Leaving Certificate (Ireland)

The Leaving Certificate Examination (Irish: Scrúdú na hArdteistiméireachta), which is commonly referred to as the Leaving Cert (Irish: Ardteist), is the university matriculation examination in the Republic of Ireland and the final exam of the Irish secondary school system. It takes a minimum of two years preparation, but an optional Transition Year means that for those students it takes place three years after the Junior Certificate Examination. These years are referred to collectively as "The Senior Cycle." Most students taking the examination are aged 16–20; in excess of eighty percent of this group undertake the exam. The Examination is overseen by the State Examinations Commission. The Leaving Certificate Examinations are taken annually by approximately 55,000 students.[1]

Leaving Certificate
Year started1925 (1925) (first examined)
OfferedSixth Year (~17-19 years old)
Restrictions on attemptsRepeating permitted with some restrictions
Countries / regionsRepublic of Ireland

In 2018, the Department of Education & Skills alongside the NCCA confirmed senior cycle is currently under review with Politics & Society, Physical Education and Computer Science the first of the new subjects part of the reforms. Core subjects such as Irish, English, Maths and European languages will be changed in due course.


There are three distinct programmes that can be followed. While the outcomes of each programme are quite distinct, each is intended to reinforce the principles of secondary education; to prepare the student for education, society and work.

  • Established Leaving Certificate: The Established Leaving Certificate, introduced in 1924, is the most common programme taken. A minimum of six subjects are examined, including compulsory Irish.[2] Most students take seven subjects.[2]
  • Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme: The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme, introduced as a more practical "hands-on" complement to the conventional Leaving Certificate, is similar to the established programme. The student takes at least five traditional subjects, one of which must be Irish.[2] Two of the student's subjects must be part of one of a list of Vocational subject groupings. They must also study a modern European language and two Link Modules, Preparation for the World of Work and Enterprise Education. The programme is designed to help the student find their potential for self-directed learning, innovation and enterprise.
  • Leaving Certificate Applied: The Leaving Certificate Applied, another variant of the traditional Leaving Certificate, is taken to prepare the student for adult and working life. It consists of three elements. These are General Education, Vocational Education and Vocational Preparation. It is designed for those students who do not wish to proceed directly to third level education or for those whose needs, aspirations and aptitudes are not adequately catered for by the other two Leaving Certificate programmes. It is to emphasise areas of achievement and excellence which are not catered for by traditional academic programmes.

Grading and available subjects

PercentageGradePoints Awarded

Each subject is examined at one of three levels, Higher Level (informally Honours), Ordinary Level (informally Pass), or Foundation Level. Foundation Level may only be taken in two subjects: Irish and Mathematics. All other subjects may be taken at either Ordinary or Higher Level.

The points awarded for a given percentage range are given in the table right.[3] Note that points for foundation level are only awarded for maths, and only then by some institutions.

Maths Bonus Points

25 bonus points will be awarded for Higher Level Mathematics for H6 grades and above. For example, if an applicant receives a H6 grade an additional 25 points will be added to the 46 points already awarded for a H6 grade i.e. Higher Level Mathematics now carries a points score of 71 for this applicant.

Since 2012, a pass (min H6) in higher level Mathematics is awarded 25 bonus points, making it possible to earn 125 points in this subject.[4] If a student gets a H2, instead of receiving 88 points, as they would in other subjects, they receive 113. This also means that, provided they pass, the minimum number of points a student can receive is 71, which is 15 points greater than an O1 at Ordinary Level.

The points allocations in the table right have been collectively agreed by the third-level institutions involved in the CAO scheme, and relativities that they imply have no official standing in the eyes of the State Examinations Commission or the Department of Education and Skills.

There has been proposals to impose a normal distribution on Leaving Certificate Examination scores, however this ignores quantification problems and issues such as an A in one subject like Maths is may reflect a greater attainment than an A in another subject.[5]

Below is the list of subjects available to Established Leaving Certificate students, though most schools only offer a limited number.

