Proposed changes to Leaving Certificate

Sir, – The proposed changes to the Leaving Certificate are supposedly being implemented in the name of reducing stress for students ("Major changes to Leaving Cert will see students sit some exams in fifth year", News, March 29th).

Moving some of the stress currently involved in the Leaving Certificate from the end of sixth year to the end of fifth year, by holding some exams then, is not the same as reducing stress for students. In fact, it could be argued that this will merely replicate and amplify the overall level of stress throughout the course to the times whenever assessments are due.

The decision-makers in our education system seem determined to follow the example of education in England 30 years ago , despite the recent discrediting and jettisoning there of such elements as coursework, classroom-based assessments and teachers assessing their own students’ work, or whatever particular creative name or acronym such things will be given here.

As someone who has taught in that country’s education system, the effects of these changes here will be students expecting teachers to tell them what to write for the assessment and an associated increase in plagiarism as well as overall grade inflation and, because of this, a devaluing of the worth of the Leaving Certificate, as is seen every year when the A-level results are released and there is a national debate about whether the assessments and marking are getting easier.


Of course, it is no surprise that what is mooted as Leaving Certificate “reform” is taking place so soon after the Covid crisis, with teachers called upon to give what were apparently one-off predicted and accredited grades. Like the Junior Cycle changes which followed so soon after the economic crash, there is nothing like a crisis as a perfect opportunity to drive through one’s agenda.

While I believe in the necessity of the Leaving Certificate being open to change, it must be said that change is inevitable whereas progress is not. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 4.

Sir, – Given the stated intention to move to a Leaving Certificate based more on teacher assessment, it is critical that the Department of Education articulate how they will remove unconscious bias from any such assessment. As was seen and acknowledged by the State Examinations Commission during the Leaving Certificate predicted grades process, unconscious bias featured prominently in the process teachers were asked to undertake there.

Notably, boys in particular were subject to an artificial gender bias, which persisted to a degree even after standardisation models were applied.

Perhaps the most startling example is in honours maths, one of the few subjects where boys traditionally perform better than girls, where this trend was reversed in an entirely spurious manner.

This bias in teacher assessment is not uniquely Irish, mirroring what is seen in other jurisdictions, a fact acknowledged by the SEC. It is not sufficient or fair therefore to simply ask teachers to be aware of their, entirely unconscious, biases. Significant action would need to be taken to identify and address this in a transparent manner and to monitor bias on an ongoing basis. Support must also be provided to teachers rather than putting them in the firing line. Allowing this to pass uncorrected is, put simply, to deliberately introduce a system that fails to cherish all our children equally, and doubtless creates a future legal minefield.

As part of any update to the Leaving Certificate process the Minister must address the uncomfortable lessons we learned during the pandemic. Anything less is to fail both our children and their teachers. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 11.

Sir, – The reform of the Leaving Certificate, with all subjects to be examined using a 60 per cent exam, 40 per cent continual assessment model, is to be cautiously welcomed. Diversity of assessment is a good thing.

However, there are a number of dangers and possible unintended consequences associated with this change.

First, there is a real danger that adopting a system with a large continual assessment component will put students under continuous pressure and exacerbate the wellbeing issues currently affecting the school-going population. The senior cycle is different from third level in that every assessment is high stakes and the student who aspires to enter a high-point university course will not be able to ever perform poorly.

Then, there is the fact that, from international experience, systems based on continual assessment tend to exacerbate the inequalities already in the system as students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the home support that better-off students have.

Furthermore, it is well known in the third-level sector that continual assessment is associated with a bunching of grades. If this happens in the senior cycle, the final exam will be as high stakes as ever. The fact that it will be worth “only” 60 per cent of the final mark will be neither here nor there.

So great care will have to be taken in designing the various continual assessments, and great care will have to be taken in scheduling them so that students are never overwhelmed. If a student does seven subjects and 40 per cent of every subject is examined by continual assessment, that’s a lot of assessment. Indeed, it might be a good idea for the designers of the new senior cycle to consult some of us in the third-level sector who, because of the pandemic, pivoted strongly towards continual assessment, and anecdotal evidence suggests that students were, at times, overwhelmed.

One aspect of this reform that remains unclear is whether these reforms in assessment will be accompanied by reforms in pedagogy. The new junior cycle represents a shift away from knowledge acquisition to learning about “process”.

So instead of learning, for example, historical facts, students learn about how a historian makes historical discoveries.

Or instead of learning, explicitly, about some of the fundamental ideas and theories of science, the student learns to mimic the behaviour of an expert scientist by learning through inquiry or discovery.

It is important to realise that these approaches, which can broadly be defined as “constructivist”, are, despite their adoption, not well supported by evidence (at least for that age group), and if anything, are associated with poorer outcomes.

Therefore, whatever the final senior cycle reform package looks like, it should be scrutinised very carefully, and we should not fall into the classic trap of “We need to do something, this is something, let’s do this”. – Yours, etc,


School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.