Comment & Analysis
Mar 23, 2020

Ditching Orals and Practicals Has Been Divisive. The Consequences Will Be Far-Reaching

The repercussions of scrapping orals and practicals could be massive for future college students, writes Aisling Marren.

Aisling Marren Assistant Editor

This week’s news that no oral or practical exams for the junior and leaving certificate will be taking place, and that students will instead be awarded full marks for these assessments, appears to have been met with delight by some, and disgust by others.

For those of us who have endured sitting across from a stern examiner – attempting to make whatever proverb we could remember relate to the cartoon we were tasked with describing – it is likely to have evoked more than a hint of jealousy. Dog in the manger syndrome aside, though, we can all recognise that the situation today’s leaving certificate students are in is a highly uncomfortable one.

The cancellation of orals and practicals, which were due to start this week and continue until the end of April, may not have come as a shock. The news that everyone was going to receive perfect scores, though – that was unexpected.


On the face of it, this approach seems the most fair. Students have been robbed of valuable time with teachers in the run up to these crucial assessments, and many will still be adapting to remote learning and operating outside the confines of their usual school-day routine. When you consider that running the orals as planned – public health concerns aside – would have meant expecting these students to be able to perform to the best of their abilities in a stressful exam setting, while the country is grappling with an anxiety-inducing global crisis, today’s decision seems downright compassionate.

The unfortunate truth is that the cancellation of practical exams could do more harm than good

But the unfortunate truth is that the cancellation of practical exams could do more harm than good. Some students will have been relying on their performance on oral exams to give them an edge, and may feel short-changed that their classmates who put in less work will receive the same credit. Now, the competition to outperform your peers in the written paper will be fiercer than ever, since everyone has been given a massive boost to their grades, and will be starting on a perfect, level playing field. This will put added pressure on the students to cram as much as they can between now and the beginning of June, or whenever it is that the exams will inevitably be postponed until.

The lenient marking of these written papers will likely further intensify the points race. To heavily penalise students who have missed weeks of school, possibly preventing them from even covering all examinable content in class, seems inconceivable. Leeway will have to be given by the people marking these exams, which could very well see many students being awarded far more points than they expected to receive.

Students and colleges therefore face serious difficulties, both this year and in years to come. If the points all skyrocket, in line with higher grades being given to students, colleges will struggle to find an alternative to randomised selection for places in competitive courses. Students who will sit their exams in 2021 will not have much to go on, in terms of strategically filling out their CAO forms – points requirements for courses are sure to vary widely from this year to next, at which point things will hopefully have returned to normal.

The indefinite suspension of A levels in Britain will further complicate matters. How will students from the UK, particularly Northern Irish students, apply to Irish universities without the requisite grades? How will universities across the pond deal with these unforeseen circumstances? And how will their solutions impact the Irish students applying?

If the points all skyrocket, in line with higher grades being given to students, colleges will struggle to find an alternative to randomised selection for places in competitive courses

The cancellation of orals and practicals was most likely not made with any of these wider repercussions in mind, and that is understandable. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, and the government has bigger concerns than what the junior and leaving certificate exams will look like.

However, we all remember, perhaps too vividly, what it is like to prepare to sit the leaving certificate. For at least a whole school year, it is all-consuming – it hovers over every social event, features in every conversation with family members and you count down the days until you can put it behind you. This year’s students don’t have that luxury. They don’t know when or if their exams will take place – perhaps the biggest takeaway from today’s announcement is that, as long as Covid-19 continues to spread, all bets are off.

Students deserve to know whether the hard work they’ve been putting in all year will be assessed, or whether they need to bother continuing to study for exams that cannot take place. Scrapping orals and practicals was a start – not a perfect one, and not one that will please everyone, but one that makes clear these students’ leaving certificate experience will be one for the history books.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.