provide for the learning needs of all year groups including fifth-year students as they continue their studies in September.”