The Circus & the Elephant in the Room – My Thoughts on Leaving Cert Reform.

The Circus

We’re in the middle of the Leaving Cert circus, the time of year when everyone is an educationalist with an opinion (not always an informed one) on what could and should change in our education system. Our news outlets, both online and on paper, have an unhealthy and insatiable obsession with our secondary education’s terminal exams. Every day we have expert analysis on what might come up, what did come up, how unfair the exams were and diaries from students, direct from the circus tent, as they carefully walk the Leaving Cert tightrope. There are calls to scrap the exams, shift to continuous assessment, teach skills not knowledge, reduce the number of subjects, increase the number of subjects, end the cruelty, stop the points race and multiple other viewpoints. It’s all rather exhausting yet … I thought I might get in on the act.

I am both a teacher of Leaving Cert Biology (for over 20 years) and a Guidance Counsellor (for nearly 15 years) so I have a perspective on both the curricular aspect of the Leaving Cert and its use as the only tool for entrance to Irish universities. Many of my students also apply to universities in the UK, US, Europe and across the world so I have a lot of experience in seeing how the Leaving Cert is perceived in various jurisdictions and how our students are compared internationally.

Curriculum vs Assessment

Firstly, I think it is really important that the Leaving Certificate curricula (the subject syllabi or specifications) are separated from the assessment (the exams and various projects) in this debate. They are two distinctly different things and, in truth, almost everyone focuses on the examinations when discussing Leaving Cert reform and very little opinion is given on the breadth of available subjects, or on the content of those subjects.

In truth, the exams don’t deserve all the attention they get; our students have experienced their chosen subjects over two full academic years, building knowledge, skills, appreciation or perhaps even a passion for their subjects along the way. It is almost impossible to quantify the student experience of these subjects in its entirety yet we do need a way to distinguish between those that excel in a subject and those that don’t – students also need to understand their strengths and weaknesses to make informed decisions on their future careers.

Examinations are a crude tool but they are, perhaps, the fairest way of distinguishing between large numbers of students nationally. Exams can be designed to not just assess knowledge but also assess critical thinking skills and the application of knowledge to unseen problems. The State Examinations Commission (SEC) don’t always get it right (as witnessed in last week’s Maths Paper I exam) but they’re made significant improvement.

Continuous assessment (CA) might seem like the fairest way but in truth there are significant issues with it. Class tests and end of term exams become far greater sources of stress for students using a CA model and most teachers would feel uncomfortable assessing their students when their results are so high stakes (as mentioned previously, they’re currently the only means used for Irish university entrance).

Class tests should be low stakes and allow for students to learn from their misconceptions or the mistakes they make; moving to a CA model would stretch the burden of stress further, not eliminate it. The emergence of AI also poses significant questions for the future of project work as a means of assessment. Currently, there are research projects in multiple subjects which account for as much as 25% of a student’s overall grade and AI tools, like ChatGPT, can make light work of such a project in their current form. Our current Minister has committed to a 40% non-exam component in each subject; this may well be reviewed in light of the emergence of such technologies. I won’t go into it now, but CA also will exacerbate the already significant advantage middle class children have in Irish education.

In my opinion, there should be far greater focus on the development or reform of our curricula than on reform of the assessment. Many of our subject syllabi are out of date (the science courses were last updated in 2004) and the means of reviewing courses is grossly inadequate and overly slow. Furthermore, those subjects that have been reviewed recently have reported an inadequate model being used and a reliance on vague learning outcomes, creating a significant disconnect in the subject’s assessment. The model being used is not international best practice. We need a mechanism for continuous review of the senior cycle subject curricula to ensure they’re up to date, well-structured and provide clarity for teachers and their students.

It is encouraging that Minister Foley wants to introduce new subjects in the Leaving Certificate, already announcing Climate Action & Sustainable Development and Drama, Film & Theatre Studies and a review of the three senior cycle science subjects. However, new specifications were already complete for the senior cycle sciences at the time of her announcements but a wide spread release will now not happen until 2027. Why? Similarly, there are questions on how the new subjects will interlace with current syllabi. For example, Climate Action & Sustainable Development will have significant overlap with biology, chemistry, agricultural science, geography, economics and more. How will this be managed? Quite extraordinarily, there is no science representative on the subject development group for that subject. This seems like a significant omission? We’ve heard nothing from the Teaching Council on who will be qualified to teach these new subjects?

