Leaving Cert reforms watered down after plans for teachers to assess their own students shelved, records show

Norma Foley ‘deferred’ school-based assessments last year, citing need to research impact of artificial intelligence

Planned reform of the Leaving Cert would be less innovative and not as “flexible or as comprehensive” as originally envisaged through shelving plans for teachers to assess their own students, Minister for Education Norma Foley was warned last year.

The comments are contained in a briefing note for the Department of Education by a group established to oversee planned senior cycle reforms.

Last September, Ms Foley “deferred” plans announced in 2022 for teachers to assess up to 40 per cent of students’ marks in the form of project work or school-based assessments. Instead, this project work will now be assessed by the State Examinations Commission.

The reforms are aimed at easing stress on students and broadening the range of skills and types of learning that can be assessed in the exams.


A briefing note prepared in July last year by the Senior Cycle Redevelopment Programme Delivery Board – which has responsibility for overseeing the reforms – warned that teachers’ unions and other stakeholders held “very different views” on these plans.

Both second-level teachers’ unions are opposed to members assessing their own students for State exams on the basis that assessment should be “objective and equitable”.

According to records released under the Freedom of Information Act, the delivery board warned the Department of Education that discussions on assessment were likely to be “even more challenging than could have been originally envisaged” and it would likely be “very difficult” to finalise guidance for school-based assessment in time with planned timelines.

The delivery board added that many in the education sector were “anxious for significant reform” and fearful of “delays that would ‘condemn’ several cohorts of Leaving Certificate students to what they regard as the current unsatisfactory arrangements”.

On foot of this, it said, two scenarios could be considered by the department.

One involved external marking of students’ project work by the State Examinations Commission instead of teachers, at least initially.

This, it said, would allow discussion on “more innovative assessment arrangements and school-based assessment” to progress in parallel.

While this would keep reform plans on track and help spread the assessment load on students, it added: “It must be accepted, however, that the specific element of teachers’ direct involvement in assessment for certification purposes would not go ahead initially, and that the additional components could not be as flexible or as comprehensive as originally envisaged.”

An alternative scenario, the board advised, was to postpone reforms until discussion on school or teacher-based assessment issues were concluded.

It said this could create the required space and time for all of the “intricacies and challenges” of using teacher-based assessment as part of the Leaving Cert to be ironed out.

However, it added: “At best, in our view, this would... imply postponing the implementation of changes to teaching and learning in schools to 2026 or 2027 at the earliest and would mean that already out-of-date curricula would grow even more out of line with students’ learning needs.”

The board warned that this option would risk losing the momentum for changes and would likely be heavily criticised by all stakeholders.

Last September, Ms Foley cited developments in artificial intelligence (AI) – such as student access to tools including ChatGPT – as the principal reason for shelving teacher-based assessment.

The delivery board noted that AI was an issue in its engagement with stakeholders, but said there were mixed views on whether it was a reason to pause reform or to press ahead.

“These developments have led some to construe that the use of authentic school-based assessment would be more challenging in a context where AI is accessible to students, while others have argued that the advance of AI makes the learning and assessment of ‘soft’ and ‘21st century’ skills and the use of innovative assessment approaches more necessary (and feasible) than ever at upper secondary level,” the board said.

It said a move to postpone teacher-based assessment would more give time for research on AI and its use in this area.

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Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent