The Leaving Cert: 10 Years On

Today is the first day of Ireland’s Leaving Certificate examinations. This is a rite of passage for all sixth or final year secondary (high) school students: a series of exams, usually in 7-9 subjects, that take place over a couple of weeks in June and not only mark the end of their compulsory education but, from their perspective, may very well determine the rest of their lives. When students sit these exams they are normally 17 or 18 years old; I sat mine in June 2001, a month before my nineteenth birthday – ten years ago this month.

(Ten years!)

The Leaving Cert, students are told by their teachers, advisers and family, is a Very Big Deal. Who gets Ireland’s college and university places is determined by mathematical formula and so every percentage in the exam results count, as they’ll determine how many points the student will have to win a place. Different grades have different points, so getting an A1 (A+) on a Higher Level (advanced) exam paper nets you 100 points, an A2 nets you 90, etc. while getting an A1 at Ordinary Level nets you only 60. Your top six results are added together to give you your overall points tally; the maximum or perfect score is 600 but most people get somewhere between 380-480, I’d imagine.

So let’s say you want to study English Literature. There will be required subjects you’ll have had to have studied in the last two years of Leaving Cert preparation but after that it all comes down to points, or what you got in subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with English Literature or anything else in your life from here on out, for that matter. Perhaps there’s 100 applicants for 50 places on a English Literature course. The Central Applications Office (CAO) takes the first 50 applicants, starting with the highest achiever on down, and offers them places. If the last person on the list has 450 points, that makes the entrance requirement 450 points and you certain of an offer if you got that and applied for the course. Each student can apply for up to 10 degree and 10 diploma courses and there’s more than one round of offers, so after the dust has settled everyone usually ends up with a place – if they’ve got enough points, of course.

To say that Leaving Cert students are stressed is like saying that the Pope’s Catholic. Worse, they’re encouraged to be stressed. For the first three years of their secondary school career, they study and prepare for the “baby” Leaving Cert, the Junior Certificate. After that it’s the two years of Leaving Cert cycle. So, from the age of 12 or 13, all Irish teenagers are hearing about is the Leaving Cert this and the Leaving Cert that. Points determine everything. College determines everything. Academia determines everything. If they fail the Leaving, they fail life. (A life, mind you, that has barely even begun.) And as for their education, nothing will stick – they just have to remember it for the exams, answer the questions in a way that will get them the best marks, pass go and collect those points. There’s endless revisions aids, books, test papers, grind schools, private grinds and even helplines for students to call when the exams themselves start. There was even a reality-style TV show a few years back following Leaving Cert students. On the morning my exams started, half of us had bottles of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the other half clutched boxes of Marlboro Lights and the one girl who apparently had neither ended up fainting from the stress of it all.

I didn’t do particular well in my Leaving Cert – mainly because I didn’t study for it at all – and although I got my place in Lancaster University, I dropped out three weeks in. For a while afterwards I stood blinking in the sunlight of a post-Leaving Cert world, one my teachers had neglected to mention existed. Free from the pressurized cocoon of school and study, I found there was other things I wanted to do with my time. Friends of mine were already stuck in college, hurtling towards the days when they’d be stuck in a permanent job. I didn’t have a long-term plan, but my short-term one was simple: be unstuck. And so that’s what I did. That’s what I’m doing. And although it’s taken the best part of a decade to figure out where I’m supposed to be, I’m almost there. And boy, was the journey here a lot of fun.

Yes, the Leaving Cert is important, but only if your dream is to be something that requires a university education, and one that starts now. I wish ten years ago someone had reminded me that I was now 18 years old and so an adult, and that if I wanted to, I was free to head out into the world and explore it. Instead I was being told that if I didn’t ace the Leaving Cert and get to college right this minute and then get a job as soon I graduated, my life would be a desolate wasteland of poverty and regret.

I didn’t listen, but most students do. They don’t know that they don’t have to, and they’re under an awful lot of pressure. But I have a theory that pushing young people into boring 9-5s just so they have a job and preventing them from figuring out and then pursuing their dreams (because, according to the Powers That By, they’re doomed to fail) is one of the causes of our nation’s binge drinking problem. If you were stuck in a life you didn’t want thanks to someone else, wouldn’t you go out and drink yourself into oblivion every Friday night? What else could you do to relieve the pain and monotony of it all?

I think thanks to the recession our national mindset is improving, but as a race Irish people need to dream more and fear failure less. If you could live the life of your dreams, wouldn’t that make it all worth the risk? And that doesn’t mean we should all try to be Hollywood actresses or Formula 1 drivers – everyone has different dreams, and they are all different sizes. But you should at least try to find out what yours is, and attempt to achieve it.

Your first goal once you reach adult life should be to figure out what you love to do, and then figure out a way to get paid to do it. I think if we told our school-leavers that and then gave them some time and freedom to do it, Ireland would be a much better place.

And there’d be no fainting on the morning of the Leaving Cert.

10 thoughts on “The Leaving Cert: 10 Years On

  1. Belinda Kroll, Quirky Historical Romance says:

    We have a similar pair of tests in the States called the SAT and ACT. I don’t remember what the acronyms stand for and I’m too lazy to look right now. I took both the tests, and did well. I went to college, and then graduate school. I got the boring 9-5 job, was unhappy, and recently switched to a new job. So I’ve done my duty according to society.

