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Column Awarding top athletes extra CAO points makes total sense

We live in a society, not just an economy – and giving additional points to people for accomplishments beyond the academic makes sense, write Aaron McKenna.

NUI GALWAY ANNOUNCED announced a programme during the week to award an additional 40 CAO points to high-level athletes who achieve a minimum of 350 points on their own. In our hyper-competitive points driven matriculation system, any change to award bonuses to individuals is controversial and in this case many are questioning how sports achievement can justify academic rewards.

The Leaving Cert is a narrow interpretation of one’s abilities, heavily criticised for its focus on rote learning and the one-shot nature of the exams. A solid A1 maths student could fall off his or her bike on the way to the exam and be totally thrown off their game and come up short on expectation.

In general I believe we should move to a more rounded system that does not, as the old joke goes, ask an elephant, a lion, a bird and a fish to prove their abilities by climbing the same tree.

The Leaving Cert also tends to fall down in the supply and demand nature of how points are apportioned to courses, where popularity – not necessarily academic difficulty – sets the points one has to achieve to gain a place. Not only is it a narrow yardstick of ability, the opportunities it opens up to you are disassociated from capabilities.

Standardised tests

A strict interpretation of the system says that we should not hand out bonus points for anything other than standardised tests. But if we generally can agree that the standardised tests are not a wholly useful tool for measuring ones abilities, and the opportunities they open up are not wholly based on actual ability of students who achieve the requisite points, why not engineer a few hand-ups into the system?

We give out extra points to students who go into the mathematics field, where we have a shortage of supply of well-trained graduates for the smart economy. But as so many point out to the fiscally conservative loons around here (boo, hiss, etc) we live in a society, not just an economy; and in this sense, giving additional points to people for accomplishments beyond the academic makes sense.

Sportspeople contribute greatly to the rich fabric of our society. There isn’t a person in Ireland who isn’t proud of our Olympians or who doesn’t enjoy the thrill of sport, even if only every now and again. Top athletes put in tremendous amounts of training and preparation from a young age, working for years to develop the skills that thrill and excite and inflame passion in many of us.

Top athletes, it stands to reason, will devote more of their time and commitment to sport than academia. This does not make them any less intelligent, and indeed I would say that the focus and commitment required to be successful in sport will carry someone very far if transferred to other fields in life.

Bonus won’t allow a dunce to become a doctor

The likes of a 40-point bonus given to top athletes will not bridge the gap and allow a complete dunce to become a doctor. But it will provide a hand-up and recognition to an athlete that we value their contribution, and are willing to invest in their education for the long-term; well after their sporting career comes to an end.

We have tried and tried again to reform our matriculation system substantially and we have never managed it. The points system is here to stay for the long-term, and what we can do now is tinker with it and provide programmes that help to support our goals, economic and societal.

We have students who do great work and achieve fantastic things alongside their academic performance, particularly in the field of volunteerism. Our system is geared to deliver the maximum points to someone who locks themselves in a room for several years, has no social life and contributes very little beyond their assignments.

Some paint the notion that points awarded to folks based on criteria other than academic results is unfair to those who study hard. I would say that the current system is unfair to those who study hard but split their interests into fields that we all generally appreciate the benefits of: sports, charity work and the likes.

Qualities beyond the examination hall

The NUIG programme is a good and solid one. A candidate will have to achieve 350 points on his or her own, and will get a 40 point bonus for their troubles. Someone who scrapes by will still be 210 points short of being a neurosurgeon in future, but if they can achieve that standard whilst being top of their sporting field then they are clearly a capable individual.

This sort of model is laudable, though the competitive nature of the points system means that it is understandable if people are sceptical of it. In the absence of a better CAO system that bakes in a comprehensive view of a person’s abilities and talents however, it is a step in the right direction towards recognising the qualities of students beyond the examination hall.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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