Leaving Cert ‘too narrow and rigid’, OECD review finds

Main focus of senior cycle exam seems to be to act as ‘filter for entry’ to college

The Leaving Cert is “too narrow and rigid” and its main focus seems to be acting as a filter for entry into higher education, according to a review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The findings of the Paris-based organisation, which represents 36 wealthy nations worldwide, are due to be published later this week.

According to sources familiar with the findings, the review states that it is “not clear how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert”.

The review also notes the points system generates high levels of stress and anxiety among senior cycle students and their families.


Irish media, it says, both document and – to some extent – contribute to this environment with an “exhaustive coverage of Leaving Certificate assessments during the summer period each year”.

However, it acknowledges the issue is complex, noting high levels of stress may be also associated with positive attitudes.

For example, it says students in Ireland are viewed as more achievement-motivated than many of their peers in other countries, according to international research.

The OECD review is understood to emphasise the views of many stakeholders who feel the system needs not just to prepare students for higher education, but to also ensure they can progress successfully in the labour market, access a range of alternative education pathways and exercise a responsible global citizenship.

It adds that the overall purpose and vision of the current senior cycle seem to be “too narrow and rigid” for Ireland’s aspirations of delivering a learning experience to the highest international standards.

The review suggests Ireland could look outwards to countries that also seek to give student assessment a much broader purpose, such as Canada.

Junior and senior cycles

It also says the recent reform of the junior cycle underlines the importance of achieving appropriate alignment between junior and senior cycles.

It underlines the need to ensure any changes are fair and equitable, given that students from advantaged families may benefit more from private tutoring to prepare for their exams.

The transition year offering, for example, seems to be largely determined by the financial capacity of each individual school. This is an unfortunate situation that could be restricting the benefits of this to schools that can afford it.

The review notes that any changes made to senior cycle will have limited possibilities to succeed if the current emphasis on a final set of written Leaving Cert assessments and the CAO points system are not reviewed accordingly.

It says higher education institutions and employers should also have a stronger input into the senior cycle review.

The OECD's findings will feed into a wider review of the senior cycle being undertaken by the State's advisory body on the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

It has been conducting a review in consultation with thousands of students and hundreds of teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

The OECD’s observations chime with many of the findings from the NCCA’s consultations so far.

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