Analysis: Government’s back and forth on Leaving Certificate left colleges in uncertain positions

Calculated grades have eased the burden on students, but have left colleges uncertain on starting dates for first years

After a long period of uncertainty, Leaving Certificate students have finally been given clarity on exams. Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced on May 8 that examinations would be cancelled and replaced with calculated grades in a U-turn from the government’s previous decision to delay the exams until late July. While this clarity has been welcomed by many, the changing plans has led to confusion for colleges who have made plans based on inconsistent information. 

2020 will be the first year the Leaving Certificate has been cancelled, and McHugh admitted he made the decision “with a heavy heart”. The original plan to postpone in-person assessment until July and August faced heavy criticism from students over mental health and safety concerns. 

For colleges, the postponement of the Leaving Certificate would have meant a later entrance for first years into higher education. The National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) announced in April that they expected their first years to join the college in November, two months after other years had begun their term.  

Calculated grades are expected to be released on August 11, the same time that Leaving Certificate results would normally be published. This means that a postponed set of Leaving Certificate exams is no longer an obstacle to first year students joining colleges at the beginning of the 2020/2021 semester.

Dublin City University (DCU) announced in light of calculated grades that they would have their first years begin on September 21, two weeks earlier than continuing students, who are due to return to college on October 5. This is to facilitate a phased orientation that can accommodate social distancing practices. 

NUI Galway has yet to make a statement about what this change will mean for new first years. Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) has announced that their academic year will commence on September 1 as previously planned. Trinity has yet to outline its plans for its return to teaching in Michaelmas Term. 

Students will be given a State Certificate of Calculated Grades instead of a Leaving Certificate, but both qualifications will be considered equal in status. The process for calculating grades involves teachers taking consideration of past performance by students and estimating a percentage grade, alongside creating a class rank order. 

All estimated grades need to be approved by the principal of the school before being submitted to the Department of Education and Skills (DES), by the end of May 2020. These estimated grades will then be adjusted by the DES to take into account past performance by the school.

“This decision highlights the deeper inequalities of the Irish education system.”

The system has come under criticism, particularly for the decision to base grades on a school’s past performance. In this way, the decision contributes to the perpetuation of an education divide based on access to financial resources. This decision highlights the deeper inequalities of the Irish education system and has sparked a wider debate on accessibility to higher level institutions. It also loses the anonymity of the Leaving Certificate, and teachers could be susceptible to bias or pressure from their community. 

Whilst not a perfect solution for all students, calculated grades successfully shift the responsibility for the Leaving Certificate 2020 from students to teachers. This will considerably lessen the pressure on students who were struggling to study during the coronavirus pandemic. It is arguably a decision that puts the wellbeing of students first. 

Freshers’ Week will doubtless look very different this year, with social distancing restrictions likely to shape a very unusual experience for incoming first years. It is possible that orientation may be phased, as in DCU, or delivered through a primarily online format. Holding a traditional Freshers’ Fair would be a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. 

Travel restrictions are also a consideration which present an obstacle to new and continuing international students alike, come the new academic year. University College Dublin (UCD) has announced that any student facing travel restrictions will have access to online teaching. 

“The Michaelmas Term of 2020 will be unlike any other.”

While Trinity has yet to make an announcement on what the new academic year will look like, colleges across the country are developing individual approaches. The government’s back and forth on the Leaving Certificate has meant colleges need to rework their plans for accepting new entrants in 2020/2021. No matter what decision College reaches regarding the new academic year, the Michaelmas Term of 2020 will be unlike any other.