Covid-19 opens new way to finally fix the Leaving Cert

The exam is a State-sponsored mechanism to maintain middle-class privilege

‘Covid-19 has delivered us an unexpected revolution in education. We should embrace the change and not be afraid of the consequences.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The results are out. The members of the class of 2020, after so much disruption and uncertainty, have received their grades and this morning they get their Central Applications Office offers. We wish them all the best.

There has been much discussion about how much higher the grades are this year compared with other years. This is because the usual adjustments that the Department of Education applies to make sure that the exam results are roughly the same very year could not be used. Instead, the department relied on the professional opinion of the teachers and the student performance in previous State examinations, but avoided school profiling. And although the adjustments resulted in about 17 per cent of the teacher-awarded grades being reduced, the overall performance in grades of the class of 2020 is much higher than previous years. This has been termed “grade inflation”, a description that is pejorative as it implies that the student may not have fully deserved the grade awarded.

But we should consider that teacher grades are probably a better way of evaluating the all-round talents, skills, knowledge and attributes of our young people. Perhaps these grades, awarded by highly-trained professionals who know their students so well, are a better reflection than an examination system that many critics have compared to Pearse’s “murder machine”.

Overly individualistic

We have had decades of criticism of the Leaving Certificate. It is accused of being out of date, depending too much on rote learning, and crammed into three terrible weeks where one bad day, illness or bereavement may cause disaster. It is particularly unfair to those who suffer from high levels of anxiety, and it does not measure in any significant way the “21st-century skills” that young people will need to flourish in the modern world. There is evidence that the process may kill creativity and stifle innovation, that it does not encourage or reward independent thinking, that is is overly individualistic and competitive and that it unduly prioritises the academic and theoretical over the vocational and practical.


A myriad of reports have recommended major reforms. However, in practice little or nothing has happened. The Leaving Certificate today is largely the same as when I taught it 30 years ago , or indeed sat it myself 45 years ago. In a world changed beyond recognition, the exam has survived in Ireland as a terrifying rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.

One of the perceived advantage of the Leaving Certificate has been that it is fair. But is it really? There is strong evidence to the contrary. Indeed, It could be argued that this set of examinations remains a major contributor to high levels of inequality in society. It helps to perpetuate the transmission of privilege from generation to generation. The evidence is overwhelming that the better-off, through the use of selective schools, grinds, expensive language exchanges, Gaeltacht sojourns, etc, are heavily advantaged. And because the Leaving Certificate effectively functions as the only gateway to the most desired professions, it is really a State-sponsored mechanism to maintain middle-class control and severely restrict social mobility.

Some critics might argue that teachers were over-generous in their grading. This reflects the narrative that grade inflation is a bad thing and must be avoided at any cost. But if a teacher’s professional judgment can lead to enhanced opportunities for gifted young people from whom the conventional Leaving Certificate is fundamentally unfair, why not embrace the process?

Meritocratic access

I have had the privilege of training teachers for many years, and have huge respect for the thousands who devote their lives to the younger generation. They are experienced professionals who have been trained to the highest standards. Let us trust and support them to provide a equitable approach to education, and a truly meritocratic access to the most sought-after professions.

It is often said that we should never waste a good crisis. Our response to the pandemic has now opened a new way to finally fix the Leaving Certificate. To change any education system we must think big. For years we have tinkered around the edges of the Leaving Certificate – by altering curriculum content and teaching methods here and there, and changing some aspects of how subjects are examined. But because the way we undertake the final assessment has not really changed. Neither, in any fundamental way, has the Leaving Certificate.

Covid-19 has delivered us an unexpected revolution in education. We should embrace the change and not be afraid of the consequences. The horrible old Leaving Certificate could be gone forever. No more stress on students or massive costs on the State. No more grinds. The emphasis could now be placed firmly on teacher education and quality, and not on the school you attend. In short, we could have a much more level playing field. Moving to a system of teacher-led assessment would result in a very different education system in which much of the reform we have been trying to achieve for decades has been delivered in one go.

Let us embrace the opportunity and finally say goodbye to the Leaving Certificate as we knew it.

Gerry McNamara is professor of education at Dublin City University