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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 19 January, 2019

Column: 'Tomorrow I'll be undertaking the biggest mind-melt of my life'

The Leaving Cert is an experience that characterises life as an Irish person, writes Gavin Dowd.

Gavin Dowd Leaving Cert student

THE LEAVING CERT is ingrained in the Irish psyche. It’s an experience that characterises life as an Irish person. Ask anybody.

If you admit your age and stage of education they’ll immediately tilt their head to the right slightly in a gesture of sympathy, aware of the backbreaking workload that burdens you, before sighing and letting out the “Well we all had to bloody do it” line.

The Leaving is a common experience that we have all been conditioned to endure. Although there’s a sense of unity about it, we all struggled, we all persevered, we were all overwhelmed by it.

No matter how academically gifted, how determined or how meticulous, the Leaving Cert represents a substantial hurdle in life. I don’t think I’d do it justice by simply labelling it a State examination.

I’m in the middle of that roadblock

Tomorrow I’ll be sitting down with 60,000 of my peers as we collectively undertake the biggest mind-melt of our lives. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but in all honesty, only a slight one.

Last week in my school, the 6th years were permitted to come in for supervised study at their own discretion. Usually the study room is home to a few laughs, people venturing from desk to desk in search of random stationery or trying to find someone who can help them answer their question.

I ventured in one morning to run a few errands and the surroundings were eerily silent. Heads were firmly focused on textbooks, eye contact was not being made and people’s hands were racing from one side of the page to the other, as if in a race with themselves to see how fast they could plough through essays.

There is an amazing mentality among my year group. The saying “a rising tide lift all boats” certainly resonates with our Leaving Cert experience. Generally, the year is very strong academically, and the healthy competition and constant fear that someone is doing more than you, or perhaps better than you, is the impetus that we all need to get us studying. It’s an infectious ambition that pushes us to achieve.

Having nightmares

I had a nightmare about Irish paper 1 a few weeks ago: none of the essays that I had prepared came up. Thoughts racing through my mind, the sweaty palms, the twiddling of thumbs. There’s an old joke about this boy who wrote the same essay about his grandmother’s parrot in every exam. He would change slight details about the parrot to suit the question on the given exam.

When the essay title was “Man’s inhumanity to man”, the parrot would be a metaphor for an oppressed prisoner. When the essay title was “familial relations”, the parrot would act as a link between the boy and his grandmother. It all seemed ridiculous, until I realised how I would have to employ the same tactic in my examination technique.

The general belief amongst the media is that the Leaving Cert is a “good for nothing”. It stresses out teenagers, it forces students to rote learn information rather than experience and appreciate the value of it and the breadth of the academic subjects that students are required to study is unsustainable.

Granted, there is plenty of regurgitation, granted there is stress, and perhaps there are too many subjects. However, in my eyes the Leaving Cert is far from a futile exercise.

It imbues a diligent spirit in young people

They are unwillingly put in the position where they will face a gruelling set of papers over a 3-week period. If they wish to move onto a third level course of their choosing, they must apply themselves and work hard.

Similarly, it imbues a sense of resilience. There are many attitudes in the media that portray that students should be cushioned and ostracised from the stresses and torments of the real world. With the prevalence of mental health awareness over the past number of years I think this point has its merits.

I fervently believe that whichever path of life we choose – high-flying, mundane or otherwise – we will all face stressful situations, working long hours and doing things out of necessity rather than choice. The Leaving Cert gives us a premature taste these inevitable struggles and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it may be seen to sensitise young people to the often harsh and ugly realities of life.


The Department of Education are currently reforming the Junior Certificate, a move that has caused ruptures among teachers’ unions. The notion of teachers correcting their own students exams caused uproar. In fact, I couldn’t find a teacher that actually agreed with it.

Among some of the major changes going ahead are the introduction of hour-long classes nationwide, the introduction of a new mindfulness subject to encompass the current PE/SPHE/CSPE curricula and the contentious idea of examining most subjects at common level.

It would be disparaging for me to say that the Department are “dumbing down” the Junior Cert, but the new proposed programme is a world apart from the academic marathon I went through at age 15.

I think the end is in sight for the Leaving Certificate and the points race as we know it. There is a major chasm between the new Junior Cert English programme – which will be examined this year – and the current Leaving Cert English programme.

I recently spoke to a business teacher who told me about the new course for Junior Cert Business Studies (which was launched this year) and has seen the removal of the majority of the old accounting section of the course. How is a student going to be able to cope with Leaving Cert Accounting having barely gotten to grips the basic principles for Junior Cert?

With all this change, it is inevitable that Leaving Cert will be reformed over the coming few years. On the whole, it will probably make sense. We’ll see happier kids and more rounded students with a broader outlook.

Gavin Dowd is an 18 year-old student from County Wicklow currently sitting his Leaving Certificate examinations. He works part-time as a presenter for Dublin radio station FM104. He hopes to continue his studies next year in third level and would like to study something business-related.


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About the author:

Gavin Dowd  / Leaving Cert student

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