Breda O’Brien: Another hybrid Leaving Cert is not the answer

Six-hundred points should be rewarded with more than a ticket to a lottery

Leaving Cert students start their first exam at Sutton Park School, Co Dublin, last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The educational consequences of the pandemic are going to linger for years. Naturally, our focus tends to be on the most immediate crisis, which for three years running has been the Leaving Cert.

The class of 2020 endured chronic stress for months before the exams were allegedly postponed but were, in fact, cancelled for the majority. The class of 2021 had a hybrid Leaving Cert after months of uncertainty. While the exams themselves were less stressful, the consequences afterwards for college applications were very serious. And who really knows what will face the class of 2022?

Only one thing is certain. There is no simple solution. We hear that students are clamouring for a hybrid Leaving Cert., where teachers will award them some form of calculated or accredited grades and they will also have the option to sit exams.

Some students are clamouring for that. And some students want exactly the opposite.


The toll of the pandemic has been enormous on students and, as usual, it has been highest for those who were already the most disadvantaged.

Middle-class families might have felt they were drowning in the lockdowns. But try being in an impoverished family, perhaps with poor access to broadband and without any internet-connected device other than a phone. Drowning takes on a whole new meaning.

The students who do not want a hybrid Leaving Cert are fearful of the impact on points for college entry. They all know people who got the maximum points and still missed out on their college course of choice.

In those circumstances, 600 points is not a marvellous achievement. It is simply a ticket to a lottery.

It is demoralising and demotivating to know that even your best efforts and achievements may not be enough.

The class of 2022 experienced months of lockdown in previous outbreaks and are now enduring disrupted schooling

Of course, there is a case for treating the class of 2022 differently from the class of 2019 and not just the minimal concessions they have been given in the examination papers.

This year’s sixth years have been in school for the entire academic year so far but that means less than you might think when Omicron is slowly working its way through the whole population.

Students are getting sick. Their teachers are getting sick. A substitute teacher could ask to be paid in gold bars and some principals would seriously consider it, so dire is the teacher substitution crisis.

The class of 2022 experienced months of lockdown in previous outbreaks and are now enduring disrupted schooling. No one wants to hear it any more, but it bears repeating. They are also wearing masks all day, are much colder in school than they would normally be, and the noise levels in classrooms due to open classroom doors are wearing them out.

Nor is the irony lost on students that schools, allegedly the safest places in the country, will experience no change in health-and-safety regulations until February 28th at the earliest.

It seems like the obvious solution is to implement the hybrid examination model of 2021. But when do we stop opting for a hybrid model? For example, the current fifth years (and some of the current sixth years who did not do transition year) have never sat a State exam. When they were in third year, they played second fiddle to sixth years. They then had the most miserable transition year experience possible, and have had disrupted schooling this year, too.

Another hybrid model that includes assessment by teachers will solve some immediate problems but open deeper ones for years to come

I am being only slightly facetious when I say that some effects of the pandemic will linger until the last child who was in junior infants in March 2020 graduates from college. Some first years, for example, are developmentally at least six months behind where they should be.

Any student with an existing mental health difficulty or a predisposition to one is very likely to have suffered badly during the pandemic, too.

Oddly, though, some students thrived at home. No one wants to look at that, either. Our school day is designed to fit extroverts who gain energy from endless interaction. Some introverted students are only fit for bed after a day spent in enforced socialising.

No one wants to look at how to build an education system that allows introverts to thrive. Let’s face it, we do not even know what to do about the Leaving Cert this June.

We should go ahead with the traditional Leaving Cert but with a much more generous choice of questions in every subject and enough time to answer them. If new exam papers have to be printed, the positive consequences for students would far outweigh the cost.

Another hybrid model that includes assessment by teachers will solve some immediate problems but open deeper ones for years to come.

No one can truly predict whether our cautious optimism will prove to be justified that the end of the pandemic is in sight or will be derailed by a new virulent variant.

Leaving aside that grim contingency, Minister for Education Norma Foley should make the decision about the shape of the Leaving Cert without further vacillation. Our frayed, despondent teenagers deserve at least that.