L1, Mandatory languages

  • English (mandatory with exceptions)
  • Irish (required by some universities for matriculation, mandatory with exceptions)

L2, Modern and Classical languages

Non-curricular languages

The following languages can only be taken if the student is from a member state of the European Union, speak the language in which they opt to be examined in as a mother tongue, has followed a programme of study leading to the Leaving Certificate and is taking Leaving Certificate English. Another condition is that candidates may undertake examination in one non-curricular language subject only.[6]


Physical Education (P.E)

As of 11 November 2017, P.E was made an official Leaving Certificate subject. Students can now get points for sport, dance and other activities. It was first implemented in September 2018 for incoming Fifth Year students and will be first examined in the year 2020.[7]

Computer Science

Computer science is set to be introduced from September 2018 on a phased basis across secondary schools. The curriculum specification is currently being developed by the NCCA, with the first Leaving Cert exams in the new subject to take place in 2020.[8]

Applied sciences

Laboratory sciences

Business Studies

Arts and Humanities


†Subject exclusions – candidates may not take any of following subject combinations:

  • Agricultural Economics and Economics
  • Classical Studies and Ancient Greek
  • Classical Studies and Latin
  • "Physics and Chemistry" (combined) and either "Physics" (alone) or "Chemistry" (alone)

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme is an additional Link Module which may be taken along with the other optional subjects. Students wishing to sit the LCVP Link Modules Exam must meet certain requirement. They must take an extra language subject and must have one or more of the following subject combinations:

Specialist Groupings
  1. Construction Studies or Engineering or Technical Drawing (any two)
  2. Physics and Construction Studies or Engineering
  3. Agricultural Science and Construction Studies or Engineering
  4. Agricultural Science and Chemistry or Physics or Physics & Chemistry (combined subject)
  5. Home Economics and Agricultural Science or Biology
  6. Home Economics and Art
  7. Accounting or Business or Economics (any two)
  8. Physics and Chemistry
  9. Biology and Agricultural Science
  10. Biology and Chemistry or Physics or Physics & Chemistry (combined)
Services Groupings
  1. Engineering and Business or Accounting or Economics
  2. Construction Studies and Business or Accounting or Economics
  3. Home Economics and Business or Accounting or Economics
  4. Agricultural Science and Business or Accounting or Economics
  5. Art and Business or Accounting or Economics
  6. Music and Business or Accounting or Economics
LCVP GradePercentage RangePoints awarded[9]Equivalent
Gradam / Distinction (GD)80 – 10066H4
Fiúntas / Merit (FM)65 – 79.9946H6 or O2
Pas / Pass (PP)50 – 64.9928O4
Gan Rath / Unsuccessful (U)0 – 49.990H8, O7, O8

Exam format

Subjects are examined through a number of methods. These will include at least one written paper (English, Mathematics, Irish and some of the optional courses contain two written papers).

Language courses examine the students writing, conversation and listening skills. The spoken section of the exams ('oral') take place some months before the written exams, and the listening ('aurals') take place in the same weeks as the written.

A number of subjects in the sciences and arts include the keeping of records or creation of a physical object or project. This work is designed to provide tangible proof of the students' abilities. However, not every book or project is examined, with inspectors being sent to a small few, randomly selected schools each year, or simply examining a small selection of projects from each class to check the standard. Some subjects such as Art and Technology involve a practical exam which is supervised by an external examiner. In the academic year of the written exam, all practical science subjects are partially examined by student assignments which involve stepping away from the books and getting students to put the theory they have learned into practice.


Each subjects paper at Leaving Certificate level may have as few as two variants, or as many as six. They are divided by level: Higher and Ordinary, and in the case of Irish and Mathematics, Foundation. Each subject level-variant will also have provisions for both English and Irish speakers, with the exception of English and Irish themselves (which are printed exclusively in the relevant language). Certain subjects are printed in a combined English/Irish format, such as French or German. This leaves such subjects with only two versions: a bilingual Higher, and a bilingual Ordinary. However Mathematics in contrast has a total of six: three levels: Higher, Ordinary and Foundation, each with both English and Irish versions.

Higher Level papers are printed on pink paper, while Ordinary Level papers are printed on powder blue paper. In the case of certain subjects, such as Geography, full-colour photographs need to be printed and as such, all pages but the cover are white.


