Jan 26, 2021

‘More Flexible System’ Needed for Leaving Cert, Says Provost

Patrick Prendergast wrote in an Irish Times op-ed today that the belief that the leaving certificate is ‘brutal but fair’ no longer holds up.

Emer MoreauDeputy Editor
Alex Connolly for The University Times

Provost Patrick Prendergast has called for a “rethink” of the leaving certificate, criticising “over-reliance on a written final exam, and the under-use of other complementary forms of assessment”.

In an op-ed published today in the Irish Times, Prendergast said that while “it may not be time yet to fully de-couple the Leaving from college entry”, it is time to consider “assessment spaced over the two years of the senior cycle” in addition to the traditional set of exams.

“Collectively”, the Provost wrote, “we seem to believe we cannot have major exam reform because the Leaving Cert and its first cousin, the points system, are so deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche that public confidence would be lost if we change things too much”.


Whether this year’s leaving certificate will go ahead has been a major bone of contention among education stakeholders in recent weeks.

Prendergast wrote: “Too often we describe the present arrangement as ‘brutal but fair’ to fend off demands for change. But now we have seen that there is another way to conduct assessment, and we can no longer hide behind such a notion; why should assessment have to be brutal? And by whose analysis is it fair?”

“Yes, we now make some more use of practicals as well as orals and aural tests. But they are still only bit parts to the main written drama that has been staged every June since 1925 – until last summer when we discovered there is another way.”

Last year’s leaving certificate was cancelled entirely after students missed several months of school due to public health guidelines at the time.

Instead, students were offered courses based on a set of predicted grades – a decision which was mired in controversy for months after.

The grades were awarded to students on the basis of a number of factors – such as class rankings, students’ performance in previous assessments and other indicators.

As a result, grades were inflated – in Irish, the number of H1s this year went up from 6.1 per cent last year to 9.1 per cent, and H1s in English increased from 3 per cent to 4.3 per cent.H1s awarded in mathematics increased 2 per cent from 6.4 per cent to 8.4 per cent.

Furthermore, due to a coding error, however, thousands of students were awarded incorrect grades, leading the government to offer students a place in a course they originally missed out on, if their new grades met the requirements for that course.

Prendergast said: “It may not be time yet to fully de-couple the Leaving from college entry but it is possible to have a more flexible system which would allow for more tailoring of specific university courses to assessments and achievements, supplemented by SAT-type tests (the aptitude test used in the US) or some variations of Hpat, the aptitude test used for access to medical degrees. A one-size exam system can no longer fit all.”

“It’s time for a fresh look at all of these interrelated issues while putting equity, access and fairness to the fore.”

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