Opinion: there's now an opportunity for Ireland to get off the Leaving Cert merry-go-round and introduce a new system for students and universities

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As an American working in Ireland, one of the notable culture shocks I encountered was the decisive role of scores on the Leaving Cert in determining the life course of many Irish students. Much of my own research deals with personnel selection, including the selection of students into colleges and universities, and three things stand out about the Irish system.

First, the process of preparing for and talking the exam is a uniquely long and stressful one. Second, much of what is accomplished with the Leaving Cert could be done at least as well, and possibly better with information that is already available or easily obtainable . Third, the relative rigidity of the use of Leaving Cert scores to match students to colleges and programs arguably mismatches people to colleges and universities, courses of study and careers.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, Leaving Cert students discuss the government's decision to postpone the exams until later in the summer

It is fair to wonder whether the Leaving Cert will actually be administered this year. Plans for deferred administration of the examination depend on a number of unknowns and, if the pandemic does not resolve, these plans could go awry.  

This is then a good time to ask whether Ireland should ditch the Leaving Cert. In thinking this through, it is useful to ask two questions: what problems does the Leaving Cert solve? And how would Ireland address these problems without something like the Leaving Cert?

Let's focus on the role of the Leaving Cert in college admissions and placement. There is no doubt that the Leaving Cert streamlines and simplifies the process of determining where and Irish students study and what course they pursue. The simplicity and relative objectivity of the Leaving Cert stands in stark contrast to the complex, poorly understood and sometimes dishonest process American students follow when applying to top universities.

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, Dr Áine Hyland on why the Leaving Cert exams should go ahead if at all possible

Like many aspects of American life, college admissions is basically the wild west. Each year, tens of thousands of American students apply to any of up to 5,300 colleges and universities, each of which might follow its own admission procedures, with wildly differing criteria for admission and for determining which courses of study students might qualify for.  There are national admissions tests (the SAT and ACT tests provide scores that are used by most colleges and universities), but the way these are used and the way information from these tests are combined with information with performance in secondary school vary widely.

Most secondary school students apply to multiple colleges and universities with widely different levels of selectivity and criteria for admission. The end result of this process is that the majority of students receive offers of admission from multiple colleges and universities and face a complex series of choices about where and what to study.

There are some aspects of the American system I would not wish on anyone, but there are some aspects that have much to offer to Irish students. Virtually all admission decisions pay serious attention to students' performance over the course of their secondary education, and performance on national admissions examinations can rarely offset their record of success or failure in secondary school. The need to make serious decisions about where to apply and which offers to accept or reject forces at least some American students to think through important life decisions that are pretty much left to the Leaving Cert in Ireland.  

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From RTÉ's You OK podcast, psychologist Peadar Maxwell on how parents and students can manage the challenges over this year's postponed Leaving Cert exams

One of the most striking aspects about teaching in Ireland is the relative passivity and lack of engagement of Irish college students. I consider myself a reasonably engaging teacher, but I always come away with the feeling that less than half of the class would notice if I set myself on fire at the podium. There are many factors that contribute to this pattern of behaviour, but I suspect that the fact that many Irish students are just going where the Leaving Cert tells them to go, and doing what the Leaving Cert tells them to do might be part of the problem.

Where would Ireland be without the Leaving Cert? Both universities and students would have to make hard decisions. Some universities would receive many more qualified applicants than they could admit and would have to choose among them. Irish students would have more choices, and they would have to step up to make them. The one great unknown is whether the decisions universities and students would make would be better or worse than those made using the current system. To be honest, we do not have the evidence, but research from other countries certainly suggests that decisions would be just as good without the Leaving Cert as with it.

READ: Why the Leaving Cert system is wrong

Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's chief of staff, once said "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste". He probably did not have a crisis quite this serious in mind, but the point is well taken. If it happens at all, the 2020 Leaving Cert is going to be a very different experience from past examinations. If there was ever a chance for Ireland to get off the Leaving Cert merry-go-round, it is now.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