Leaving Certificate Economics

Today’s Irish Independent has an article that looks at some issues Kevin Denny found from an analysis of the 2012 Higher Level Economics paper and the associated marking scheme.

Leaving Cert paper ‘full of problems’, minister warned, Irish Independent, 17/09/2013

Kevin has put up a post with links to his detailed comments.

32 replies on “Leaving Certificate Economics”

“My personal opinion is that if the current trio of terrible syllabus, dumb questions and frequently wrong answers is to continue we would be far better off scrapping Leaving Certificate Economics. Students who are interested can study it in any of our universities or those abroad.”

That strikes me as a sensible solution. At that age, a student with an interest in economics would be far better off learning maths.

It’s not a new problem. Back in 1979 I heard a UCG economics lecturer warning the class that if they had done Leaving Cert economics they were actually at a disadvantage.

An important point which I think needs to be teased out is who, exactly, is setting the exam, and what quality control processes exist to make sure errors don’t show up in front students. This is a technical, rather than pedagogical, point.

On the pedagogical front, I teach hundreds of undergrads per year, and from my direct experience, LC economics can be actively harmful. Economics is not a set of lists to learn off.

Previous research on this in Ireland found no signficant effect (but a negative sign) from having taken LC Economics on grade among UCC undergrad students.


New research presented at the ISNE conference but I can’t remember off the top of my head if there was an effect.

I teach LC economics and the exam breaks my heart. The correctors are slaves to the marking scheme so so all the students have to do to get a good grade is learn off a bunch of points. This is not economics. I can recall at least a handful of outstanding students who performed poorly in the LC while rote learners got b1 or even an a. On the bright side, the existing course is short enough to allow time for analysis/discussion and heaven forbid free thinking in 5th year.

The piece in the Indo was comparatively restrained. The anodyne assurances given by the State Examination Commission that the “academic integrity and structure of the paper are valid” reminds me of utterances of the Financial Regulator in 2007-8.

In the early 1990s, wearing my Secretary of the Irish Economic Association hat, I attended a meeting convened by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment where Leaving Cert Economics was discussed. It was a totally demoralising experience: no one was willing to accept responsibility for putting right deficiencies in the course or for monitoring the quality of textbooks (the latter being a real problem).

Before the meeting I had a look at the curriculum and examination guidelines for the Northern Ireland A Level Economics. The contrast was truly astonishing: the N.I. documentation was clearly written by competent professionals.

My own experience with first year undergraduates is exactly the same as Stephen’s: in Lecture 1 they were warned not to presume that an A in the Leaving Cert meant that they could sit back and relax.

I too teach first year Economics, and I too have had problems with Leaving Cert Economics.

The first time I taught first years, in 2008, I had a problem on an assignment I set: a significant minority of the class discussed in detail why the demand for the good I had mentioned in the question (I can’t remember what it was any more) could slope upwards, even though this was not something that I had discussed in class. Somewhat taken aback, I googled one of the phrases that I’d noticed coming up in these answers, and the first link that popped up was to the Leaving Cert Exam Marking Scheme from that year. I clicked, and found that one of the questions asked for exceptions to the Law of Demand, with four suggested reasons. One of the reasons – that it might be a Giffen good – was valid, but so unimportant in the real world that it surprised me that they bothered teaching it. Another was debatable. The remaining two were just plain wrong; both entailed shifts rather than movements in the (downward-sloping) demand curve, the distinction between which is one of the things that we expend most effort on teaching in first year.

So I wrote to the State Examinations Commission with an explanation of why these answers were wrong, and saying that I’d be happy to clarify if they wanted to get in touch. I got an acknowledgement of my email and that was it. I contented myself with including these wrong answers – and explanations of why they’re wrong – in my lectures on Supply and Demand in subsequent years.

When I saw Kevin’s piece, I had a look at the 2013 paper. To my amazement, the same question about the exceptions to the Law of Demand was on the paper as the one I had complained about, and exactly the same four answers are in the Marking Scheme. There are also additional errors later on in the same question.

What Kevin has highlighted – and what I had previously noted – is not difficult things being simplified for second level students. They are incorrect things.

I also completely concur with Kevin’s points about important and unimportant points being given equal credit, and the exams not testing understanding effectively. Unfortunately, I doubt that this is unique to the Economics paper. I do hope, though, that the marking schemes containing incorrect material is not so widespread in other subjects.

Joe: thats very interesting, teachers voices tend not to get heard in all this. I don’t know if there is an association of economics teachers?

