The pandemic had lots of knock-on effects, not least in education. But, whereas other aspects of life have returned – at least somewhat – to normal, the education system is still dealing with the fallout, particularly when it comes to Leaving Cert grade inflation.
In 2020, schools closed for several months as a result of the pandemic, and Leaving Cert students missed out on a big chunk of their education. There was also significant concern that Covid-19 would spread in a crowded exam hall, posing a substantial risk to students, families, teachers, examiners and school staff.
In light of this, a decision was taken to cancel the Leaving Cert altogether, and students were given a “calculated grade”, provided by their teacher.
It was a once-off arrangement that teachers in Ireland, who have long since been implacably opposed to marking their own students, agreed to.
Those teachers, inevitably, wanted the very best for their pupils, and the result was that grades soared. As a result of higher grades chasing a limited number of third-level places, CAO points also rose. That substantial rise in CAO points disadvantaged students who sat the Leaving Cert in previous years and had, on average, lower points than the class of 2021.
In 2021, the pandemic was still ongoing, and students missed more school. Minister for Education Norma Foley agreed that the Leaving Cert class of 2021 would have a choice between an “accredited grade”, sitting the exam, or both, taking whichever grade was higher.
This contributed further to grade inflation, and continued to disadvantage those who sat the exam in 2019 or previous years but were applying through the CAO in 2021.
In 2022, points and grades had risen so much that any unwinding of grade inflation threatened to disadvantage this year’s Leaving Cert cohort compared with those who had sat the exam in 2020 and 2021, and deferred.
Foley promised that marks would be at least “no lower” than the past two years, and kept that promise.
But with so many students getting higher points, the pressure on high-points courses meant more and more students secured the points they needed for their course – but lost out on a lottery, the most demotivating, disappointing and arguably unfair system possible, prompting many students to say, “I did all I was supposed to do, all I could, and it still wasn’t enough.” This has long-term implications for the perceived fairness of the State exam.
There’s a widespread understanding that high grades contribute to the points race and it’s not entirely clear how the education system can unwind what has happened over the past three years. There does not seem to be a perfect option.
Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, says that there was very little that could have been done to avoid this.
“It could not be helped in the first two years,” he says. “Now, the real pressure is on high-points courses, which is having a big effect. The Leaving Cert brand is well-respected internationally, and the bell curve was consistent for 30 years – until now.
“There are two choices: stop the grade inflation and return to how things were, or a gradual change. But there has to be a level of integrity.
“Both options have advantages and disadvantages. If it ends suddenly, it sorts the system out faster. If the change is more gradual, it is also more prolonged, and brings more certainty into the system.”
Foley has previously spoken out against the possibility of a “cliff-edge” return to the grades of 2019 and previous years, so the former option seems to be off the table.
The college entry system faces other pressures, however, including a demographic bulge that is seeing higher numbers sit the Leaving Cert. Irish expectations of education typically see parents and students want a third-level education and, although substantial change and reform in the further education and training sector has made it a more attractive option, students who secure enough points still tend to prefer higher education.
Places in third level have expanded as a result of this, but Gillespie says that it only partially addresses the problem, and that there will need to be a further look at further education options, including traineeships, apprenticeships and further education.
“[There is an argument that] the Leaving Certs of 2020-22 are different to previous years, but college students who started in those years will prove themselves in college exams,” he says.
Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary for education and research at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, takes a somewhat different view.
“Teachers are not unused to points rising for particular courses, especially in the high-status professions like medicine and health sciences,” she says.
“This can add to pressure on teachers in the classroom and, ultimately, has a downstream effect on all courses, with more competition impacting on many students. There has been more welcome diversification from SOLAS, the further education and training agency, which has increased its further education and training options.”
But Leydon, who regularly meets teachers across the country, says it is not an exercise particularly exercising the profession, with her union members more likely to be concerned with a lack of resources for students with special needs, or insufficient training opportunities.
For all of this, there are some signs that the inflation trend has at least started to reverse, with the number of students on maximum points (625) down by 0.4 per cent, and points dropping for some courses including teaching and nursing. As to whether the trend continues for the class of 2023, that remains to be seen.