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Leaving Cert reform plans may result in irreparable damage to exams’ reputation

Reform is badly needed. But not like this, with vague learning outcomes and too much scope for use of ChatGPT

Principals in many schools are tearing their hair out because it is impossible to fill teaching posts. At the annual teachers’ conferences, the reasons for the crisis in recruiting and retaining teachers were in the spotlight again. Lack of housing topped the list, followed by stress, punishing workloads, better conditions abroad, and so on.

There is something else that has not been highlighted to the same degree but is also driving early retirements and causing some people to exit the profession entirely – fear of a botched reform of the Leaving Cert.

Everyone agrees that Leaving Cert reform is overdue, but a badly managed reform will increase rather than decrease stress levels for the unfortunate students and teachers road-testing the new Senior Cycle. It may also damage the examination’s international reputation for fairness and rigour.

The Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA) has done a forensic 200 page analysis of the proposed new Leaving Cert specifications (syllabuses) for biology, chemistry and physics. Separately, the Irish University Association (IUA) representatives on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) subject development groups have also written a response. Both show that serious work is needed before any of the three specifications are fit for purpose.


It is widely acknowledged, including by Minister Norma Foley, that there were significant problems with the roll-out of the new Junior Cycle exam. Sadly, the same mistakes are being repeated.

The decision to use a learning-outcomes-only approach is one of the biggest problems. That might sound like an abstruse piece of educational jargon but it has serious, concrete implications. Learning outcomes are statements of the knowledge, skills and abilities students should possess and can demonstrate after learning something. However, on their own, they are completely inadequate. In other systems with a terminal examination, for example, the European Baccalaureate (EB) run by the Schola Europaea (European School), the syllabus is laid out in four columns: theme (the topic), subject content, learning objectives and limits, and suggested activities.

Agricultural science has been using a learning-outcomes-only specification since 2019 with predictable frustration and anxiety for teachers and students

In contrast, the new Leaving Cert specifications have two columns, called “students learn about” and “students should be able to”. While the EB syllabus has its own problems, the difference in breadth and detail between it and Irish specification is startling.

Agricultural science has been using a learning-outcomes-only specification since 2019 with predictable frustration and anxiety for teachers and students. The new Leaving Cert agricultural science was first examined in 2021. Topics came up on the exam that were not even on the specification.

The ISTA analysis provides further reason for alarm. Take physics. Of 101 learning outcomes, 69 are unclear. For example, some make no sense in the context in which they are being used, while others are so vague and broad it is impossible to figure out what students must be able to do. Some do not specify what laboratory work should be carried out while others overlap to an extent that they are well-nigh identical.

In chemistry, a third of the learning outcomes are judged to be inadequate, while in biology, over two-thirds are unclear. This is particularly frustrating for science teachers, who have been trained to value clarity and precision.

Two teachers recently demonstrated how ChatGPT was able to complete a booklet for the independent investigation in agricultural science. When graded by experienced examiners, it achieved a 70 per cent mark

Each of these subjects also now includes a so-called unifying strand which deals with the nature of science and is widely considered to be redundant and repetitive, but none of the subjects have a mandated list of experiments. This is crazy.

There are also significant problems with the additional assessment component. Every student will have to carry out an individual research investigation, worth 40 per cent of the total marks. The IUA suggest that may amount to some 74,000 individual projects if agricultural science is included. How on earth will this be possible when 82 per cent of the surveyed teachers stated that they do not have adequate lab facilities and personnel?

Neither the university lecturers nor the science teachers can understand why, if 180 hours are allocated to the whole course, 40 per cent of the marks will be given for the independent investigation, which is supposed to take 20 hours. The investigation will be written up in a pro-forma booklet, which will be to the advantage of those who have good communication and English skills, or let’s face it, know people who have. And then there is ChatGPT.

At a recent ISTA conference, two teachers demonstrated how ChatGPT was able to complete a pro-forma booklet for the independent investigation in agricultural science. When graded by experienced examiners unaware that it was generated by AI, it achieved a 70 per cent mark. It is planned to use the same type of booklet in all the new specifications.

The amount of marks allocated to the investigation will reinforce inequality, as the middle classes will have access to resources that disadvantaged students will not when completing them.

It is not just science subjects. The specification for Gaeilge has been the subject of very similar criticisms and across all subjects, there is widespread foreboding about a learning-outcomes-only approach.

There is still time to listen to teachers and the concerns of experts in the area. Otherwise, irreparable damage may be done to the reputation of the Leaving Cert.