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'He's going to struggle': Teenager with learning disability denied Leaving Cert support

Hundreds of students each year are denied supports like readers and scribes and advocates say the SEC needs to widen eligibility criteria.

Image: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

THE PARENTS OF a Leaving Certificate student who has a learning disability have criticised the State Examinations Commission (SEC) for denying their son the help they say he needs to do his best in the exams over the next couple of weeks.

The teenager had applied for a reader – an exam supervisor who would read exam questions to the student to help them comprehend them.

His request was denied, despite the fact that he had been assigned a reader for his Junior Certificate two years ago. His parents had appealed the decision and even brought a case in the High Court against the State Examinations Commission (SEC) but were informed after he had left for his first exam yesterday that he would not be getting the help he asked for.

“It’s disappointing,” his father told TheJournal.ie. “I know my child. We were delighted when he had a reader for the Junior Cert because we knew he needed assistance. Nothing changed in those two years, he’s still going to struggle.

“You can study all you want – and he has – but you’re still going to struggle.”

His son’s main difficulty is in comprehending the questions on the exam papers, he explained.

When it’s spoken to him, it makes sense, but when he reads it himself he has a problem. To give you an example, in his pre-Leaving Cert tests, there was a question that said you could answer either a or b and he answered the two of them. That then put him under time pressure in the exam.

The teenager recently did a specially designed test to measure his ability to read words, understand sentences, spell and compute solutions to math problems. He failed the test and his parents believed this would qualify him for assistance.  The SEC was also provided with an assessment by a clinical psychologist who described him as having ‘Specific Learning Disability’.

‘He did his best’

The teen’s father said his son told him he had “done his best and tried” in his first exam yesterday, but the English paper was “a tough one” for him to get through without a reader to help him understand what he was being asked to do.

Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien, who made submissions to the Department of Education and the SEC on the boy’s behalf, said he is contacted every year by parents and students who have been refused readers or scribes.

“These are always students who have received these accommodations during their Junior Cert exams and have reasonably expected to have the same facility during their final school exams,” O’Brien said.

Figures released by the commission last year showed almost 1,000 Leaving Cert students in 2014 were denied support measures. A number of students with learning difficulties brought court actions this year to appeal the decision of the SEC.

Ann Heelan, executive director of  the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), said she believes there is a problem with the commission’s system for assessing the applications.

“The SEC hasn’t reviewed what they call the Race scheme in 10 years. The Ombudsman for Children actually made recommendations some time ago that their governance was a problem,” she said.

One of biggest problems was that they were not being transparent in communication to parents about their decisions. People didn’t know in the first case why they were turned down and didn’t know why their appeal was turned down either.

Following a large number of complaints last year to the Ombudsman, the SEC had committed to providing explanations for refusals in this year’s exams. In one case brought against the SEC this year, however, the judge overturned the refusal of a reader on grounds including the appeals committee’s failure to specify reasons for the refusal.

Heelan said the “rigid criteria” often means children “fall through the cracks”.

“You might have a kid who has had a lot of support and has improved a little. Suddenly, they’re not eligible anymore, but in a test environment they will actually need the support. You’re dealing with kids here, doing a very important exam and there has to be some level of interpretation or humanity to it.”

Nobody out there is pretending, kids don’t want these things – they don’t want to be different.

‘More humane’

O’Brien said it was “totally unacceptable” that the appeals process takes so long “and students are left even more stressed”.

“I would urge the new Minister for Education to take note of these concerns and move to ensure that students who have genuine needs get these exam accommodations in the future and are notified of this as soon as possible,” the TD added.

I’d also urge the SEC to deal with children and young people sitting these exams in a more humane manner and process the cases properly. No parent should have to take legal action to get their child the support they need.

‘Reasons of equity and fairness’

The SEC told TheJournal.ie it could not comment on individual cases but said accommodations are provided to students who meet the eligibility criteria.

Depending on the accommodation applied for, there may be a number of criteria all of which must be met in order to establish eligibility. Where the eligibility criteria are not met, it is not possible to provide accommodations. This is for reasons of equity and fairness to the general body of students and to safeguard the integrity of the examinations.

The commission said the scheme is “demand led” and has not been subject to any budgetary cutbacks in recent years. Some 16,194 candidates sitting exams in 2015 had some form of support provided to them.

Related: Student with dyslexia takes High Court action to get Leaving Cert assistance>

More: Students with special needs being denied supports “days before exams”>

Read: This is what reading looks like when you have dyslexia>

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