Comment & Analysis
May 13, 2020

Leaving Cert Inequality Doesn’t Start and End With Predictive Grades

Leaving certificate inequality existed long before calculated grades – it's built into the system, writes Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon.

Gary GannonOp-Ed Contributor
Eleanor O'Mahony for The University Times

When you grow up as a working-class kid, you learn somehow that poverty is somehow your fault, or the fault of your family. You never have enough money because you don’t budget properly, not because our welfare payments don’t meet a minimum essential standard of living. You’re poor because you don’t work hard enough, even though your mam has two frontline jobs and neither pays very well.

The leaving certificate is maybe the first direct experience you have as a working-class kid of your own failure. This is your one big opportunity to get into college, to make something of yourself. Except if you don’t get the points, your chance is wasted. Your fault.

As someone who came to college through an access programme and worked in education for many years now, I know this isn’t the case. We have an educational system that is so unequal it is tearing at the very fabric of our society. I know that 300 points in one school is very equal to 600 points in another. I know that my classmates were smart, that the kids from the North Inner City are certainly as clever as the privately educated people who make up so many of our third-level students. And now, we have it in black and white.


The decision last week to award predictive grades, and for these grades to be based on the past performance of a school has been met with outrage in some quarters, and also a mild degree of relief among educational equality activists. The perception of the leaving certificate as a great meritocracy persists, even though the Feeder Schools list highlights what a massive fraud this is every year.

The leaving certificate is maybe the first direct experience you have as a working-class kid of your own failure

The one thing you can do to maximise your chances of going to university is to go to a private school, not to study hard. Because studying hard doesn’t make a huge difference if you’re from certain backgrounds. While this means that even the brightest of working-class kids are less likely to go to university because of where they’re from, the reverse if of course that an average student from a better postal code is likely to take their place.

The leaving certificate debacle has failed so many students this year. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the most worrying times in a young adult’s life, and yet delays in making decisions, and indeed the ultimate decision once made, have contributed further to an already anxious time.

However, what must not be lost in this is how the decision this year has merely ensured an embedded economic inequality remains embedded. Our education system has failed students for decades gone by, and will continue to do so unless we systematically dismantle the inequalities within it.

Like everywhere else, diversity in our third-level institutes is crucial. We need more working-class third-level students, more Traveller and Roma third-level students, more third-level students with a disability. As things stand, the state has totally abdicated its responsibility for ensuring equal access to universities, and the universities have attempted to diversify their entrants through schemes such as access programmes.

What must not be lost in this is how the decision this year has merely ensured an embedded economic inequality remains embedded

Of course, these access students are success stories. When the playing field is more equal, their grades in college are remarkably similar to students who did not come through access programmes. These programmes are vital to diversifying our third-level institutions, and ensuring greater progression rates in marginalised communities.

Yet it is not acceptable that the diversification of third-level falls to universities and colleges alone. It is not acceptable that 10 per cent of places are reserved for those from marginalised backgrounds that our state has failed. It is not acceptable that these access programmes are reliant on fundraising and private funding.

The state is utterly failing students from disadvantaged areas and schools in areas of economic deprivation, whilst simultaneously cruelly maintaining that this is a system based on merit.

The outrage that a student’s grades will be decided as much on the past performance of their school as their own ability is an outrage we must keep with us. It is one we must grow, and build upon. We have failed decades of students already to this system of educational apartheid. No more. Our education system is crying out for reform. It must be our priority. The state must step up and ensure that postcode is not the most reliable predictor of third-level access.

Gary Gannon is a Social Democrat TD for Dublin Central and the party’s spokesperson on education. He grew up in Dublin’s North Inner City and studied history and political science through Trinity’s Access Programme.

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