The Leaving Cert needs to change. We know that an over-emphasis on written exams in June causes a negative backwash in teaching and learning. The result is too much “teaching to the test”, which limits space for the development of critical thinking and creative skills which are critical in a world of rapid technological change.
Last February, Minister for Education Norma Foley unveiled an ambitious set of reforms to address this. The blueprint, which drew on years of consultation, aimed to reduce pressure on students by spreading the assessment load over a much longer period.
Just a year and a half later, two key strands of the blueprint have unravelled. The first was to move the English and Irish paper one exams to the end of fifth year. This was “deferred” earlier this year in the face of opposition from teachers and others. The second envisaged that teachers mark school-based assessments. This, too, was “deferred” last week in the face of opposition from teachers’ unions. Instead, continual assessment will be marked externally by the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
The minister seems to have calculated that this was a battle that could not be won, even if the official reason given to shelve the plan was the rapid development in artificial intelligence.
The idea behind involving teachers in marking their students is that educators are best placed to make use of broad and balanced continual assessment. International best practice relies on using the professional judgment of teachers when assessing students over time.
Ironically, it is just a few years since teacher-estimated grades were used for the Leaving Cert during the Covid-19 pandemic. The system, introduced on an emergency basis, was not perfect. However, teacher-estimated grades were comparable with pre-pandemic achievement, they reduced student anxiety and allowed use of other assessment approaches.
It would be unfair to say planned Leaving Cert reforms are fatally undermined. The plan that students can achieve up to 40 per cent of marks through project work, oral exams or practicals remains. Foley has pledged to accelerate the roll-out of revised subjects which feature these changes from September 2025 onwards.
However, an opportunity for more radical reform is lost. Too often, assessment reform has involved cherry-picking pieces of an ambitious plan, generating lots of activity, with little real change in the student experience. If this latest development goes to show anything, it is how the Leaving Cert is so deeply embedded in our education system that reforming it is much easier said than done.
With political will and meaningful consultation, the Government can do better.