The Leaving Cert is getting better... slowly

New grading will help to reduce rote learning motivated by desire to maximise CAO points

The Leaving Certificate is almost upon us, and with it comes a new class of bright young pupils hoping to get through two stressful weeks as quickly as possible and in one piece.

Each year, parents, teachers and policymakers pick these exams apart, looking at ways to make them reflect ability more accurately. First-hand experience and empirical research show us that imparting knowledge exclusively through rote learning, tested by a single set of final-year exams, is an ineffective method of education. We must continue to press the benefits of continuous assessment for Leaving Cert, and indeed Junior Cert, pupils.

The focus on a single set of exams at the end of second level, and the resulting pressure, often leads to consistently excellent pupils making mistakes on the day and less academic pupils struggling with the pressures of one exam seeking to capture their aptitude.

Neither instance demonstrates the true ability of a pupil, yet these are the standards we expect universities to use to assess the quality of prospective undergraduates and employers new workers.


Many defend the Leaving Cert as an efficient way of sorting through tens of thousands of third-level course applications in a short period. But one needs only to look at the drop-out crisis faced by university science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) departments.

The number dropping out of Trinity’s computer science and language course, for example, is 50 per cent before second year, and as high as 80 per cent for IT Tralee’s computing with games development course.

Rounded view

Had students been continuously assessed or interviewed, or had their technical abilities tested before being accepted into these courses, the drop-out rate might not be so high. Continuous assessment gives a more rounded view of each pupil over the Leaving Cert cycle. Equally, while one- on-one interviews might not be practical for every course, Stem in particular could benefit – and ultimately, it would ensure students are more prepared and informed.

At last, pressure from pupils, parents and teachers is inspiring meaningful change. From 2017, ABC123 grades will be abolished. A new grading metric – H1-H8 for higher-level subjects and O1-O8 for ordinary- level – will be used. It puts less focus on points gaps and more on individual achievement.

Under the current system, the majority of grades are separated by just 5 per cent, equating to an additional five CAO points. This can cause heartbreak for many who fail to qualify for their course because they have missed out by those five points.

The new grading system will also help to reduce rote learning motivated by the desire to maximise CAO points. Instead, the new system should help pupils to engage with all aspects of their subjects, rather than focus on those most likely to deliver CAO points.

Broader first year

Higher-education institutions are also rowing in to support these grading reforms by reducing the number of undergraduate courses and introducing a much broader first year. Instead, students can defer specialisation until later in their degrees, ensuring graduates with a wider educational experience.

Closer links between secondary schools and third- level institutions are streamlining the transition from Leaving Cert to college. Social media, too, is empowering many universities and institutes to reach out directly to school pupils with guidance and practical advice, often from undergraduate students.

Significant curriculum reform is also needed to bring our education system in line with a rapidly changing world. The availability of politics and society as a new subject at Leaving Cert is a small but important step.

In addition, from September a practical assessment as part of the Leaving Cert examination process for biology, chemistry and physics will be trialled. This will be important in helping to bring science to life for pupils.

Reform is on the agenda, for our education system and the Government. The Minister for Education and his department, schools, third- level institutions and representative bodies such as the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, must continue to push for progressive change for the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert, and ultimately for our pupils.

Clive Byrne is the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals