Harris at today's press conference. Leah Farrell/
Leaving Cert

Harris defends calculated grades and says it meant students in more disadvantaged schools didn't lose out

The Higher Education Minister faced questions about claims students in private schools had been unfairly marked down under the system.

MINISTER FOR HIGHER Education Simon Harris has defended the calculated grades system for this year’s Leaving Certificate results, and said it was as “fair and robust” as it could have been.

As thousands of CAO applicants found out if they received their offers today, Harris was asked about the criticism being made that students in private schools were subject to unfair bias by the system and lost out on their desired college place as a result.

The Institute of Education, based in Dublin city, wrote to the Taoiseach yesterday and claimed its students had been “significantly disadvantaged” by the process. 

It also said that many students could be forced to “exercise their legal rights including recourse to the courts”.

A survey conducted by, including over 1,000 responses between 2m and 4pm today, said that a majority (69%) of private school students said they didn’t receive their first choice on the CAO. A further 57% said they were considering appealing while 6% said they were considering legal action. 

While Harris would not comment on any future legal cases at a press conference today, he did say that while some students will be disappointed today “we’re at the best place now that we could’ve been”. 

After the system in the UK was said to have led to students from schools in more disadvantaged areas being marked down under their calculcated grades system, the decision was made late on by the government here to remove this “school profiling” from a student’s Leaving Cert grade.

Harris said today it would have seen “disadvantaged students further disadvantaged”. 

“I think we’ve done that far too many times in our education system, where it’s the same sort of students who get left behind,” the minister said. “And I think it was a brave and courageous decision for Minister [Norma] Foley to remove the school profiling, particularly when we looked at what was happening in other jurisdictions.”

He said that extra places were added late on to ensure more third-level spots were made available as grades were inflated for the class of 2020.

Harris said that he didn’t want to “pit any one group of students against the other” such as someone who went to a fee-paying school against someone who went to a Deis school. 

“It’s about having a system in place that is blind to those issues,” he said. “It’s about a system in place that doesn’t care whether you’re male or female, and whether you’re rich or poor, whether your mam or dad can afford to pay fees or not, a system that tries to provide as many opportunities for people as possible.

It’s not lost on me that we’re actually having a conversation where we’ve put measures in place to protect those who are usually the most disadvantaged. And as a result, perhaps we’re getting asked questions about fee-paying schools that perhaps wouldn’t normally be asked during a Leaving Cert year.

Harris added that 2,225 college places were allocated this year with the aim of catering to everybody.

He also said there are numerous routes to progress towards a chosen career and, while this may be a day of disappointment for some, it was important that people look at all their options to get into higher education.

“So doors aren’t shut to you today, just sometimes the route has to be a bit more circuitous.”

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