Grade inflation and the quality of Irish education

As we learn from a report in today’s Irish Times, the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, has launched ‘two major investigations’ into grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in Irish universities. The Minister intends this to be a response to the comments that have been made recently by former Intel CEO and Chairman that the Irish educational system produces at best average outputs, reported in this blog, and similar comments by other representatives of industry.

The question is whether these ‘investigations’ are into the right issues. He doesn’t need to organise ‘investigations’, he just needs to ask his officials to give him the numbers, which are freely available. But what he really needs to do is to ask quite different questions:

• How can we maintain a world class educational system on declining resources?
• Is the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate appropriate for Ireland’s needs?
• Are we doing what we need to do to ensure students take subjects that are critical to industry’s needs?

This is almost certainly not a question about grade inflation, but about what it is we are able to do with the educational curriculum, and whether the education system has been both resourced sufficiently and modernised appropriately.

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16 Comments on “Grade inflation and the quality of Irish education”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Indeed. Solving “the grade inflation problem” has no effect on the actual standard of school or university students.

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  3. kevin denny Says:

    Rather than order an investigation (presumably by “experts”, “top civil servants” whoever) if the minister used Google he would quickly find his way to
    These guys having been going on about it for years. As ever, its not important to do something as much as to be seen to be doing something.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    Well said Ferdinand.

    There is a great tendency these days for ‘Daily Mail/Sindo/Liveline government’. Find an issue that exercises the moral sensibilities of a chunk of the population, especially those who like to phone-in radio shows; demonise whoever is handy, preferably a group that are seen to be privileged in some way (teachers and lecturers always a good bet, nobody likes swots); carry out some sort of ‘investigation’ (regardless of whether the relevant information already exists) and then do nothing anyway, as (surprise surprise) the issue turns out to be slightly more complex then was first thought.

    ‘Policy-based evidence making’ is the best term for it, though ‘policy’ might be rather a strong word.

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Still it is an interesting case-study in different types of obfustication: for universities, we are told to take more students but not given the resources to teach them, so we hide our problems by allowing grades to inflate, for the minister, he is being asked to deal with falling standards without the confidence or resources to fix the problem, so he orders a report into the problem of grade inflation.

    • Jilly Says:

      And on a Monday morning in the actual creaking and groaning higher education system, this is enough to make most of us look for objects to throw across our offices. Or perhaps that’s just me…

  6. Brendan Guilfoyle Says:

    Interesting piece, although perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with your take on the issue, given that almost exactly a year ago you were pooh-poohing the very idea of grade inflation (see

    At the time, one of the props to your argument was:

    “If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.”

    Time to revise your argument?

    • Thanks, Brendan. I suppose it depends on how you assess and interpret the industry comments that are being made. At the level at which this is being expressed – i.e. that industry is not getting the graduates it needs – you probably couldn’t argue with it. And I accept that right now this kind of message is coming across as a cocktail of things that includes claims of dumbing down and also claims of students qualifying with the wrong degrees.

      But for example when Google starting making such comments a few months ago, the key issue wasn’t the quality of the graduates, but rather that they couldn’t get enough of them with the right qualifications.

      I strongly believe that the ‘grade inflation’ argument is wrong, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. But I do agree that there are issues here that need to be addressed, about the nature and quality of our educational system.

  7. Greg Says:

    I don’t really see the problem with doing a proper scientific study of grade inflation. It’s really quite a complex issue and the answer is not at all obvious. I would have been one who was of no doubt that grade inflation was occurring. Now, I’m not so sure. Recently, I had cause to look back at some old final year projects from a time that, in my mind, was the ‘golden age’ of our degree programme. Guess what? The project reports were not really that good at all! In fact, my current students often produce projects that are presented in a much more professional manner. This is probably due to the amount of ‘coaching’ I give them in scientific writing. In the past, I think we expected students to learn by osmosis.

    There is no doubt that the way we are teaching is changing as is the way students learn, so changes in grades may not be a simple matter of dumbing down. Worth studying.

