If nobody fails the exam, the qualification is meaningless

By | May 28, 2006
The brother did his Leaving Certificate in 1984. He got an A in honours maths and six Bs in other honours subjects — including Irish. It was among the top results in Ireland that year.These days he’d hardly get a look-in. Because almost one in five pupils do as well as he did — getting 450 points or more in the Leaving Cert. Some 145 got the maximum of 600 points last year. So what’s going on? Are today’s students cleverer, working harder, or is it just easier to get As?


All those years ago, the brother would have walked into pharmacy, medicine, law or any other high-ranking discipline. But he showed maturity and didn’t pursue them simply because he could. He took economics instead, for which he had more than ample points. Today, according to the Central Applications Office (CAO) website, he would barely qualify for the same degree course. The medical schools would screech with laughter if he approached.

My own, more modest, results, which got me into a history degree in 1988, wouldn’t qualify me to take a diploma in toenail maintenance in the Ballygobackwards regional technical college. So I have to believe in grade inflation. Otherwise I’m even thicker than I already suspect.

This isn’t all about the clever clogs: the number of people getting fewer than 100 points has dropped too, from 23.2% to 11.7%. If fewer people are failing, what does that say? Are the weaker students also getting smarter? I thought they were supposed to be rendered catatonic from too much television and junk food. This has to mean that either: a) telly and chips make you clever, or b) the exams are getting easier. Even I can figure that one out.

While the 1980s are practically the dark ages in academic terms, it seems that the big jump in good results has been achieved since 1992, when the current points system was introduced. Those who deny that there has been grade inflation since then put forward a series of arguments. They say students are more focused now on results because of the cruel points system. They work harder and get more grinds.

I don’t buy that. While competition is enormous for the professional courses with limited places, such as pharmacy, in the 1980s there were more students and they had to compete for a smaller number of places.

The number of pupils leaving schools in the past 10 years has dropped 20%, while the number of college places has gone up by 50%, so it’s much easier to get into third-level education now. That trend is beneficial to some extent, but has its limits. It means that weaker students get onto university courses that are still as difficult as ever. If you really want to check up on grade inflation, you need to look at university drop-out rates. Colleges are coy about providing these figures, but one trend stands out: students who get top points drop out rarely. Low-point students have a drop-out rate of 30% in some colleges. They might be getting better Leaving Cert results than their predecessors, but it doesn’t make them any more capable of getting a degree.

As for the brutality of the points system, I don’t understand why the CAO is blamed for putting pressure on students to achieve better and better results in order to get their desired course. The CAO does not set entry points for courses, nor do colleges. The only people setting the points are the students themselves. As today’s A students discover, success in the Leaving Cert is entirely relative.

The CAO is simply a clearing house. They get the results in, add up the points, and award the places strictly in order of merit. The absolute results in terms of As or Bs is irrelevant. Your results are good or bad only in the context of everyone else’s performance. It doesn’t matter if you get six A1s — if someone else gets seven, you are still not the best. The toughest courses, such as law or pharmacy, simply take the top students who apply. So students don’t need better results to get into the top courses, they just need to keep up with their peers.

How they keep up is another matter. The annual exam hysteria, which is about to kick in, has created a boom for grind schools who specialise in exam technique. Good for them, but guess what? Exam technique wasn’t invented by the Institute of Education on Leeson Street, it was always rife.

When I did my Leaving Cert, I did what any ambitious (or worried) student did. I got the syllabus and past papers from the Department of Education and worked out exactly how much I needed to know for the exams — or how little. I was particularly proud of establishing that I could cut out all the English poets from the English course. If I stuck to the Irish poets and read the easy “modern novels”, I would save buckets of study time. Everyone was at it. The teachers covered the courses by Christmas and spent the rest of the time revising and practising exam questions.

Of course, the really clever pupils made sure to pick subjects in which As were easier to achieve. Any aspiring law school applicant made sure to do Home Economics or Latin. Lamenting about exam-focused learning these days is a case of shutting the stable door 25 years after the horse bolted.

A Department of Education spokeswoman defending the mysteriously improved results last week said there had been “substantial curricular reform in the past 10 to 15 years”. She added that “the exams had become more accessible and student-friendly in design and format”.

Student-friendly? Accessible? Aren’t these just euphemisms for easier? Edward Walsh, a former University of Limerick president, has expressed his concern, citing wild grade variations from subject to subject and year to year. Everyone knows the “easy” subjects that award high grades more frequently. Walsh is particularly suspicious of better results in science subjects and wonders if it’s an effort to make them more attractive. Chemistry and physics used be notoriously hard and were avoided by point-mongering students.

