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Explainer: What's happening with the Leaving Cert?

It’s been a chaotic 24 hours.
Feb 12th 2021, 12:48 PM 12,348 40

IT’S BEEN A chaotic 24 hours (or few months) for Leaving Cert students, whatever way you want to look at it. 

Talks have been underway for some time now as to what form the Leaving Cert exam will take this year in light of the ongoing public health emergency.

Last night, there was a stumbling block as talks collapsed between government and the ASTI teachers’ union. 

What happened last night, and what’s the latest? 

Last night, the ASTI teachers’ union withdrew from talks with the Department of Education over what the State exam will look like this year. 

The talks are an attempt to avoid a crisis over how to hold this year’s Leaving Cert, with confusion remaining over whether a version of the ‘traditional’ written exam will be held or whether the controversial system of Calculated Grades will be used again.

After weeks of discussion, the ASTI withdrew from Leaving Cert talks over concerns that there wasn’t enough work done to assess the students in a Calculated Grades system.

However, after last night’s shock move by the union, it has agreed to attend talks again today. 

What is the union saying? What are its concerns?

The ASTI said it walked away from talks as the plan being developed by the Department of Education would not provide a “meaningful Leaving Certificate” for students. 

The union had entered into discussions after the Minister for Education last week announced that officials were preparing for a twin-track approach to plan for both the traditional Leaving Cert and a “corresponding measure”. 

The union had previously argued that the Leaving Cert should go ahead in the traditional manner. 

The ASTI was strongly critical of the approach being adopted by the department, saying that the process would see the Leaving Cert being “relegated” behind a calculated grades option. 

Speaking today, Ann Piggott, President of the ASTI, told Newstalk Breakfast this is down to their unhappiness with the calculated grades system.

“Throughout the talks it has come to our attention very clearly that this non-examination process is a system of calculated grades without any great focus on what other alternatives were available.”

She said the union only signed up to the calculated grades system last year, as a “once-off commitment” stating that teachers had serious reservations about it.

The lack of data is an issue, she said, as “students have not done their mock exams, some schools have not a 5th year summer exam.

“We don’t have as much data as we had last year”.

“The discussions we have had… have led us to believe that they can take ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’ – they may then choose to do calculated grades in some subjects and an exam in other subjects,” she said. 

Piggott said this is an issue for teachers as when they return to school they will be in a classroom with “some students in class with no motivation who will have a calculated grade”.

“We’ll have other students in the same classroom preparing for [the] Leaving Cert,” she said.

Remind me, what are calculated grades?

Last year, a system of Calculated Grades was used that meant students were assessed based on previous work they had done in fifth year, and the judgement of their teachers.

These teacher-awarded grades were then ‘standardised’ by an algorithm in an attempt to bring them in line with previous Leaving Cert results.

It seemed to go off without a hitch, but then an error was found in the calculation of some grades, which resulted in the minister having to apologise for the whole fiasco.

What did the Education Minister Norma Foley have to say about the ASTI walking away? 

She wasn’t happy, to say the least.

Education Minister Norma Foley said she was “both taken aback and disappointed”, saying the union gave no indication of its intentions to withdraw during discussions. 

The minister said the Department will continue to engage with all education representative bodies, including the teacher unions, to provide Leaving Certificate examinations and a corresponding measure for examination students.

“Fairness and certainty for the class of 2021 is at the centre of what we want to achieve in these engagements. We are happy to engage with all concerned to achieve this objective,” Foley said. 

And the students? 

They weren’t very happy either.

The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) said that it was “shocked and disappointed”.

“This statement has caused stress, anxiety and worry to skyrocket amongst students. It is adding fear into an already high pressure situation, and the delivery of clarity for students has been further pushed out due to this breakdown in talks.

“Students have been through a horrendous year and now may face an uphill battle in the months ahead – we need to show them compassion, we need to provide clarity, and the ISSU position remains that students deserve a choice.”

What’s been going on the last few weeks?

The Government has been engaged in intensive talks with teachers unions and groups representing parents and students over reopening schools and this year’s Leaving Cert. 

For this year’s Leaving Cert students, the Government had initially said that it preferred to hold the ‘traditional’ Leaving Cert.

But after the ISSU presented a survey and other evidence that suggested a choice between the two would be students’ most preferred option. 

Concerns were raised early on about the traditional exam going ahead given that students had been out of school for so long. Government sources said in January that if exam candidates did not back to school soon, a Plan B for the Leaving Cert would be needed.

In a bid to at least get the Leaving Cert students back into the classroom in January, the government announced that these children would be returning to class a couple of days a week to begin with. 

Government was forced to reverse that decision to have Leaving Cert students return to school after the ASTI and the Teachers Union of Ireland directed members not to co-operate with the Government’s plan for in-school teaching for Leaving Cert students three days a week. 

The unions said they had not been provided with the necessary assurances that schools are sufficiently safe for students and teachers at this time, in the context of the new variant of Covid-19 circulating in the community and the alarmingly high numbers. 

At the time, the minister said that schools must “regrettably remain closed” to students from Monday 11 January, despite her opinion that Leaving Cert students should have been able to return.

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“It is with regret that I announce that, despite the confirmation by Public Health that schools remain safe, that children in special schools and special classes and Leaving Certificate students will not be extended in-person learning,” Minister Foley said in January.

What is being said behind the scenes by those in government circles? 

They’re certainly not amused with the ASTI’s actions, stating that they are one of the most difficult unions to deal with. 

One source said this is the situation they wanted to avoid, and that the ASTI is now saying it has not had enough class time or data to assess students. 

“This is exactly why we wanted students in the Leaving Cert year to return to class in early January. Now it will be March before they set foot back in a school building,” they said.

Other government sources pointed out that last month they said government was highlighting that sixth years have already missed three months of school last year, with many not having done any summer exams or mocks.

They said in January that if students didn’t return to school that month, they might miss another three months this year (which has come to pass) making both the traditional exam as well as calculated grades more difficult.

Without ‘face time’ with teachers, access to labs and practical rooms, there would be big question marks about realistically holding the Leaving Cert, they said last month, adding that students’ grades will then have to be estimated by teachers students have barely met, and based on a syllabus they haven’t completed.

Okay, sounds messy. When will there be clarity for students?

Speaking yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin acknowledged that it had been a tough year for students, stating that clarity will be given after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting when a decision will be made.

What’s the most likely scenario for the Leaving Cert right now?

Similar to last year, it looks like it will be an option for calculated grades (perhaps with some modifications) as well as a choice for students to sit the exam.

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Christina Finn

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