John: I am not sure what “academic integrity” means in this case. Since there are unambiguous errors in the marking scheme that suggests that (a) some students will be marked right when they are in fact wrong and (b) some students will be marked wrong when they are in fact right.
My guess – and its only that- is that the (b) may not less of a problem if the correctors use their initiative and reward students for answers that look right. But some correctors might hold more strictly to the marking scheme? (a) is still a possibilty. all we can do is speculate alas. It would be interesting to hear more from those involved.
Perhaps I am naive but I thought either of these possibilities would spark concern. Errors like these strike me as more damaging then say the maths/triangle problem this year which was known immediately and sorted out quickly.
It also strikes me as unhelpful to teachers & students that a marking scheme with errors is published since, as I understand it, they pay close attention to them.

Economics professor is shocked to find that his graduates students are not very good secondary school teachers and are even worse at setting exams….and to top it all off the syllabus is out of date – unlike 1st year economics which is bang up to date – obviously 🙂

Aedin’s story is truly shocking. Students and teachers are busting a gut to try to study and teach this subject, trusting that it will be examined competently. The examiners are betraying this trust and even when it is pointed out to them in black and white are still screwing up. It may not be in the same scale of importance as other scandals like Hep C or financial regulation, but in its own shabby way it is appalling.

@ David Jones

The acute problems identified by Aedin and and others refer to things which are plain wrong: whether the syllabus is up to date is another matter. I suspect that the up-to-date problems are mainly in the Macro area, where in some respects time seems to have stood still since the 60s. The Micro area seems to me to suffer from error rather than obsolescence.

As for this being due to our “graduates [sic] students” being not up to the mark, I suspect that some of the problem may lie in the lack of post-graduate training among those who run the Leaving Certificate show

One thing which remains a huge issue is the model of banking which most students are still taught.

Most students and graduates are under the impression that banks are intermediaries and that they take money in from depositors, keep some on reserve and then lend out the rest. However this model of banking would only apply if every bank loan was processed in cash form.

And yet if you acquire a loan from a bank in today’s digital world you leave with a higher bank balance and not cash. The bank directly creates the money for the loan and so the economy functions very differently from that taught.

Another issue which isn’t on the curriculum is the deletion of money through debt reduction. Most economists don’t understand that when a bank processes a loan repayment the money involved no longer exists.

Finally, if L.C. economists highlighted that what’s in circulation is the partial principal of every recent loan and yet what’s owed back is the principal plus compound interest we’d no doubt see the root cause of the mortgage arrears problem.

The Higher School Certificate in New South Wales is a useful alternative model. The chief economics examiner Mark Melatos is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. Unlike Ireland, the chief examiner of a subject is in the public domain. He filled me in on how exam papers are set there. It seems very thorough and transparent. I know a lot more about the process there than in Ireland.
A recent paper is here. It looks very reasonable to me.
The exam board publishes a marking guide and sample answers. What is striking from the marking guide is the strong emphasis on the student understanding economics and its application.

The NCCA produced a revised syllabus for economics in 2005. The Department of Education and Science has still to implement it.

The impression I get from the exchanges here, however, are that the major problems seem to lie with the exam and in particular with the marking of the exam. My understanding is that LC exams are reviewed by an NUI panel in the relevant area – in economics I presume that it is a college other than UCD, as I have never heard of any of my colleagues being on this panel, but I am open to correction on this. In any event, there are plenty of good economists in NUI colleges other than UCD. What seems to be lacking is any review or checking of the answers provided and of the marking scheme, though you would have thought that would be of at least equal importance.

The Customer Charter of the State Examinations Commission states that its mission is “to provide a high quality state examinations and assessment system incorporating the highest standards of openness, fairness and accountability”. Well, let’s see if it lives up to its own mission, given the issues which have been raised here.

Great to see this being raised and the v informative comments. Does anyone know whether it is still the case that approved textbooks for this and other state exam subjects are required to be written by at least one author with a teaching qualification, i.e. the h.dip.ed.?

Not suggesting the texts are problematic–not familiar with any recent LC ones, and they presumably are governed by the syllabus/exam anyway, but always struck me as a rather sneaky restrictive practice. Hope it’s gone, or that it’s on the troika’s farewell list 🙂

Hmmmm I was under the impression that ALL economics papers were ‘full of problems’ at the mo. How much real ‘meaning’ can the term ‘economist’ retain these days? Economics has problems and most economists don’t have a real clue ….. give the students an A1.

@ Kevin Donoghue

“It’s not a new problem. Back in 1979 I heard a UCG economics lecturer warning the class that if they had done Leaving Cert economics they were actually at a disadvantage.”