2009 Leak

On the first day of examinations on 3 June 2009, the second paper of the Leaving Certificate English examination (initially scheduled for 4 June) was accidentally distributed instead of Paper 1 at an examination centre in St. Oliver's Community College, Drogheda, Co. Louth.[10] It was confirmed that a number of candidates had seen the paper before the mistake was acted upon. The examiner had failed to report the incident straight away and was immediately suspended. A State Examinations Commission official had visited the examination centre on the day in question as part of a routine inspection, and no report was made by the invigilator to the official.[11] Due to the time at which the SEC was informed, it was unable to distribute the contingency paper in time for the following morning. Details of the leaked paper had already circulated onto many online message boards and social networking sites, many hours after the incident had taken place.[12] The exam was rescheduled for Saturday 6 June, from 09:30 to 12:50.[13] About 10 Jewish students, who could not sit the exam at the rescheduled time because it conflicted with Shabbat, were sent to an Orthodox household in Dublin, where they were sequestered from all electronic media (as is normal for Shabbat) and kept under supervision until they sat the exam on Sunday morning.[14]

1969 Leak

On 12 June 1969, exam papers were stolen in a break-in to a Dublin secondary school. Examination papers, including English, Mathematics and Physics were circulated among students.[15] The repeat examinations for English and Mathematics paper 2 were rescheduled for 27 June 1969 and 28 June 1969 respectively.[16]

1957 Leak

In 1957, papers in Latin, English and Mathematics became available to some students before the exams.[17] Supplemental examinations were held later in June.[18]

Matriculation to university using the Leaving Certificate


Matriculation is administered by the Central Applications Office (CAO) following requirements laid down by the universities. Applicants must present English and Mathematics, while certain universities also require Irish and/or foreign language. Some courses require specific subjects to be taken at secondary level. For example, veterinary medicine applicants must present with a minimum grade of H5 in Chemistry at higher level. Most commonly, engineering and science programs require Mathematics and/or a physical science. Other courses, such as medicine, have similar matriculation requirements. From 2012 onwards, the greatest score that can be achieved in the Leaving Certificate is 625 points, equivalent to six higher level H1's and 25 bonus points for passing (scoring an H6 or higher) higher level mathematics. Every year approximately 150 students get the maximum grade with 10-20 students receiving 7 H1s or more.

Generally, students will be required to have pass grades in English, Mathematics, Irish and/or a foreign language to gain entry to university in Ireland. The concept of failing the leaving certificate is not applied. If demand exceeds supply for a course (which it usually does), the CAO will award candidates points based on their Leaving Certificate performance in six subjects. The majority of candidates take six to eight subjects, including English, Mathematics and Irish (exemptions available) and usually a foreign language, with the points from their six highest scoring subjects being considered. Once base criteria have been met, course places are offered to the applicants with the highest points.

Subjects taken at foundation level are rarely counted for matriculation to university.

Formerly, the University of Limerick awarded up to 40 bonus points for Mathematics (Higher Level) in an increasing scale of points starting at 5 bonus points for a C3 continuing up to 40 for an A1 grade. This was an attempt to correct the recent decline in demand for scientific subjects. In 2009, 16.2% of students attempted the higher level Mathematics paper.[19] It also reflects a return to earlier times, pre 1982, when the points scored for mathematics were doubled. This bonus for achievement in mathematics was removed mid 1980s because of a populist reaction against bias being shown towards persons who were supposedly naturally talented at mathematics, and being unfair to persons who were not mathematically inclined. Recent Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe, acknowledged that he sat mathematics at ordinary level in the Leaving Certificate because he was aware of the extensive study that would be required by this subject.

Some universities require a foreign language and Irish. Exemptions are available for learning difficulties, birth outside Ireland, not having taken Irish before the age of eleven years, and studying abroad for a period of at least two years after the age of eleven.[20]

The Department of Education and Skills introduced a new Leaving Certificate grading scale in 2017. The new scale has 8 grades, the highest grade is a Grade 1, the lowest grade a Grade 8. The highest seven grades 1-7 divide the marks range 100% to 30% into seven equal grade bands 10% wide, with a grade 8 being awarded for percentage marks of less than 30%. The grades at higher level and ordinary level are distinguished by prefixing the grade with H or O respectively, giving H1-H8 at higher level, and O1-O8 at ordinary level. This new 8-point grading scale will replace the current 14-point scale at both Higher and Ordinary levels. Currently, the majority of students receiving a given grade are within 3 percentage marks of a higher grade, and 5 extra points, creating pressure towards rote learning and using the marking scheme to gain those few additional marks. The new broader grade bands will ease the pressure on students to achieve marginal gains in examinations and encourage more substantial engagement with each subject. The new grading system will also allow for greater flexibility, variety and innovation in Leaving Certificate assessments. The broader objective is to allow for an enhanced learner experience in senior cycle, with a greater focus on the achievement of broader learning objectives. The new 8-point scale moves the Irish Leaving Certificate closer to school leaving examinations in other countries, such as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Finland, and to the International Baccalaureate.

