To secure that . . . all shall be provided with the means
and facilities requisite for their proper education and
training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

Qualified but not educated

Before the pandemic made ‘normal’ a sketchy memory, two very bright young people I know, from geographically distant schools, passed their Leaving Certificate in English literature without reading the assigned texts; instead, they simply memorised bullet lists of factoids supplied by or compiled from textbooks, teachers, and crib sheets. They both also passed Leaving Cert Irish, but after fourteen years of studying it, neither of them speaks the language.

In sum, they left school qualified but not educated—and deeply unprepared for the demands of third level study. They were short-changed.

We have fabulous, hard-working, and dedicated teachers in our secondary education system who are too often frustrated by the enormous pressure—too little time, too few resources, too many students—to teach, not the subject, but how to pass the exam. They too are being short-changed.

The Leaving Certificate has been our gold standard for educational achievement at second level for almost a century—and that’s the problem, so it should come as no surprise that it could do with a major overhaul. The post-Truth, post-covid, post-modern twenty-first-century world we live in is vastly different from post-war, post-flu, post-Victorian 1924 when the Leaving Cert was introduced. What was unthinkable then—literally unavailable to be thought—is mundane today: virtual classrooms, for instance, or textbooks that can be carried on a memory stick in your back pocket. Or kitchen appliances that talk back to you.

And the entire history of three-quarters of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first to date.

Knowledge increases exponentially. Social, intellectual, technological, medical, and scientific knowledge have all changed massively since 1924 in literally unpredictable and sometimes surprising ways. Who could have predicted what Einstein did to Newtonian physics? Space and time will never be the same. Demographics have changed. Pedagogical models have changed. Universities and the subjects they offer have changed. Students have changed. 

What hasn’t changed is the Leaving Cert. 

And emphatically, whatever its intended purpose in 1924, as a terminal exam it wasn’t designed to do what it’s being asked to do now: to prepare students for and assess their suitability for third-level study.

A report from the OECD at the end of last year found that it isn’t clear ‘how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert’. Its main focus, they pointed out, seems to be acting as a filter for entry into higher education. But look again; in its current form, it can’t even do that properly. It can’t assess a student’s potential for success at third level, because it doesn’t measure the skills needed to succeed at that level.

Consequently, the Leaving Certificate, as it stands, is not fit for purpose.

What do the students think?

Two recent studies, from DCU and the ESRI, asked first-year undergraduates whether they felt that the skills taught in their Leaving Certificate courses prepared them for study at third level. An overwhelming majority said that they didn’t, that the Leaving Cert, despite being the main pathway to third-level education, doesn’t provide students with the intellectual skills they will need when they get there. 

Digging into that sentiment, Michael O’Leary and Darina Scully at DCU found a ‘worrying disconnect’ between the demands of second- and third-level education. The results of their research were depressing. More than two-thirds of first-year students reported that they hadn’t been taught to engage critically with what they were hearing or reading beyond taking notes.

  • Only 25% of students felt the Leaving Certificate prepared them to
    interrogate and critically evaluate information or ideas.  
  • Only 28% felt it prepared them to identify sources of information.  
  • Only 27% felt it prepared them to compare information from different sources. 
  • Only 30% felt it prepared them to explore ideas from a number of different perspectives.  

Those statistics make it clear that students who have recently made the transition to third level would agree with me that the Leaving Cert did not prepare them for what was to come. For third-level students, the ability to review, evaluate, and analyse new information, investigate new ideas, and use evidence-based reasoning to inform new perspectives is essential no matter what subject is being studied. To prepare students for college or university, our secondary schools need to be turned around to face the future. That means, in the first place, teaching the skills students are going to need—primary among them, the capacity for critical thinking and self-direction.

Critical thinking

In a passive classroom dedicated to rote memorisation and passing the exam, those critical thinking skills of questioning and rational deductions are counterproductive because they take up too much time. Passing exams doesn’t require critical thinking; it demands instead that students listen, note, and memorise.

But the human memory doesn’t work by rote. It works by association, and the greater the number of associations, the easier information is to access. An active, participatory classroom structure with time for discussion, debate, workshops, individual presentations, and so on, creates a rich context built up by multiple associations. Guided independent projects allow the student to open up the subject further by introducing new frames of reference that further illuminate the context—historical, intellectual, or cultural—surrounding and supporting (or not) the narrative the students brought with them.