Would not agree. I studied economics by myself without any teachers and added it to my leaving cert exam subjects. I got, what I considered a respectable “B” in the higher level paper. When I attended the NIHE in Limerick I has to give students who were being thrown out of the college grinds in economics and my leaving cert study was invaluable. Some people who were doing serially badly in economics exams got good grades when the cloak and dagger terminology was stripped out.

Personally, I always considered economics to be a bit of a non subject, a bluffers charter.

Aidan, I hadn’t heard that. Back in the day my textbook was by Moore McDowell & Gerry Quinn. I dont think either had a H Dip. Another colleague Noel Palmer had a textbook. Dont think he had either. But it could be a new rule. Realistically I think it’s not a bad idea that one of the authors has teaching experience: academics will know the subject but we probably no feel for what goes on in secondary school.

@ Kevin Denny

Strange that people would have no feel (ing) for what goes on in secondary school, after having attending them for five years? The term extra mural literally refers to what goes on outside ‘the walls’ (of a university) do people really forget what is happening outside, once they entered the gated environments of UCD and Trinity?

Robert Thanks for your wilful misreading of my comment. I left secondary school in 1980. I have never taught in secondary school and would not therefore have a professional knowledge of the experience. Hazy memories of my student days are of little use in this regard. A good secondary textbook probably requires multiple skills and hence multiple authors.

Ireland’s problems in Secondary Education stem largely from the country wide exams for the leaving Cert. Our politics are characterised by consensus and continuity which may stem from the high school curriculum being set by the curiae on Kildare Street. Every year our Secondary Education system churns out students that are as uniform nation wide as the Frankfurters churned out by German sausage factories.

We got the religion out of education but we are still locked into dogmas every bit as rigid as those that emanated from the Vatican.

From Ludwig Von Mises a good description of Irish education.
“There is no uniform collectivist ideology, but many collectivist doctrines. Each of them extols a different collectivist entity and requests all decent people to submit to it. Each sect worships its own idol and is intolerant of all rival idols. Each ordains total subjection of the individual; each is totalitarian.”

Secondary and Primary education badly needs to be decentralised and run by about ten independent school boards. Each board would be authorised to raise 50% of the funds required to operate system with a matching no strings contribution from general revenue nationally. The only thing that needs to be done nationally is Labour agreements to stop boards from outbidding each other for the best talent.

Of course this would mean a range from Paul Samuelson to Karl Marx would be prescribed in economics. Some of the Boards would probably stick to School Board wide exams based on the last two weeks of the final year. Others would base the final mark on what the student did throughout the whole final school year. The universities would have to get off their entitled asses and actually assess their applicants as opposed to the convenience of taking the each sausage as assessed by the Curiae on Kildare Street. Of course the variability in knowledge would also have to be dealt with in first year university. As Martha said that would be a good thing.

God forbid the locals at Board level would have their hands on the levers of Primary and Secondary school power. That certainly would not go down well on Kildare Street. You might find it interesting to know that Irish students at Primary and Secondary level do not measure up in English speaking countries abroad. My own theory is that too much time is devoted in Ireland to religion and Gaelic to the detriment of the 3 Rs’.

A H Dip(ed) is not a teaching qualification – despite what it says on the box. Its a theory sort of thing. A real teaching qualification requires, in addition to the theory bits, a longish period of mentor-supervised teaching practice.

There are two sets of teaching skills: those that are generic to any level of teaching (primary thru third-level) and those specialized to a particular subject, or perhaps two or three closely related subjects. To get someone to a proper level of teaching expertize – at any level, needs about 6 years of learning and training!

I’ll pass on my somewhat recent experiences of economics teaching – they were ‘interesting’. But what shook me was the poor level of teaching I experienced with my science-based electives. My temper was not improved by attending tutorials presented by postgrads. Most of these were clueless as instructors. For a take on LC maths – visit a well-founded Math Resource Centre! Just wear flame-proof clothing!

In respect of LC (and third-level) texts, these are written for a particular ‘market’ – and it is not one that seeks to provide pupils (or undergrads!) with a meaningful intellectual engagement with their subjects. I cannot comment on the LC Economics texts. I have not encountered them – but I soon will. The Math ones are dreadful and the Chemistry are little better.

Pupil texts need to be flexible and easily updated. Black and white is adequate: rainbow-like texts are of no particular pedagogical benefit. A stout, multi ring-binder folder, using pre-perforated pages which allow the insertion of blank pages for notes are the best option. Updating consists of discarding the redundant chapter/s and subbing back the new version. Cheap and cheerful!