Kevin Williams from the Mater Dei Institute suggests that examiners have become more generous since students were allowed to see their marked papers. Knowing that the student will see the marks awarded may introduce a spirit of compassion into the process.Something should be done about it, otherwise the international reputation of the Leaving Cert will be damaged. It might be a brutal exam process, but that brutality has earned it a fantastic reputation around the world. Irish students pursuing further education or work abroad can be confident that their results will be treated as credible evidence of their academic ability. If word gets out about the easy honours to be had, that reputation won’t last long.


Walsh suggests a normalised marking system that would bring more “statistical rigour” to the results. This involves deciding which percentage of students should be getting As or Bs and how many should fail. If they decide that 10% of pupils in maths should get As, and you get one, then you know you’re in the top 10%.

It would certainly put a stop to students picking subjects for easy As. It would also mean that an A today would have the same value as an A 20 years ago. My own A in maths would mean the very same as an A today. Top 10% then, top 10% today.

Well, all right, it was pass maths. But still, top marks anyway.

24 thoughts on “If nobody fails the exam, the qualification is meaningless

  1. simon

    UL love their Bell curves but I dispute there usefullness. They depend on a conscetanty of the quality coming out to of the schools. Which if you ask people in universities. Classes can differ in abilities from year to year. But a bell curve does not take this in to consideration and can lead to a situation where someone who could get an B 1 year. Gets an A due to their competition. While this can not be coped with in the points system. Then it can be coped with by the leaving cert system.

  2. Kevin


    Intesting piece.

    The suggestion made relating to statistical rigour is, I think, a fair way of doing it: CAO competition is still fairly consistent; and the Leaving Cert’s international reputation and potency is maintained. At the moment, it’s not in place officially, but from what I’ve heard, the Department of Education try to ensure the number of As per subject stays at around 10-12%, Bs at 17-22% and so forth. I can’t find the stats to back them up, but I recall remarking at the pattern when the results came out last year. Moreover, I’ve had a few teachers tell me that if, after a quarter or half the papers have been corrected in, say, French, word gets around and they have to be looked over and marked slightly easier so as to adhere to the patterns. Otherwise, I guess, the subject becomes less appealing and its take-up in subsequent years is lowered. Still, that’s hersay.

    Regardless, the exam is still feared and panic-provoking. I know a few people around me who are getting very jumpy and worried. Me, I’ve only got a nagging feeling that I’m missing something, since I’ve yet to start worrying. Just over 9 days until it all kicks off, and – for me – only 17 days until all’s well again.

  3. Johnny K

    My problem with the grades system is that it distracts kids from real education. I couldn’t care less if my grades from 93 pale in comparison to today’s students. I hate points, I hate grades, and I don’t have any solutions, but if we could at least teach kids the difference between regurgitation and learning I’d be happy.

  4. ogie16

    Good piece.

    It isn’t quite accurate to say that there are wild fluctuations between grades each year. While Leaving (and Junior) Cert exams are being corrected they are constantly being monitored to ensure that they are not too high or too low. If necessary the marking scheme is adjusted to ensure that the marks will roughly follow a bell curve.

    Your brother was right not to do “high-entry” course just because he could. People often end up with a degree they don’t really want and aren’t suited too simply because they can regurgitate information quickly and accurately.

    Another problem is that entry for courses is dictated soley by points, and points may be gained from subjects that bear no relevance to the college course. Personally, I’m studying Pharmacy, but the points I got from music to get me into Pharmacy bear no relevance to being a “future healthcare professional”, even though they may make me a “more rounded individual” (not my words).

    I think that two ways to improve the system would be to have interviews for any courses over a certain points requirement, say 500 points for instance. It may help to identify people who are not suited to a course and a only being subject to parental or teacher pressure.

    More importantly though would be putting good guidnace counsellors into schools so students can discover what they are good at, what they would like to do for the rest of their lives, and how best to reconcile the two.

    In many ways I feel the Irish education system just teaches people to pass exams, instead of actually educating them.

  5. James

    A bell curve is good, but you can’t stop people from choosing easy subjects by giving an A to the top x% only. If someone gets 95% on their paper, it wouldn’t be fair to dump them down to a B grade simply because lots of other people got 96%. Consider the more obscure languages like Arabic – there is a huge percentage of A’s in these courses, probably because the majority of the handful of kids who take this class are native speakers. How would you like it if you slaved away for years learning your Arabic from scratch, mastering the language, and getting 92% in your Leaving Cert exam – only to be downgraded to a B because you’re up against Ahmed and his 23 cousins?

