EducationAsk Brian

‘Why are CAO points so high if there are so many pathways to careers nowadays’

The points race is no longer the be-all and end-all thanks to the growth of alternative routes

I’ve heard commentators say there’s no need to worry about CAO points and that school leavers have lots of pathways to their dream jobs. I find it hard to believe. Lots of courses are still on 500 points or more for the simple reason, presumably, that it is the best way into a profession. We’re kidding ourselves if we say otherwise.

I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. The era when students’ Leaving Certificate results, translated into CAO points, determined their career prospects is over.

There are no occupations beyond the reach of students who can secure matriculation requirements plus the minimum entry requirements set out for particular courses. It may require a more scenic route, but it is possible.

It may, for example, require a student to start their third level education on a level six or seven programme (advanced certificate/ordinary degree) as opposed to a level eight (honours degree) course.


Throughout my long teaching career, the CAO points race shaped almost every aspect of second-level education

Alternatively, there are further education colleges where students can start a level five/six course and apply the following year to their preferred third level course through the CAO’s round zero offers in early August.

There are also up to 70 different apprenticeships these days, many of which provide access to a college degree as well .

A groundbreaking development is the 40 or so courses that lead to college degrees offered through the National Tertiary Office such as nursing, engineering and others. Entry requirements do not depend on CAO points scores.

Yes, some CAO courses are in the 500 point-plus range and there are limited alternative pathways. However, these courses are invariably offered across EU universities – through English – with lower entry requirements in areas such as medicine, veterinary science, dentistry, physiotherapy and others.

Throughout my long teaching career, the CAO points race shaped almost every aspect of second-level education. The system grew out of the fact that universities needed an efficient process to select applicants as more and more students sought to go to third level.

Any activity that did not contribute towards higher points was regarded as a distraction by parents, students and many teachers. Grind schools that focused exclusively on exam subjects sprang up like mushrooms.

Given the speed at which alternatives to the CAO have developed in the past decade, there could well be a renaissance in our education system, free of the stress and anxiety to which the points race applied. For teachers to be able to engender a love of their subject among students will be a liberation, but also a challenge. I am hopeful we can foster a system based on the intrinsic joy of learning for its own sake, free of the fear engendered by CAO cut-off points for the past 50 years.