    • Greg, I don’t disagree that a proper analysis might be helpful, but that’s not what is happening here. We are told that whoever it is that is doing these ‘investigations’ are to report before the end of the week, and indeed Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes is even suggesting publication of a full report by this Thursday! I very much doubt that’s going to be a ‘proper scientific study of grade inflation’!

  8. Mike Scott Says:

    The reasons for grade inflation are very simple. Mark tough and all hell breaks loose: Pressure about student retention from management, trouble with parents, trouble with students, poor ratings from students (which affects promotion prospects!), appeals to deal with, more paperwork, more repeat exams to mark, more repeat assessments to set, unwanted attention from the quality guardians and external examiners, and basically attracting all the flak. Mark easy – nothing happens and you have an easy life, everyone thinks your a great teacher. OK we resist for years, but the pressure is all in one direction. No one wants to be the stand-out guy marking down students more than anyone else. Attempts by individual lecturers to hold the line and maintain standards are never rewarded. At least I have never known it to happen.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Generally speaking the approach described here – ‘Mark tough and all hell breaks loose … mark easy – nothing happens and you have an easy life’ does not reflect the reality in my institution anyway, based on observations of examination boards over the last decade or so, nor at the four other institutions where I have been an external examiner.

      In fact the intelligent discussion and monitoring of outcomes, informed by good quality external examiners from both Ireland and overseas has, in my view, improved over that period (‘quality inflation’, perhaps?). I have not seen any significant process of grade inflation, and I think that in many respects the demands that are made of students in terms of their work, have increased.

      Of course the nature of education and learning; the priorities of students; the nature of their engagement with the education system; the availability of information; and the increasingly strategic and instrumental approach to teaching and learning (partly stimulated it has to be said by so-called ‘league tables’) have all impacted on the assessment process. This only goes to show how complex the issues are.

      I wouldn’t like it to be thought that one person’s view of the system, however, is thought to reflect the reality for all of us.

  9. Steve Says:

    “Are we doing what we need to do to ensure students take subjects that are critical to industry’s needs?”

    I think it would be better to ensure students take subjects they like or are interested in. But that’s just a personal opinion. First time I attempted to go to college I did something ‘practical’, something I thought would get me a good job. It wasn’t remotely what I wanted to do, so I did badly and that had a knock on effect etc. etc. blah blah. This time around I’m doing something I’m interested in, as a result I put in a tonne of effort and my marks are fantastic. People who don’t care about their subjects, or who are just there to get a degree to get a job, they’re not usually going to put in the same amount of effort as if they were really into their subject. I think putting students in a situation where everything is pushing them towards what industry demands will have a detrimental affect on not only the overall quality of the resulting degrees, but also the relative happiness of people. You get corralled into a degree and then job that you really wouldn’t have chosen if it weren’t for all the external influences trying to push you in that direction. I think it’s a bad move. I wouldn’t dream of even gently guiding my children towards anything other than what they like or are interested in. Industry be damned. Or maybe I’m reading the whole thing wrong.

  10. greg Says:

    Just been looking at the marking scheme for Leaving Cert English (Honours) – available on the web. From what I can make out ‘spelling and grammar’ counts for 10% of marks! No wonder there is a problem with writing skills at third level. Indeed the marking schemes seem very rigid (understandable up to a point) a fact that no doubt contributes to the rote learning culture and the increased incidence of higher grades.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Given the extensive nature of the Honours English curriculum at LC, why would you expect more than 10% of marks to be allocated to spelling and grammar? In how many university-level assignments would that much weight be given to these aspects?

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Indeed spelling is

        a) an outdated skill of which the skilled are inordinately but annoyingly proud, like ballroom dancing or woodsmanship.

        b) difficult for dyslexics, people whose relevant skills of exegesis, interpretation and expression are otherwise unimpaired.

        I believe I am the third best read person I know, but I never met anyone with naturally worse spelling.

        I made up the bit about being third, how would I know that, but you get the idea.

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