United Kingdom

Some Irish students go to university in the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland and larger British cities. Increasingly students from the Republic attend university in Northern Ireland, and vice versa.

In recognition of this, the Established Leaving Certificate underwent a process with UCAS to gain entry to the UCAS Tariff for direct entry to United Kingdom universities.[21] This introduced the examination directly onto the UCAS Tariff, allowing it to be compared more easily with other qualifications on the UCAS Tariff. After comparing syllabi of the Irish Leaving Certificate and British GCE A-Levels, it was decided that a Leaving Certificate (higher) subject will be worth two-thirds of an A-level (UK, except Scotland). This is because Leaving Certificate students undertake several more subjects (often a total of six to eight) than a typical A level student, but as a result study them in a slightly more narrow fashion.


The exams begin on the first Wednesday after the June Bank Holiday every year, traditionally commencing with English Paper One, followed by Paper Two on Thursday afternoon.[22] The exams typically last two and a half weeks, but may last longer for students taking exams in uncommon subjects, such as non-curricular languages. The 2018 exams began on 6 June and ended on 22 June, with results released on 16 August. The 2019 exams commenced on 5 June.

The exam timetable was reorganised in 2008 to reduce the intensity of the exam period. Particular changes included the moving of English Paper Two to Thursday afternoon, as opposed to its usual time of Wednesday afternoon after English Paper One, to reduce the amount of writing candidates were required to do at the beginning of the exams.

International usage

Only one school outside Ireland offers the Leaving Certificate exam to their students. Since 1997, students at the ISM international school in Tripoli, Libya, take the Leaving Cert, with Arabic being substituted for Irish. The School's principal said, "We have students from 42 countries studying at our school; the Irish Leaving Certificate programme offered us the kind of academic standard and subject spread that we were looking for".

See also

Further reading

  • Banks, Joanne and Emer Smyth, "‘Your whole life depends on it’: academic stress and high-stakes testing in Ireland," Journal of Youth Studies, vol. 18, issue 5, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2014.992317
  • O'Donoghue, Tom, Jim Gleeson, Orla McCormack, "National newspaper-reporting on state examinations: an historical exposition of the exceptional case of the Irish Leaving Certificate," Encounters in Theory and History of Education, volume 18 (2017), pages 134-139.[23]


  1. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 6 January 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. Exemption to the Irish language is detailed in Circular M10/94 (Department of Education, Ireland, 1994) and can be acquired under time spent abroad or learning disability.
  3. Stack, Sarah (20 August 2012). "Only 3000 benefit from maths bonus points in CAO offers". Independent.ie. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  4. Mac Aogain, Eoghan; Millar, David; Kellaghan, Thomas (2011). "Transparency and Discriminatory Power of the Leaving Certificate". The Irish Journal of Education. JSTOR 41548685.
  5. https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/education/now-leaving-cert-students-can-get-cao-points-in-sport-dance-36396248.html
  6. http://www.thejournal.ie/computer-science-leaving-cert-3781048-Jan2018/
  7. "Irish Leaving Certificate Examination Points Calculation Grid". Central Applications Office. Archived from the original on 27 May 2007. Retrieved 28 June 2007.
  8. Flynn, Seán (6 June 2009). "Exam authority talks to superintendent who distributed paper". The Irish Times. Retrieved 6 June 2009.
  9. RTE.ie
  10. Examinations.ie
  11. RTE.ie
  12. Minihan, Mary (5 June 2009). "Jewish pupils face quarantine over postponed Leaving exam". The Irish Times. Retrieved 5 June 2009.
  13. "Stolen Exam. Papers on Sale at £5 Each". The Irish Independent. 17 June 1969.
  14. "New Exam Dates May Hit Matric". The Irish Independent. 18 June 1969.
  15. "Leakage of Examination Papers Alleged". The Irish Times. 6 June 1957.
  16. "Examination Leakage Report Soon?". The Irish Times. 10 June 1957.
  17. Examinations.ie
  18. Education.ie
  19. The Irish Leaving Certificate, Expert Group Report for Awards Seeking Admission to the UCAS Tariff, November 2003 2186 KB PDF file
  20. O'Donoghue, Tom; Gleeson, Jim; McCormack, Orla (2 December 2017). "National newspaper-reporting on state examinations: An historical exposition of the exceptional case of the Irish Leaving Certificate". Encounters in Theory and History of Education. 18. doi:10.24908/eoe-ese-rse.v18i0.6426. ISSN 2560-8371.
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