For me, we need to spend far more time talking about the students’ learning experience over the two year senior cycle and not just their exams at the end of it. We need to ensure that the range of subjects we offer our students and the content within them is relevant, ensure knowledge and skills are developed and build towards the future needs of our society. The assessment of our subjects needs to be built upon strong curricular foundations first and foremost and reflect the knowledge and skills developed over that time period. Yes, our exam system can be tweaked but continuous assessment may not be the answer.

The Leaving Cert vs Central Applications Office (CAO)

The great big stress-building elephant in the room, watching the debate annually, is the CAO. 

The greatest source of stress and anxiety for our students is not the exams themselves but what the results mean for them in terms of university or college entrance. In my opinion, the CAO system, while having strengths, has corrupted the Leaving Certificate. A student’s success is no longer measured in interest or passion for a subject, or even in individual results, but now in a cumulative points total. Even my students who don’t go on to university in Ireland equate their success in terms of CAO points, not understanding that the two – the Leaving Cert and the CAO – are not the same thing. The CAO is owned and run by the universities and has no affiliation with the Department of Education or State Examinations Commission. The universities have complete control over how it is managed.

As it stands, the CAO benefits practically no one, I’d argue even the universities. Students pick subjects based on the likelihood of getting the most points rather than an interest in the subject. Parents get in on this act too. For teachers, there is pressure to ensure success in the exam knowing how high-stakes the result is and this affects how subjects are taught. The universities also miss out under the system as many students pick courses that don’t suit their aptitudes, interests or skills; they have too wide a choice.

Other countries assessing Irish students’ suitability for a particular course will use a combination of predicted grades, written references, personal statements, interviews and additional assessments, along with final Leaving Cert results, to make their decision. Many of my 6th year students already have their place secured in a European or UK university, based on the work they have completed already; they are not feeling the same level of stress as those applying to Irish universities, I can assure you. For others, a modest target of results is needed to secure their place in August. Trinity College have trialled a similar system for a number of years now but, to my knowledge, have not released any data on that trial.

For me, reform of the CAO is the single most important aspect in the Leaving Cert reform debate but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater; with some adjustment, the strengths of the CAO can remain while adding elements of fairness to benefit everyone. The points system could still be incorporated but using a wider set of metrics, like interviews, personal statements and references, and would ensure that students apply for courses that match their interests and aptitudes. Imagine if additional points were awarded for performance in interview or a letter of motivation, thus reducing the emphasis on the Leaving Cert exam results.

The system could still be applied fairly, as it is now. Imagine if bonus points were awarded in subjects that were important to the course of study, rather than just Maths (students applying to history courses would get bonus points in history and / or English). Perhaps allows students pick two subjects that they would like their bonus points applied to – their strongest subjects. This would surely benefit the universities, right?

I don’t understand why the CAO is so slow to adjust or even to acknowledge their role in the hysteria surrounding the Leaving Certificate at this time of year, every year. The CAO and the universities that own it need to be more proactive and look at what works best internationally. The current system just isn’t fit for purpose anymore.


So, in conclusion, while the assessment and exams get all the headlines and column inches, it is not the most significant area of our senior cycle that needs reform, in my opinion; tweaking, perhaps yes, but the SEC do a reasonable job at creating exams that accurately distinguish students’ ability in each subject. For me, we need a greater focus on ensuring our curricula are up to date, reflect the needs of society and are well planned, reflecting international best practice. We need a system which allows these curricula to be updated regularly, with supporting documentation for teachers to ensure they are being taught to a high standard.

Above all else though, we need reform of the CAO – our university entrance system – to broaden the range of metrics used to determine suitability for a particular course of study at a university or college. We need some creativity from the CAO and a mechanism that takes away some of the stress from the Leaving Cert exams.

Humphrey Jones is Head of Science & Guidance Counsellor at St. Columba’s College in Dublin. Get in touch on Twitter: @humphreyjones

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