One question that has always puzzled me. Why do we have H and O level course programmes? It makes no pedagogical sense whatsoever. Or is that quantity is ‘prized’ over quality? In respect of Mathematics, separate syllabi are indeed needed, but not at two different levels.

On a more personal note. I believe I owe Dave Madden (and Ciara Whelan) a particular thank you – for disposing of a nasty marking practice. Please accept this as a very grateful, if belated, thank you.


Well done to Kevin for the effort.

I don’t know the exact details whether it’s the NCCA, SEC, or Department that is ultimately in charge here. Just a quick note to whoever might be in charge: changing this could be done relatively easily because the bulk of the curriculum (supply and demand, competition vs monopoly, and so on) is sound. In addition there are very good templates available from the large number of introductory university-level textbooks, e.g. Mankiw’s Principles. There would be no shortage of qualified people willing to volunteer their advice on how to improve the curriculum, either.

I took the Leaving Cert a decade ago. I recall learning the market diagrams off but not really understanding them. Nor was I fully sure why supply curves slope upwards. That I still got an A (or perhaps a B; in any case it was a decent grade) in the LC without understanding supply curves is fairly damning. I’ve taught university economics, albeit mostly as a teaching assistant, for four or five years now. I would be embarrassed if any of my students did not understand supply curves.

A shift in the focus of exams from rote learning definitions and diagrams to a solid understand of fundamental material (when markets work, when they don’t, basic macro, etc.) would be a great improvement.

Isnt the problem here that we pay alot of people an awful lot of money to look after these matters and when the curtain is raised it is the same thing as in banking regulation and other matters.
That is happens is objectionable in itself, but that we are overpaying for it is what gets me.
A journo should research all the quangos involved in this and the wage levels of the people in charge!!

@ Al

… or the journo could avoid the hard research and just retype press releases. Both approaches pay the same.

I would suggest taking a look at the main LC economics textbooks if you have the time, as I think it is the case in many subjects that examinations are set against the textbooks as much as against the written curriculum.

You might find a book from the US inspiring in this regard. “Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James Loewen skewered second level US history textbooks.

My understanding is that the NCCA is responsible for the syllabus and the SEC for the exam. But they may have some shared responsibility in terms of how it comes together. Both are answerable to the Department.
BCT, I thought of that but at €30 each I thought not.
I learned today that a representative of the NUI and of TCD has sight of the paper at a late stage but before it is used. I don’t know who they are or what their effective role is (as anyone who has ever been on a committee can testify you can be consulted and have no influence) but I don’t think their reputations would be enhanced by this association.

I had no idea that over 90% of schools in Ireland were still owned, controlled and managed by the Church. This in a country that had decided in 1831 and subsequently that schools would be nondenominational.
I am shocked, there is no hope for us with only 68 schools in the country not hopelessly mired in religion and Gaelic. Consensus and continuity in politics is one thing but being paralysed and stuck in the middle ages is a whole more serious kettle of fish.


Quebec is a majority French speaking province of Canada with a population of 8 million. In 1950 they were as Catholic as the Irish with the Church dominating society including education. In the 1960s’ they had a “Quiet Revolution” and today the new religion is secularism.

The linked article is about the display of religious symbols (including the cross) in government funded institutions (schools, hospitals….). No hijabs, turbans or crucifixes to be worn. This is patterned on the emphasis on secularism to the detriment of religion in France.


@Kevin Denny

Minor point: Just who IS qualified to write an economics curriculum and examination paper at the mo?


I don’t see all that much reliability let alone validity in recent economic times.

Give me physics and chemistry any day – with a decent chunk of philosophy thrown in.

Very minor point: Are the universities -free-riding- on the leaving cert – to the detriment of education in the second level sector? Yes or No?

David, economics is whatever economists do, for good or ill. So yes. In the case of the Leaving I don’t think it would be a good idea for the exam paper to be left entirely, or even primarily, to economists. As I mentioned above we don’t have a good feel for what goes on in second level. That said, i think economists have effectively very little input into the present and the dreadful consequences of that are all too clear. But I don’t see how can you design a curriculum without a major input from the experts.
The critiques of economics in recent years, many of which are reasonable, are at a much more advanced level that the Leaving. For example, it would be impossible to bring behavioural economics at second level.
Finally, although I think I know what free riding is, I have no idea what you mean. In UCD we assume no prior knowledge of the subject. This is because many of our 1st years havent studied it. Or else they studied for the Leaving and know some ok stuff but generally have a bad understanding of the subject. A student with an A level would have a good background,

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