Far-reaching reforms aim to slow down CAO 'points race'
The most-far reaching reforms in the Leaving Cert in 25 years will kick in on Wednesday when about 58,000 students get their exam results.
The introduction of new exam grading, along with an overhaul of the CAO points system, is designed to be fairer and will take some of the heat out of the "points race", according to Maynooth University president Professor Philip Nolan.
Prof Nolan, who headed up the universities' task force that devised the conversion of the new Leaving Cert grades to points, has assured parents and students that the reforms do not mean any change in assessment standards.
Writing in today's Irish Independent, Prof Nolan, chair of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), says the transformation is "part of an ongoing process to improve how the Leaving Certificate and higher education systems work together".
The high levels of stress experienced by sixth years striving to get ahead of the competition and the way the old system fostered a culture of rote learning triggered the start of the reform process six years ago.
Instead of the traditional 14 ABC-style grades, at both higher and ordinary level - generally separated by five marks - there will be eight grades at each level. These will have wider bands, typically stretching across 10 percentage points each.
Fewer grades mean that a candidate has higher to climb to step up to the next grade, which, overall, is expected to dampen down the results.
Linked to the new grading system is a refinement of the points scale and a move away from the days when points climbed by standard steps of five each.
With the previous points scale, all scores ended in multiples of five and saw large numbers of students clustered on the same tally, which led to the random selection of applicants on the same points for some courses.
The new scale has uneven increments, and the differences between what is awarded for various grades will vary from 12 to nine points. It will mean that CAO applicants may end up with any score from zero to 625, which will lead to much less random selection.
The combined impact of the new grading system and how the grades convert to points means that students who make it to the next grade will get greater recognition for that.
In a momentous change, a student who achieves 30-39pc on a higher level paper will be awarded 37 points, in recognition of their effort.
A mark below 40pc was traditionally regarded as a "fail", but during the deliberations on the reforms, it was decided that 30-39pc at higher level was the equivalent of 70-79pc at ordinary level, and that not awarding points for that achievement was brutally unfair.
It is also hoped that it will encourage more students to aim higher, without the fear of ending up with zero points for a subject.
The changes being implemented over the next week make it impossible for Leaving Cert candidates to second-guess what the CAO cut-off points will be when college offers are made next Monday. About 47,000 Leaving Certificate students have applied to the CAO for a college place.
Prof Nolan said it was "not appropriate to compare points scores from the old system with points scores from the new. Applicants should not try to predict the points requirements for entry to courses based on the points required in 2016 or prior years."
This year's subtle, but significant, changes are likely to prompt many questions in the minds of parents and exam students and, as usual, the National Parents Council post primary (NPCpp) helpline will be open to deal with queries.
The freephone helpline - 1800 265 165 - sponsored by the Irish Independent and the Department of Education, and supported by eir, will be staffed by members of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and a representative of the centralised grants agency, SUSI.
The helpline will open on Wednesday morning to coincide with the release of the results, and will also run on Thursday and Friday. The helpline will reopen next Monday, after the publication of college offers, and will run for a further three days.
NPCpp communications officer Ross MacMahon said that the helpline provided students and parents with live, one-to-one advice and guidance from professional counsellors, which was particularly valuable given the change in the points system this year.
As well as sponsoring the Exam 2017 Helpline, the Irish Independent and Independent.ie are producing a range of different products to help guide parents and students through the days and weeks ahead.
These include three special supplements, the first being issued on Wednesday, an interactive blog and education podcasts.
As results day approaches, parents are being advised not to get caught up in "the hype of the situation" and to act as "a steadying anchor" for a son or daughter.
Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick's Mental Health Services, said after the initial feelings of excitement die down, the student may feel a little underwhelmed and lost on their results day, and it was important to talk through a student's feeling, on the student's terms.
He said it was not a time for extensive post-mortems and that students should enjoy their post-results celebrations.
"Many students get caught up with questions, such as 'what will my parents think?' and 'will my parents be upset with my results?' This is an added pressure which doesn't yield positive results for the student. Your son or daughter has gone through one of life's key milestones, so let them know you are proud of them," Mr Gilligan said.
Education Minister Richard Bruton said that whatever a student's results, there was a wide range of course and career pathways open to them.