The Leaving Certificate nightmare: Is there an escape?

With the closing date for CAO applications approaching, and third level institutions making a final push to recruit first years, Killian Conyngham assesses if the Leaving Certificate is fit for purpose in assigning University places.

The Leaving Certificate and CAO system has serious problems. This no longer seems to be a controversial statement. Talk to teachers, students, parents, employers, university staff and almost anyone else about the Leaving Certificate or CAO and a common theme will quickly emerge. They will almost all take the opportunity to list their grievances with the final exam of the Irish second level education system, and the points based application system that accompanies it. It seems even those on the Leaving Certificate exam board are aware of this, as in 2018, Higher Level English students were asked to discuss, and offer recommendations on how to improve, the education they received. With the transition to the new Junior Certificate Cycle almost complete, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s Senior Cycle Review well under way, the stage seems set for a big change to the system as we know it.

And yet, large scale change is far from guaranteed. The Leaving Certificate has been in place since 1924 and reform has been slow and often small in scale. Issues raised as far back as the 1960s and 70s, such as the over-emphasis on points and lack of preparation for third level, continue to be unresolved. There is no denying that education reform is a complex issue. Inaction, however, is not a valid response, especially in the face of the many pressing issues created by the Leaving Certificate and CAO in their current form.

One of these issues is the inequality of results apparent in the current Leaving Certificate and CAO system. Data collected by the Irish Times indicated that schools in disadvantaged areas of Dublin had college progression rates as low as 7%, while their counterparts in Dublin 2,4,6 and 14 had rates consistently above 90%. While this disparity is likely in part due to the significant costs associated with 3rd level education, and other external pressures, the impact of the Leaving Certificate and CAO system cannot be discounted. According to a recent study conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI), the gap between DEIS schools and non-DEIS schools in terms of CAO points was in fact widened by recent reforms to the Leaving Certificate grading scheme. This study also mentioned the ‘normalisation of grinds’ as an emerging issue. As more students opt to take grinds, those who do not have the time or money to do so find themselves with yet another disadvantage in the fervent race for points.

Another effect of the fierce competition of the Leaving Certificate is on mental health. Leaving Certificate students are placed under incredible stress, due to the short time frame in which points are earned and their perceived all-encompassing nature. This stress and pressure has become normalised to the point where the ‘Leaving Certificate nightmare’ has entered the collective conscious, with 41% of respondents to a poll on still having dreams about the exam. This issue is only getting more severe, as rates of anxiety and stress are on the rise, according to interviews conducted with principals by the ERSI. The impact of this stress on already vulnerable teenagers must not be overlooked. The vast majority of exam systems globally have much less emphasis on the final set of exams, incorporating a healthy mixture of continuous assessment and project-based work. This approach is easier on students’ mental health and is more reflective of the type of the assessment they will experience in the very 3rd level courses the Leaving Certificate and CAO system is intended to prepare them for.

The system’s over-emphasis on points adds to its potential to demoralise and stress students. To get a place in most 3rd level courses, points are really all that matters. Very few courses use portfolios, interviews or another exam, such as the HPAT, to try to account for more than just academic achievement. When they do, points from the Leaving Certificate are still often a significant deciding factor. However, points are a fundamentally limited measurement both of student performance, and, despite popular belief, of the difficulty of a course.

CAO points for courses only reflect the supply and demand for that course, with the threshold often changing wildly from year to year, sometimes by hundreds of points. There is nothing to say that a 300 point course must be easier than one that requires 590. Conversely, higher points courses may not necessarily be harder, and importantly each course will be difficult in its own way. A single number is completely insufficient in measuring a student’s abilities in a varied array of courses.

Students also often feel unwilling to ‘waste their points’ by choosing a lower points course, leading to many taking places in more popular courses, not out of interest, but simply because they themselves have fallen victim to thinking of their academic capabilities in terms of the points they achieve. These students and others who end up in courses they do not enjoy, find themselves with little recourse. Transfers, usually only allowed between similar courses in the same university, are not always granted and can prove overwhelming for some students who have to catch up on months of coursework. This same situation applies to students who receive their desired course in re-checks, leading to many simply being forced to stay in their current course or drop out, assuming they have not passed the threshold after which they are no longer eligible for free fees in the next year, and have not already paid for accommodation for the year.

Education reform is an incredibly complex issue, there is no denying that. There are few solutions without compromise. Ireland would not, however, be the first country to undertake serious educational reform. Many of the issues of the Leaving Certificate and CAO have already been tackled abroad. No system is perfect, but it is becoming exceeding clear that we can and we must do a lot better.