    I agree that something should be done about the easy subjects. I moved schools before my leaving cert, and the new school that I moved to didn’t do metalwork/engineering or woodwork, so I was short a subject – I signed up to these after-school Social and Scientific courses, an easy A I was told. I attended one session, which was a waste of 2euro, and decided I would stick with my other 6 subjects because I was a bit lazy. But I never bothered to unregister, so my name was down for the leaving cert exam. On the day of the exam, I said fuck it, might as well go in and bluff it rather than get an F – I had no idea what was on the course, I had not seen any notes or past papers aside from that one 1-hour class, and I got a C1 in honours in the exam. I remember one of the questions was “describe something electric in your kitchen and how it works” – I wrote about how the element heats up in a kettle and that heats the water and boils it. If only those poor guys trying to learn off their physics equations had known there were such easy marks available.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the international reputation of the leaving cert is as important as you suggest. I have never met an employer abroad who considered the leaving cert to be a particularly valuable credential – just another of those exams you do when you’re 17/18, same as in every other country. Forget about how it is perceived abroad, lets do whats best for ourselves.

  6. tom

    I agree with Johnny that the issue with broader education is the real one – it doesn’t really matter to me if exams are getting easier, but it does matter that real education suffers due to the points race.

    One good idea is the “general studies” one from England. Everyone HAS to sit a general knowledge paper that is hard to revise for. Our school’s general studies programme included classes on modern drama, art history, technology etc. Apparently the General Studies grade is the single best indicator of degree performance.

  7. Billy Waters

    Education is based on exclusion. I think that the bell curve should be thrown out and we need to encourage people to excel at what they are good at.

    The current way of doing things is mechanistic, simplistic and based on 19th Century quackery that never really worked. Exams are a waste of time and energy and are to education what Mary Poppins is to flying. A nice idea but not based on the real world.

    And to say if nobody fails, the qualification is meaningless is unfair. What it really means is that if everyone can do it how can we exclude the people we don’t like.

  8. Daniel K.

    I’m not sure I completely like the bell curve either. And as for the guidelines about the percentage who get the various grades I remember a conspiracry theory in our school about the physics exam when we did it that the exam had been too easy and that some schools were marked down on masse to make the numbers balance out nationally. At least that was our collective explanation for why no one get an A.

    I think the targetting of what to learn has become a fine art. And the cram schools have made it more competitive too. That said, we have created a culture that values mediocre middle management over anything else, no one wants to get their hands dirty or do something that is hard. Fact is that maths is as much about training your mind to think as it is about anything else.

    Part of the overall problem is that going to college is still seem as a status thing, whereas you can be your own boss and earn a packet with a trade.

  9. Sarah Post author

    Billy, c’mon, that’s a bit mad. Some people are cleverer than others. They get maths and physics and chemistry or philosophy or history. They become doctors or teachers or writers. To get qualified in a particular field you have to become expert in it and the only way of doing that is to learn and that learning has to be tested. Some people will fail the test. They don’t know enough to perform a job. So how do you decide who gets the limited places on each course? Draw names out of a hat? And then people who have no hope of learning the required skills get in while those who could, don’t? Yeah, it can be tough finding out there is some better than you in a particular subject. Deal with it!!!

  10. Pete

    A couple of years ago I was a tutor on a final-year IT degree course in UCC (which made me feel very old, since I was once an undergraduate there. I had to stop myself from automatically walking into the student bar every time I passed it). I set an assignment, and marked it. My marks did not fit a bell-curve, quite the opposite. This was because most students had either understood what I’d taught them and got a good mark, or not understood and got a bad mark. Not much in the middle. The lecturer for the course told me that this was unacceptable because he would get into trouble for not producing a bell-curve distibution, and he re-marked them to get the distribution he wanted. So I’m not a great believer in bell-curves or the fairness of marking.

  11. Billy Waters

    We have the highest level of functional illiteratcy in Western Europe in Ireland. My honest opinion is that we are screening people out before they even get to the exam hall. If you can’t spell or read you are automatically out of the game. We have vast amounts of criminally undereducated people. They have failed the test before they even get to school.

    I agree that to be an engineer or doctor or a rocket scientist you have to pass exams but to exhault the winners at the expense of educating people to a basic level is immoral. We need more winners, make the exams harder for the in demand professions buf for Gods sake educate the rest of them to a decent standard.

    Kids need to learn to read and write, how to manage money, how to manage themselves and their emotions and what they eat. Many kids go to school without a breakfast. How is a growing brain supposed to learn without any fuel?

