The Leaving Cert is 100 years old. A time to celebrate or despair?

Every year we hear whispers about reform, but we are still waiting for meaningful change

It may be five months away, but working towards this year’s Leaving Certificate is already an anxious prospect for many. It can feel as though your whole childhood life has been working towards this one moment. Many adults still have nightmares about doing this exam.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Leaving Certificate. In that time the exam itself has changed, but not fundamentally. New subjects have been introduced and As and Bs have become H1s and H2s. Every year we hear whispers about reforming it, but meaningful change has still to happen. The one thing we know is that the Leaving Certificate remains an educational and cultural institution.

It might sound like a time to despair rather than celebrate, but that would ignore some of the huge education leaps of the past century. There was a time in Ireland when many young people couldn’t do the Leaving Cert or even avail of a secondary school education. The cost of secondary school fees meant that every year, some 17,000 Irish children did not progress beyond the primary school course and ended up in low-paid jobs.

Today, the Leaving Cert really isn’t the be-all and end-all. Not everyone has to enter college the traditional way by completing the exam

Seán Lemass became taoiseach in 1959, and his vision for a modern, progressive and more prosperous Ireland had begun to take root. A landmark moment in Irish education took place seven years later when Fianna Fáil minister for education Donogh O’Malley announced the introduction of free secondary education in 1966. Like the Chinese philosopher Confucius, he wanted to provide an education for all, regardless of social class. My parents had different ideas for me, such as sending me to the local technical school. Realising this and with the spirit of determination of a 12-year-old, I got up on my bicycle and rode the five miles to the nearest secondary school and met the principal, a very understanding nun. I happily enrolled as a secondary school student and went on to do my Leaving Certificate.


Today, students will be relieved to know that despite feeling as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders, the Leaving Cert really isn’t the be-all and end-all. Not everyone has to enter college the traditional way by completing the exam. Most colleges have alternative admission routes that are not based solely on the accumulation of CAO points. Although exam results are important, there are often programmes in place in universities and colleges to assist those from typically unrepresented backgrounds to gain entry to university. The Higher Education Access Route (Hear) is an admissions scheme for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. There are many post-Leaving Certificate courses (PLCs) that offer a route to a degree after completion. If you decide college is not for you, you can explore other options such as apprenticeships. This is a golden age for young people in a trade. Unlike university, a trade career can offer the chance to earn as you learn. Many go on to enjoy above-average wages. Some salaries can rival those of doctors and lawyers.

Unfortunately, many young people of my generation were not lucky enough to have an opportunity to attend university after the Leaving Cert, despite our aptitude for third-level education. Very often parents did not see it as important for a daughter to be educated to this level. Rural parents often wished for their daughter to marry a farmer and stay on the land. A woman became a homemaker. Former Fianna Fáil taoiseach, Éamon de Valera’s constitution of 1937 dictated that “a woman’s place was in the home”.

My own children, nieces and nephews have much easier access to third-level education, whether they want to become teachers, journalists or architects

A career is very important to a woman. As American court-show arbitrator, Judith Susan Sheindlin – better known as Judge Judy – stressed in a TV interview on the topic of education for women: “Teach your daughters, granddaughters to be prepared. If you are not prepared, you are stuck and you have to settle for a lifestyle that is not pleasant.”

I returned to education as a mature student and gained an honours degree in Irish, English, history of art and Italian and, more, recently a master’s in Chinese language and culture. Today, I work as a secondary schoolteacher as well as pursuing my artistic career.

In our modern world, there is more encouragement and financial support from parents. Thankfully, sexism has declined. Education is for everyone; girls are given the same chances as boys to have a career. I’m happy to see our present generation of children being given every opportunity to follow their dreams. My own children, nieces and nephews have much easier access to third-level education, whether they want to become teachers, journalists or architects. Supportive parents and more financial supports make their effort less challenging. The courses offered at university and colleges are not limited to a small range of subjects. There are courses for all levels and abilities. There are even master’s qualifications in fashion, cooking and sport.

While everyone has the same aim – to get to the finish line with essays, projects and attendance – the struggle to get to the starting line has faded away significantly. The Irish education system has come a long way in 100 years. Free education opened the pathway for those who wished to follow it. The future has become brighter for each new generation to achieve their potential, follow their dreams and give their lives greater fulfilment and activity. Finally, I wish all Leaving Certificate students every success in 2024.

Nuala Holloway is a secondary schoolteacher of Irish, English and Chinese