A Rebellious Review of the Leaving Cert 2021 Changes

Photo from the Irish Times

Hi friends,

So if any of you are an Irish student doing the leaving cert this year, I’m sure you’re all quite aware of the recent changes that the Department of Education has announced on the 23rd March, regarding the 2021 leaving cert.

For any foreign friends here, the Irish leaving certificate examinations (‘leaving cert’ for short) are the state-administered college entry tests. They essentially determine which courses you’re eligible to enter in which colleges for higher education, and is the Irish equivalent to the English A levels, the Chinese GaoKao, and the US SAT.

Taking into account the nationwide hard lockdown the government set in place for 2 months (thus the 2 months of online schooling) , the department of education has made further changes to the 2021 leaving cert in an attempt to make the tests fairer for all students in the country, by supposedly offering more choice.

What Happened?

Now, to call these changes generous would be an understatement. No, the changes the department has announced are completely game-changing in terms of work and study needed. The best way to show this would be through giving an example.

The physics exam, in previous years, was marked out of a total of 400 marks, to be done in 3 hours. The exam is divided into 2 sections: the first section being the experiment questions and section 2 being the long questions section. Section 1 carries a total of 120 marks and has 4 questions, each question worth 40 marks each, and you only need to do 3 out of the 4 options. The initial changes announced at the start of the year saw us being given another option question in section 1, thus we still do 3 questions, but we now have a choice from 5 questions.

The new changes announced recently has just completely changed the requirements for section 1 of this paper, from having to do 3 out of 5 questions, to 2 out of 5 questions. The long question section also got heavily nerfed down, from having to do 5 out of 8 long questions to 4 out of 9.

In total, the entire paper is now being marked out of 304, an almost 25% drop from the original exams.

Similar changes have been applied to all other subjects, cutting down the total marks available while still offering a bit more choice. These changes have been heavily discussed by both students and teachers, many expressing joy and relief while others sharing their disappointment. I would like to use this post to help organise and clarify my thoughts on the matter, by examining both pros and cons of this huge decision.

(Pro and Con weighting scale: 1-10, 1=Very little impact, 10=Massive Impact)


-A huge amount of stress and pressure will be relieved from this year of students. These are undoubtedly unprecedented times, and the fear and anxiety from the global pandemic shouldn’t be amplified by the incoming exam pressure. These new adjustments also help clear most uncertainties that students had regarding the exams, thus giving us clarity.

Pro Rating: 8

-These changes should give more rural communities of students, who may not have had good internet connection for online education, a much fairer chance to do well in exams.

Pro Rating: 7

-What may be a controversial benefit from these drastic changes, is the bridging of the gap between underprivileged and privileged students. Students who may not have had the opportunity to go to an elite school now stands a much better chance of doing well in the exams and competing for higher point courses.

Pro Rating: 9


-With students now being given the opportunity to do much, much better in exams by offering this much choice, it is extremely difficult to say how the department will try maintain the bell-curve. As we know, they’ve made it clear that they only want a specific percentage of students getting the top marks, meaning not everyone will be given the best grade. This may be done through much more difficult questions, a more ruthless marking scheme, or some other way that we aren’t aware of. Either way, there must be some way for them to balance out the inevitably huge amount of students that will receive high marks.

Con Rating: 9

-As mentioned in a previous post, this year sees more students sitting the leaving cert than any other year in recorded history; this largely being due to the amount of determined students who are repeating from last year. Such amount of choice and and lowering of questions asked will also unfortunately increase competition for top courses. The absolute worst case scenario is for students who were already at the top, even before the changes, losing out on a place in their desired course to random selection. I also predict colleges hiking up their course point requirements, further making the competition even more intense.

Con Rating: 9

-I was heavily debating whether to include this as a con or not, but decided to in the end as I understand some people may feel this. Students who have been working extremely hard in top schools will lose out on a huge advantage they had. While this doesn’t apply to everyone, I can still sympathise why this can be viewed as disappointing, since many families have worked exceptionally hard to get into the high ranking schools, only for it to possibly not even matter in the end, with such a ridiculously changed exam.

Con Rating: 6

This is undoubtedly a difficult topic to talk about, and we are still in the early stages of the announcement of these change. Do you agree or disagree with any points mentioned? Or do you believe I’m missing some pros/cons? No matter what the situation is, it is always a good idea to have dialogue and conversation about these matters.

Overall, I do believe these changes are good for students as a whole, but I can still absolutely sympathise with arguments opposing these changes.

Okay, well, that should be it for this post. I’ll see you guys next time, stay safe!

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