    However, even as I did those things, I knew my dream was to make books. Not just write them, but make them. It’s been difficult, but after seven years of higher education and putting my dreams on hold, I’ve done it. Feels pretty good.

  2. Lissa says:

    We have a similar arrangement in Australis as well. Each state has their own High School Certificate you get at the end of Grade 10 (when you should be 16) then we go on to college for 2 years to gain a (state) Certificate of Education and pre-tertiary courses to study for University. Like a lot of other students, I went straight into Uni because I wasn’t entirely sure what else there was to do: I knew any job I wanted would benefit from having my degree. Three years later I’m unemployed but querying agents for my first novel. I’ve always wanted to be a writer but when I was a kid, it wasn’t a feasible option. Thank god for the publishing revolution.

  3. Bridget Whelan says:

    In any education system it would be nice to see a greater conviction that one size does not fit all and that what is right for one person at 18 ay not be right for everyone. Change is possible. Change is empowering. What you are/want to do at school leaving age doesn’t have to determine what you are doing 10,20 or 30 years later
    Kids in English schools also seem to be consistently under test pressure…one major difference though is that we specialise at a much earlier age over here. Seven subjects at A level is unthinkable – the norm is focusing on three while the very, very clever may do four. In reality we leave a general education behind age 16.
    What are the seven leaving cert subjects? I am right in thinking it’s similar to the American High School system?l

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I’m not sure re: high school because I think they do SATs which are aptitude tests, and only have to pass their classes to graduate high school…?

      I did nine subjects for my Junior Cert (which would be normal) and eight subjects for my Leaving Cert. Everyone has to do English, Irish (unless you moved to the country after you were 12 or something) and Maths and I guess a language. If I remember correctly (and I’ve tried to block it all out, so I don’t know!) they were:

      English, Irish, Maths, French


      (for Junior Cert)

      Science (which comprises of Physics, Chemistry and Biology)
      Business Studies
      Home Economics.

      We also studied Latin for 2 years and German for 1, but I dropped Latin and didn’t show up for the German exam! 🙂

      (for Leaving Cert)

      Business Studies.

  4. Lindsay Edmuds says:

    Your blog got me thinking about the choices we are supposed to make according to society and the choices that feel right (though they may end up being far more demanding). So I blogged about it myself.

  5. Rachael says:

    Great post, so true and echoes the sentiments of most post-LC-panic Irish people. I think the problem is that as a nation we’re absolutely obsessed with the old fashioned ‘jobs’ which have a title, as opposed to ‘careers’, which are forged. For example, watch how the mammies look at you in total confusion if you say answer anything other than doctor/solicitor/architect/guard/nurse/teacher to the “what do you want to be?” question. In the UK it’s not at all unusual to go to uni to study anything and everything from costume design to environmental waste, and nobody blinks an eyelid, whereas here they’d mutter afterwards “how on earth is she going to get a job out of that?”. The recession may well put paid to that however, as the same can now be said for law, architecture, financial services and much more unfortunately. Nothing is sure anymore!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Well said Rachel – I agree 100%.

      Don’t even talk to me about the mammies – I have a whole clan that goes on about that. And as you say in the UK, you could study whatever you want. I nearly went back and did American Studies a couple of years ago there, which would basically be me reading books about the stuff I’m most interested in in the world for 3 years. Here even a glance at the (thin) listings of degree courses all basically boils down to finance, computing and engineering and even if you do “Arts” you’re considered to be someone who doesn’t have a clue, as if that’s a bad thing! In my family the most important thing is not happiness, but a pension. Doesn’t matter if you’re miserable for the 30+ years before it kicks in – as long as you have one! ;-D

  6. Rachael says:

    But surely now that you can officially add the much coveted ‘comma, author’ to your name the family are pretty pleased?! It may not be pensionable but it’s definitely highly respectable! I’m from a family a little like yours, my parents worked their backsides off to make sure that we all would have it a little easier in life; I studied law, my sister medicine, one brother heading into teaching and the other one starting the *gulp* leaving cert today. All neatly pigeon-holed job titles, but the illusion was quickly shattered as soon as I entered law – it may have been pensionable, but it was going to be an extremely miserable 30 years first. So I was very very lucky that my parents fully supported – and even encouraged – me abandoning a career that had cost me six years in college, €12,000 in fees, and very nearly my sanity. It takes guts to ignore the naysayers and take the less-than-safe route, you’ve my every respect!

  7. Sally Clements says:

    Something I hadn’t anticipated was the angst of being the mummy of a leaving cert student – I remember my own leaving as a very hot summer, huge last minute cramming sessions, and lots of chocolate (though to be honest, lots of chocolate is a recurring theme in my life). Yesterday my DS started his leaving, and I’m trying not to be stressed, but…. more chocolate required, methinks!

  8. Christy says:

    Amen to that. Things that you get pressured into, or that you pressure yourself into, always seem to feel like pushing a boulder uphill. As compared to finding something you love, which might be just as much work, or more, but at some point serendipity seems to kick in and you can enjoy yourself along the way!

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