That rich context enables students to reach a greater understanding of the course material and retain much more of what they have learned than students engaged in passive reception and rote memorisation. Deeper understanding and increased retention through classroom and project work translate into improved written work, growing confidence, and a smoother transition to third level. And incidentally, it improves exam results.

The only association for rote memorisation is itself.

Research is what universities do. Students who are experienced researchers when they get there can hit the ground running.


Perhaps the most significant ‘disconnect’ in transferring from second to third level is the contrast between the passive role too often imposed on the secondary school student and the more active role demanded at third level.

Leaving School in Ireland from the ESRI found that a large majority of school leavers reported significant differences in teaching and learning between second- and third-level education.

A key factor emerging from the in-depth interviews was the need to engage in self-directed learning in further/higher education, especially the challenges in managing deadlines, which was contrasted with the more directive approach adopted in school. 

Students who go to university straight from a ‘directive’ approach at second level, and whose days have been organised according to a strict timetable, may have problems managing their own time. They may have difficulty keeping up with work required but not handed in for grading—reading, for instance. Students who have learned by rote may have difficulty using what they have memorised to solve novel problems or evaluate new material. Students who have never been asked for their opinion until the teacher told them what it was can have difficulty processing new information without direction.

Starting to bridge the gap between ‘directive’ and ‘self-directed’ learning could be as simple as including a Critical Thinking course on all second-level curricula and increasing the level of self-directed project work. Self-directed doesn’t mean unsupported. Teachers should be involved at all stages from conception to completion, but as mentors, sounding boards, and cheerleaders, not as taskmasters.

Going forward

It seems strange that students will go to class and pay attention, do homework, study hard, write essays, complete independent projects, and sit end-of-year exams for fourteen years and none of that will count in assessing their suitability for third-level study. Their immediate educational future depends entirely on a single set of exams they will sit in the summer of their eighteenth/nineteenth year.

The standardised one-and-done exam is an outdated concept based on nineteenth-century pedagogical and social practices. Moving away from a single exam toward at least a partially project-based certification system, with continuous assessment across the senior cycle, would act as a far better predictor of a student’s post-secondary performance. But it does present a problem. Moving to continuous assessment cannot and should not mean that teachers are asked to grade their own students for certification[1].

The solution is simple: portfolios of student work can be exchanged anonymously for grading between geographically distant schools. The graders will know nothing about the student, or the school they attend, apart from the work in front of them. Consequently, any subjective assumptions concerning social class, gender, ethnicity, student likeability, previous performance, and so on won’t come into play. In this way, students from Blackrock College will be judged by the same objective criteria as students from Ballymun Comp.

And as we go forward it’s important to remember that not all Leaving Cert students are studying full-time. The needs of differently-abled students who require different support services or non-traditional students who are juggling commitments to families, jobs, and other responsibilities in addition to their studies, need to be accommodated. For those, and indeed for all students, a modular Leaving Cert, in which courses can be taken cumulatively, allows for a more flexible pathway to third level.

Teaching subjects not currently examined in the Leaving Certificate but that students may want to study at third level—law, philosophy, or political science, for instance—would help students choose a course before they commit to a three- or four-year programme. This is particularly important for those applying to universities that don’t offer open Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Students need to learn how to think, not what to think.

And not all Leaving Cert students are heading for university. ‘The system needs . . . to ensure [students] can progress successfully in the labour market, across a range of alternative education pathways, and exercise a responsible global citizenship’ (OECD). Adding the option of vocational courses to the senior cycle—construction trades, for instance, ideally with attached apprenticeships—would increase the value of the Leaving Cert to the student body across educational, intellectual, and social divides.

Well-prepared students making informed decisions about their post-secondary career should be the aim. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, students need to learn how to think, not what to think.

[1] For obvious reasons, this year is a legitimate exception and a timely one: it has severely tested the practice of grading standardisation.

white space

white space

white space

Related articles

Class in the Classroom
All other things being equal—Leaving Cert results, for instance—students who attend schools in working-class areas are less likely to graduate to third-level study than those from more affluent areas. Why is that? Two classic studies partially explain the disparity, but it took a pandemic to break it open.

The Unbearable Lightness of Cornflakes
The debacle surrounding calculated/manipulated Leaving Cert grades made it possible to see why students from private schools are disproportionately more likely to graduate to third-level study than all others. That’s the intention—quid pro status quo.