Fairness and the Leaving Cert


Sir, – Several correspondents have noted that Leaving Certificate grade inflation due to the use of estimated grades in the pandemic gives an unfair advantage to school-leavers of that year, when competing against students in subsequent years for third-level places (Letters, January 20th and January 21st). One writer makes a case for using student ranking in the year of exam, rather than points as a “fairer” alternative.

The fact is the Leaving Cert is already such an unfair exam in so many ways that no simple mechanism can redeem it.

Children of better-off families can avail of grinds, tutors and residential language courses to improve their chances of getting better marks. These options come at a cost that is prohibitive for the less well-off.

Children who are native speakers of a non-English language subjects, or have parents who are native speakers, are almost guaranteed high marks in that subject with little effort.

Irish-speaking students get an additional bonus of up to 10 per cent for doing other exams through Irish.

The Commission on the Points System recommended in 1999 that the bonus for Irish should end, as it gave an unfair advantage, but this recommendation has never been actioned.

Students who can get an exemption from Irish are able to focus their time on just six subjects, instead of the standard seven, allowing them an extra 14 per cent study time on each.

Students who repeat the Leaving Cert gain an advantage by having three or more years to prepare for exams designed for a two-year study period. Repeat students who got an qualifying grade in compulsory subject like Irish, English or maths the first time round do not have to take these exams on subsequent occasions, and can gain a further advantage by taking “easy” subjects like home economics or geography instead the second time around.

Research suggests that repeat students see an average improvement of around 100 points, resulting in places for medicine and other high points courses being dominated by repeat students.

Students are also impacted by the “teacher lottery”. All schools have some outstanding teachers, whose students regularly achieving higher than average grades, and some sub-standard teachers whose students suffer. Unlucky students stuck with an underperforming teacher for the whole secondary cycle will have their chances of doing well seriously diminished. Private schools claim to be able to remove this risk this by cherry-picking the best teachers, providing further advantage to students of well-off parents who can afford this form of education.

Most importantly, the magnitude of achievement differs significantly depending on the individual circumstances of each child. A child in a stable, well-off family with the full support and encouragement of both parents will find it much easier to do well than a child of similar ability in an unstable or disadvantaged situation, or where one or both parents are absent, unwell or unsupportive. Children from any background may suffer from other problems, such as disability, illness, injury, bereavement and so on, that disrupt their learning over time, or their exam performance on the day.

Someday there may be a form of assessment that can correctly weigh the many forms of advantage and disadvantage and make an accurate evaluation of each student’s personal achievement. Until then, we are stuck with the unfair mess that is the Leaving Cert. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 7.