The Leaving Cert continues to punish our young people

Slowly but surely our society’s beginning to accommodate for the mental stresses of the Leaving Cert, writes Eoin O’Donnell

With the year’s exam season drawing to a close once again, and another 121,000 Irish students running the gauntlet of the Leaving Cert, it’s worth questioning how this whole experience affects today’s youth, and whether the method of evaluating students in Ireland’s second-level institutions should be challenged. 

Most secondary school graduates can attest to the stresses and difficulties of their final year of study, their entire tuition culminating in a single set of exams, mounting five to six years’ worth of pressure on only a few weeks. While some may laugh at the complaints and struggles of today’s students, for many in working life, university, and beyond, the Leaving Cert is looked back on as one of their greatest mental challenges undertaken, and disproportionately demanding compared to the rest of their academic and working lives.

In many cases, the careers and futures of these students depend almost entirely on those few days of examination, so understandably, it can be a stressful time for the youth of Ireland.

Unfortunately, this stress can often compound the usual social pressures of school to heighten the growing prevalence of mental health issues among Ireland’s adolescents. The exams create a vicious circle for those with existing mental health issues, wherein students suffering from depression are unable to perform well, and their underperformance makes their recovery even further from reach.

While the process of committing years of notes and knowledge to memory in preparation for several incredibly stressful weeks takes its toll, often even more dangerous for the mental wellbeing of Ireland’s students is the outcome. Whether through lack of preparation, an unfair examination process, or just a bad day, many students leave their exams defeated, resigned to a long summer of misery awaiting their fate in August.

Their contributions in the Leaving Cert are considered irreversible- short of repeating the year, your answers to just a few papers are perceived as the only opportunity to define the rest of your life, the single deciding factor in whether you can achieve the university, job and lifestyle you desire.

Each year, thousands of students are left disappointed that their years of study couldn’t deliver them to their desired path, and each year those students are left behind the laughter and celebration of their friends on results day. Whether they’re five points off their first choice or failing to pass their exams altogether, each student’s goals, expectations and disappointment are equally valid and all are deserving of our sympathy.

A high-achiever’s dismay can often be met with dismissal just as a struggling student is met with ridicule, and both situations only compound the mental toll of such an essential and defining milestone for many students. As part of the growing culture of overburdening youths with expectations of success in academic fields and extra-curricular activities, students feel more stress than ever to succeed, and effectively balancing their studies alongside sport, work and other pursuits becomes more and more unachievable.

While their friends begin to celebrate and eventually head to university together, students can be left feeling stranded, alone and completely let down, resigning themselves either to work or to repeating the year, facing the entire ordeal all over again, but this time alone and deflated.

So can we change this, and make the process less mentally taxing on students? Is there enough being done already to combat these pressures? Are we on the road to solving these issues already? In a sense, yes, but we have a long way to go.

Crucially, the Leaving Cert is no longer the be-all and end-all of finding a career in Ireland. Increasingly, students are able to access more and more alternate methods of entry into all manners of jobs and trades, both in and out of third level institutions, without the necessity of the Leaving Cert.

New entry methods into universities, apprenticeships and traineeships all mean that a student disappointed with their Leaving Cert results has options, but for many battling with mental illness, these choices are not clear, and the exams truly to appear to be the end. For some courses and paths though, this truly is the case, an unfair system leaving students’ futures at the whim of a single exam, their years of work and effort meaningless in the face of just one assessment.

Within the second level education system, changes are underway, too. The recent adoption of more continuous assessment in favour of a single exam for the junior cycle is a positive step in alleviating the mounting pressure of exams, and the changes to marking and assessment of Leaving Cert examinations seems to be hinting at similar strides towards modernising the process.

Less students are failing their Leaving Cert thanks to new grading systems, with as high as a 50% drop in failure rates from 2016 to 2017’s exams. With less risk of failure comes less pressure, and with that comes a more approachable and sympathetic system for sufferers of mental illness.

Support systems are growing too, as Irish society becomes more aware and accepting of mental health issues, counselling services within schools are developing to be more considerate of these issues, and local and online support services exist for those facing issues.

Slowly but surely, both our society and our institutions are beginning to accommodate for the mental stresses brought about by the last weeks and months of the Leaving Cert cycle. We must find a way to examine and prepare our students for academic and working life, without placing undue stresses and challenges on their mental wellbeing, and with any luck, we’re getting there.

Any students feeling dangerously stressed or overwhelmed, due to the pressures of exams or otherwise, can use for a catalog of resources, or can contact Samaritans directly at 116 123 for free support from a trained volunteer

Eoin O'Donnell

Eoin O'Donnell is the current Leader Writer of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister History student, and a former Deputy Comment Editor and Deputy Investigations Editor.