The government’s Leaving Cert reform is directionless and ill-prepared

Norma Foley’s proposed reform of the Leaving Certificate cycle risks creating new anxieties – without solving existing ones

After decades of discussion and an equally long list of suggestions as to how it might be improved, the Leaving Certificate (Leaving Cert) is finally seeing substantial reform. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of the public to the proposed introduction of a greater continuous assessment component has been mostly positive — those of us who sat the Leaving Cert prior to 2020 can almost certainly recall the dread associated with one, all-deciding set of examinations. Yet by introducing only partial continuous assessment and retaining the vast majority of grading in final exams, such half-way reform runs the risk of failing to sufficiently address existing concerns and instead might foster only new anxieties.

How exactly is the Leaving Cert set to change? As recently announced by Minister for Education Norma Foley, from the 2023/24 academic year the traditional Leaving Cert format will be replaced by one in which only 60% of students’ ultimate results derive from the final set of examinations, while 40% will involve continuous “teacher-based” assessments throughout the entire senior cycle. Along with this, two papers usually sat at the end of Sixth Year – English Paper 1 and Irish Paper 1 – will now be sat by students at the end of Fifth Year. This placing of a greater emphasis on continuous assessment is by no means surprising – from former Education Minister Ruairí Quinn’s failed attempts to reform the Junior Certificate to the experience of predicted grading during the pandemic, more continuous assessment has been considered for years now. As is clear from Foley’s own statement, “the idea here is that students will no longer have to face 100% of their exam on one day in the month of June”.

“What difference does it actually make to a student desperate to reach a specific number of points that their final exam is now 60% of their grade instead of 100%?”

Yet while the proposed reforms have been largely welcomed by the public and across the political spectrum, they seem unlikely to affect any significant positive change in student’s experience of the Leaving Cert cycle. If it is Foley’s aim to “reduce the pressure on students that comes from final assessments based primarily on examinations”, then it surely makes little sense to retain these very same final examinations as by far the most weighted component of students’ grades. What difference does it actually make to a student desperate to reach a specific number of points for the CAO that their final exam is now 60% of their grade instead of 100%? Will an 18-year-old aiming to study medicine really feel any less stress when at the prospect of 60%-weighted final examinations when the margins of success are so narrow that the loss or gain of a single point could decide their future? If there exists the view in the Department of Education that continuous assessment offers a real opportunity to improve students’ experience of the Leaving Cert cycle (by no means necessarily the case), then why introduce it so tepidly?

“Foley’s reforms will instead force courses to be completed far sooner than previously, allow less preparation time, and extend stress over a much longer period.”

The idea that continuous assessment will necessarily reduce students’ stress in the Leaving Cert cycle is itself hard to reconcile with reality. By extending the period of examination over two entire years and having students sit final papers for English and Irish at the end of their Fifth Year, Foley’s reforms will instead force courses to be completed far sooner than previously, allow less preparation time and likely only succeed in exposing students to the stress of assessments over a much longer period. How many of us, looking back, would have been happy or prepared to sit half of our English/Irish exams in Fifth Year? With regard to Irish Paper 1 in particular, to hold it at the end of Fifth Year deprives students of the opportunity many currently avail of to spend a Summer in the Gaeltacht improving their Irish skills. In this sense, one might well argue that Foley’s planned reforms will only succeed in leaving students in a heightened state of stress over a much longer period of time than is traditionally the case.

Yet the problems posed by Foley’s plans do not only relate to the student experience of the Leaving Certificate – her commitment to greater continuous, “teacher-based” assessment represents a substantial increase in work demanded of teachers, who will now function as teacher, official exam invigilator and grader all in one. Despite this clear increase in the work assigned to teachers, Foley’s plans include, as of yet, no associated increase in teachers’ pay and given the response of teachers’ unions to the announcement this will almost certainly remain a bone of contention in coming years. This is to say nothing of the possibility of personal bias in teachers’ grading of their own students. While claiming that teachers’ grading will be “externally moderated” by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), Foley has as of yet offered no concrete vision as to how this might be implemented. With only one year until the planned implementation of these reforms, it is inexcusable that the SEC and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment can only commit to researching how such external moderation would operate at this point in time.

In many ways, the problem with the reforms intended for implantation by the government is that they entirely fail to respond to what students actually feel about the Leaving Certificate and further education. Arguments over the respective advantages and disadvantages of single examinations and continuous assessment ignore the fact that most students accept that stress will always be a part of such important exams – what matters is giving students a chance to move forward in their lives. The government would be far more successful in attempting to improve the well-being of students if it focused instead on increasing the number of places on offer for further education in Ireland, on dealing with grade inflation and on expanding the resources available to those sitting the Leaving Certificate cycle in less than ideal financial or social conditions.

This is not to say that there are no positive aspects of the government’s proposed reform of the Leaving Cert. The introduction of two new modules in the form of Drama, Film and Theatre Studies and Climate Action and Sustainable Development represent a welcome recognition of the need to support the arts following post-pandemic and to foster an environmentally aware and engaged society. However, if the government truly intends to improve both the student and teacher experience of the Leaving Certificate cycle, it needs to recognise that such change will not occur quickly and cannot succeed without understanding that students care about more than just continuous or non-continuous assessment. There is no single panacea for the problems of the Leaving Cert and successful change requires time.