Big jumps in the numbers taking higher level papers across most subjects have resulted almost directly from changes to the college entry points system, writes Niall Murray.
In a trend which could say much about the impact of the points system which the reforms are trying to minimise, there is an average rise of 3.2% in the number of students taking a subject at higher level.
With the total number of students getting results in the main Leaving Certificate up a mere 68 — just one-tenth of 1% — to 55,770, those increases are statistically very significant.
Most attention will again be directed toward the impact in maths, where nearly 16,400 students took higher level. This increase of close to 1,200 represents a shift from 27% of maths candidates a year ago to 30% in June 2017 taking on the honours papers.
The take-up of higher level had levelled out last year after several years of rises linked to the introduction in 2012 of 25 bonus CAO points for anyone getting a D or higher. With small but growing numbers falling shy of that 40% threshold, however, the introduction of a 37 CAO points score for those getting a H7 under the new system has emboldened more borderline students to persist with the higher level.
The risk has paid off for most. The number who lost out by getting a new H8 grade (less than 30%) is just shy of 350, while just over 1,000 got the H7 (30% to 40%). Marks in that banding would have got them an E grade last year, for 25% to 40%, but zero CAO points.
In 2016, although there were 1,200 fewer students sitting the higher level maths exam, 683 got an E, F or NG — nearly double the figure today.
The broader mix of abilities among those doing higher level is reflected in the 55% getting a grade from H1 to H4, down from 60% last year in the equivalent grouping of an A1 to a C2.
Similar trends are evident in several subjects, but again it is a reflection of more students attempting the challenge of higher level papers than previously.
While that might prompt expectations about possible CAO points rises, that should not be a major issue in any changes as those who have stuck with higher level in any subject might otherwise have scored similar CAO points if they moved down to ordinary level.
The new system also awards 37 points for the new O3 Leaving Certificate grade (70%-80% in an ordinary level subject), the same as for a H7. The same 46 points are also available for an O2 (ordinary level 80%-90%) as for a H6 (higher level 40%-50%), and 56 points go to both an O1 (ordinary level 90%-100%) and a H5 (higher level (50%-60%).
For proponents of the Irish language, there will be satisfaction in the fact that, among the 47,212 doing the subject — 600 more than a year ago — 22,122 did the higher level exams. This jump of more than 2,000 continues an upward trend associated with increased marks for the oral exam in recent years, but it sees the proportion doing higher level spike from 42.5% of all taking Irish in 2016 to over 46% this year. With almost 7% taking foundation level Irish, the uptake of higher level Irish is less than 1% shy of overtaking ordinary level, the choice in 2017 of 47.1% doing the subject. Numbers getting a H1 to H4 are 71% of all higher level candidates, a decline from 75.4% a year ago with A1s down to C2s.
The numbers taking French have fallen again, as schools offer wider choices of languages to students. But the proportion doing higher level French is up from 59% to nearly 63%, an increase similar to that doing higher level among nearly 24,000 geography students.
Nearly 8,000 students did German, up more than 300 in a year, but Spanish is edging closer in popularity, as an increase in 500 doing the subject brought its numbers close to 7,100.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.