Leaving Cert: Higher education should not be the be-all and end-all

Traineeships, apprenticeships and further education offer students more pathways than ever to progress


Thousands of students across the country have reached an important milestone in their lives with the receipt of their Leaving Cert results. This year, however, there is a difference: a new grading scheme means points are available to students who scored between 30 and 39 per cent. In response to the changes, the number of students opting for higher-level papers across most subjects has climbed to a new high, while failure rates at higher level have dropped dramatically.

The new system has been designed by policymakers to help reduce pressure on students at exam time, enable a broader learning experience and to foster ambition. It is very encouraging to see more students are willing to take on more challenging papers, especially in areas such as maths, science and engineering. These are areas of the economy where there are projected to be acute skills shortages over the coming years.

But the question of whether academic standards have been compromised to achieve these standards should be a matter of debate. The State Examinations Commission says there has been no change in the examination standards of the Leaving Cert. This is true. The goalposts for entry into many college courses, however, have been widened. By admitting students to programmes on marks which were previously considered a “fail” in their entry requirements, it should not be a surprise if more students end up struggling in higher education.

This is particularly true in the case of maths, which has attracted bonus points at higher level for the past five years. In that time, Leaving Cert examiners have expressed concern at the lack of basic skills among a growing number of students sitting the higher-level maths paper. As a result, colleges have moved to invest heavily in recent years in remedial supports for students who have difficulty coping. This is a real problem in courses with relatively low entry requirements, but which are academically demanding. Student dropout rates in these courses are highest.

Higher education should not be the be-all and end-all. Students have more pathways than ever to follow and the further education and training sector offers a wide variety of options, including traineeships and apprenticeships. Many of these provide excellent progression routes for school leavers. Young people fare best when they access courses that match their aptitudes and interests. Otherwise, they risk dropping out of college or ending up in jobs they are not suited to. In an age of technological disruption, there is a greater need than ever for students to focus on the kind of skills which help fulfil their potential. The Leaving Cert remains a significant milestone – but it is one of many on a journey which is likely to require lifelong learning and the ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.