    After that we can specialise and do all the exams in the world. What I am saying is that our education system fails on the basics. And jumping up and down when too many good kids get higher marks in exams that have had the bar lowered is missing the point that we are failing miserably at the basics.

    Yes make the exams harder, you don’t know how good someone is at something without an exam but we need to educate to a standard level in life skills, something that is not done and that is an education. We don’t do that now and that is a crying shame.

    And justifying keeping the numbers down on the basis of limited places and money is short sighted. We need educated, skilled people here more than ever. After we all run out of money selling houses to each other what is left?


  12. Rob C

    Interseting piece Sarah. I’ve always wondered about the exam hysteria surrounding the LC. I suppose there are more grind schols about now, massaging students for high points at the expense of everything else and taking the pleasure out of learning. That said the leaving cert, cruel as it is, is a great leveller. Bright students will rise to the top in academic subjects. These people will then go on to become our doctors and scientists etc. The system is necessary. The anonymity of the points system also avoids unsavoury selection processes – aka the interview, who you know etc. As for the rest of us , sure we can take an arts degree and moan about our job prospects for the rest of our lives!

  13. Daniel K.

    Billy, “We have the highest level of functional illiteratcy in Western Europe in Ireland. My honest opinion is that we are screening people out before they even get to the exam hall. If you can’t spell or read you are automatically out of the game. We have vast amounts of criminally undereducated people. They have failed the test before they even get to school.


    Kids need to learn to read and write, how to manage money, how to manage themselves and their emotions and what they eat. Many kids go to school without a breakfast. How is a growing brain supposed to learn without any fuel?

    Is a large part of the problem not outside the school arena? After all, we still expect parents to raise their kids. The school isn’t meant to be a substitute for parenting. Now, I agree that some parent need support but that should be support outside of the education system. Schools can aim to reinforce things like “how to manage money, how to manage themselves and their emotions ” but the primary place for that is at home.

  14. Billy Waters

    The main problem is that people keep having babies and sending them to school. You can’t legislate for crappy parents and bad parenting. We are a Catholic country and as a result nobody takes any responsibility for anything and blames everyone else. It

    is the responsibility of parents to teach their kids life skills but there is a fundamental disconnect between life skills and “subjects” and blaming the parents for bringing up bad kids in a bad way is easy but does nothing to solve the problem apart from making noise.

    The government does nothing, will do nothing and will deny there is a problem with the way people are educated. They will continue to point to the fact that more and more kids who have responsible parents and no problems at home are passing easier and easier exams and call this success.

    I suppose the main point I am trying to make is that many middle class kids are passing exams that are maybe getting easier but its a red herring when the real problem with education is that poorer kids are not getting the basics and nobody wants to know.

  15. blankpaige

    As ever you lead a brilliant discussion. My tuppence worth …..

    The whole point of an exam isn’t who passes and who fails. It is a competitive process designed to rank students relative to each other. While everyone today might be brilliant, some must be more brilliant than others.

    A bell shape curve is to be expected. Is’nt it a mathematical truism that the distribution of a sampling mean is always normally distributed even if the underlying data is not normally distributed. Or something like that. I’m not too hot on maths – I only got an A1 in the subject.

    No-one complains that all olympic runners finish the race. They just want to know who came first, second and third.

    Mind you, in Scotland (once internationally recognised as the best education system in western europe) no one is allowed to fail anymore. People who fail are described as “delayed achievement”!

  16. Johnny K

    Billy’s point about money management is a good one, but I’d take it a step further. School leavers should be able to file a tax return (they should at least know they will probably have to file one at some stage in their lives), should understand the mechanics of how mortgages work, should be able to manage a monthly budget, and understand the possible trappings of a credit card. There’s loads more but we should educate for the real world, not just the “Irish” world where everything will just work itself out.

  17. Daniel K.

    A bell curve is not to be expected. You can force one, or it can happen that one does not arise.

  18. Billy Waters


    I found this after I had commented here. I stand by my opinion that being an obedient little show pony at school is obnoxiously pointless and ie only perpetuating a sick myth that school is where you get your education. In school all you learn is that you are a problem and to sit down and shut up.

    I regret every minute of school. A total and utter waste of time. All I learned that is useful I learned on my own and was punished for this in school. Only in my school did one of the thick kids spend most of his time in the computer room. That so called thick was me.

  19. Frank Bouchier-Hayes


    Much as I disagree with the path that Pearse took in 1916, the educational system that he accurately described as a murder machine is still with us. The points system establishes nothing more than the canny ability to cram a limited series of facts into your head and regurgitate it in an exam. Those who memorise better than others are rewarded with a better college place. What a load of bunkum. School should be about preparing children for the world of work and life in general. At present, it achieves neither of these objectives. By the way, just to make you feel better about your results, all I managed to achieve in pass maths was a C grade.

