Put students’ physical & mental health first: cancel Leaving Cert 2022

By Conor Tormey, 6th year student

As it was in 2020 and 2021, Leaving Cert students are currently facing the prospect of sitting a full Leaving Cert with very little changes made to the exams, while also coping with a years-long global pandemic. Even with the potential of a lockdown coming before or after Christmas due to high case numbers, there has been silence from the government and the minister for education, Norma Foley, about the Leaving Cert. 

The government says the Leaving Cert needs to be reformed, evidenced by recent comments made by Simon Harris, but this means nothing to students and teachers this year. It seems Leaving Cert students will be forced to sit a traumatic exam this year, and potentially every year until the meagre reforms proposed are implemented in 2030; at which point they will continue to sit a traumatic exam, but one with a more acceptable public image. 

We must keep in mind the fight waged by students over the past two years for a fair and equal system, and ultimately, the end of the leaving cert examination, not only for 2022 but for years to come as well. 

Predicted grades not a solution

Predicted grades have been the government’s solution to students organising from below the past two years. Unfortunately this has been a failure for students and teachers. Students have seen points for courses massively inflated due to predicted grades, with some students who got maximum points still missing out of their course choices because there wasn’t enough CAO places for the number of students that applied

Of course predictive grades were also quite stressful for teachers. Teachers were forced into grading the students that they had taught, for an exam that will decide whether they get into a desired course or not. The ASTI and TUI have rightly resisted plans from the government to utilise more continuous assessments within schools and that should stay the same if the government tries to implement accredited grades for the 2022 leaving cert. 

Government reform too little, too late

As of now, there is an education committee in the Dáil that is discussing Leaving Cert reform. The minister for higher education, Simon Harris, was put before the committee and had to admit that the Leaving Cert structure “does not teach students about financial literacy, digital skills, sex education, or climate skills.” It took Simon Harris long enough to realise this, considering that students, teachers and parents have been saying this for years. 

These reforms of increasing visibility for further education, training and apprenticeship options, as well as ensuring sufficient numbers of students are equipped to work in areas of specific skill needs are not enough. We need to break with the Leaving Cert and point system as a model, which has long been detrimental to the well-being of students, and puts inordinate pressure on teachers. 

Cancel the Leaving Cert

The 2022 Leaving Cert students have missed four months of their senior cycle from this year’s lockdowns. This has already had a significant effect within schools with both teachers and students being put under massive stress to make up for lost time over lockdown. At the end of November, 600 teachers were out of class due to COVID, as well as countless students – all of this while many students are studying in freezing classrooms and the government is ignoring teachers’ calls for contact tracing and testing in school. All of this should be considered when talking about leaving cert 2022. 

With the possibility of another lockdown looming as we enter Christmas, there needs to be serious conversations about a different fate for the Leaving Cert. At the time of writing there has been no word from any of the stakeholders involved in conducting the exam as to whether there will be any more changes to the Leaving Cert. It is also unlikely that the government will consider the needs of students and teachers willingly, as over the past few years they have been extremely reluctant to give in to the student demands until the pressure was too much to ignore. Such will most likely be the case for 2022 as well. 

Even before the pandemic, the Leaving Cert had a debilitating impact on students in Ireland. It has been described as “traumatic” by the UN committee on the rights of children. Students are incredibly stressed when it comes to the Leaving Cert, with 75% of students surveyed saying that they felt extreme stress and 57% developing a mental or physical illness as a result of the Leaving Cert. This is naturally even worse for students dealing with other pressures, such as homeless students, LGBTQ+ students, students of colour and students with disabilities, as well as other vulnerable students. The Leaving Cert system also disproportionately impacts students from lower-income households, who don’t have the same access to grinds and extra educational support, and often don’t have quiet study spaces at home. 

What do students actually need

Cancelling the Leaving Cert for 2022, coupled with open access to third level is the only progressive way forward for students. This requires massive investment in the third level to ensure enough places exist to cater for the demand. College, university and apprenticeships should be seen as a right for those who wish to continue in their education, not as a privilege. 

To achieve this we need another movement of students, like we saw in 2020 and 2021 to force the government’s hand. Students and teachers unions need to call for a cancellation of the Leaving Cert for 2022 and open access now. Leaving Cert students’ physical and mental health should be the priority.

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