  20. Sarah Post author

    See Frank I do agree with the sentiment, especially Billy who put it like this “Kids need to learn to read and write, how to manage money, how to manage themselves and their emotions and what they eat.” But I am still at a loss as to what is the alternative. How do you decide who can do what course at third level? Surely some kind of exam is unavoidable? And therefore remembering and regurgitating is inevitable? Maybe if we taught Philosophy and taught people how to think and asked some really general question on the paper? But then, I for one, am useless at thinking things through on the spot, I always need time to digest. I dunno…give me an alternative and let me reflect.

  21. Billy Waters

    I hate to bang on about it but we tend to have a severe case of NIH in Ireland. Not Invented Here. Maybe because of the schooling or maybe because we are an island nation but we need to learn from other cultures. Its as if we are allergic to copying the best ideas from others. You were beaten for copying in School but copying is the ONLY way that monkeys like us learn.

    Instead of flinging our dirty pint glasses at the “Chingers” in pubs and telling them to go home we need to look at where they come from and how they learned in school. I see the way we treat them and it isn’t pretty. We need to learn from them. Case in point – the fact that Chinese is a visual langugage and this visual nature lends itself to learning maths easier. http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn9422&feedId=online-news_rss20

    Instead of flogging a dead horse why not steal the best ideas of those countries who are able to teach vast numbers of people to do the math. Instead we look at the English or American system which is to coin a phrase absolute rubbish. Its thick as a nation to continue the way we are going with education. If a factory were producing 20% complete failures and another 20% marginal failures it would be shut down.

    I knwo I keep banging on about education but it is the basis for a civilised society. We have been given an opportunity by people coming here from abroad to learn from them and the way that they were taught and do things. The Chinese are an important culture and even the most superficial glance at the way they do things can help us.

    This may seem to be a random post but I think we are screwed if we don’t learn from others. Making it up as we go along is a waste and ignorance is not a valid point of view.

  22. mike

    I am a fourth year student.
    I expect to do relatively well in the leaving certificate next year although the fact that my grades and so points may be demoted becuase other students achieved the same grade, just a higher percentage than I did angers me, as the points a student recieves in the exam often dictates the rest of their professional lives.

    This system needs to be scrutinised and changed accordingly so that anyone who achieves an A1 recieves their well earned A1 grade,and the respective points.

    Obviously, third level education institutes will be more willing to accept a student, the more A1’s they achieve,the problem is that many peoples leaving certificate achievements are not reflected in the points they recieve.

  23. mike

    The other main problem are with leaving certificate points is that of relevance.

    For instance a prospective medical student may present an A1 in higher level geography worth 100 points when meeting the entry requirements, That subject when placed with five other A1 honours subjects allows its student the rare privelege of having 600 points.

    Well done.

    But what on earth is the relevance of geography to a doctor I ask?
    Wouldnt it be far more effective to asess students on their achievements in relevant subjects?
    aswell as an aptitude interview?

    Becuase far too many Would-be-good-doctors are refused medical school becuase of their points,let down maybe, by a completely irrelevant to the course subject such as geography.

    Thus peventing those school leavers who achieved A’s in Biology or Chemistry (far more relevant to those of a medicinal profession!?) but were not so succesful in other subjects such as art or french from pursuing what is perhaps thir true vocation in life.

    My point being taht entry requirments in my opinion should be based on the grades achieved in the course relevant subjects eg. a design student should be examined in art,and maybe a language. a medical student examined in mathematics and the science subjects, not turned away becuase of an unacceptable C in a completly irrelevant subject.

    This leaves many people who achieved over 400 points in the leaving certificate dissapointed becuase although much brighter and more able than most of the country,
    they will never be a doctor or a lawyer.

  24. Ray

    You also have to remember that, as the article says, entry requirements have increased, and so, are in keeping with exams getting slightly easier. Admitedly, the change is noticable in terms of people getting better results, but because the requirements for courses have also gone up, the changes shouldnt make a difference to the system as the two are in sync. Also, nowadays all students (whether they are genius’ or not) are being encouraged to pursue a college course. In the not so distant past, alot of ignorance surrounded the issue of college. But now that more people are clued in on the subject and wht it has to offer, a high percentage of students are striving for places. More students, of all abilities, are working hard to achieve enough points for the college course they desire. This can only be a good thing; knowledge is power!

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