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'It's not a perfect solution': The government's u-turn on holding Leaving Certificate exams

Last month the Education Minister was adamant that the exams would go ahead in late July.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh at today's announcement.
Minister for Education Joe McHugh at today's announcement.
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Updated May 8th 2020, 6:16 PM

A LITTLE LESS than a month ago, Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced the Leaving Certificate exams would be delayed until 29 July.

With the support of teachers’ unions and even some on the opposition benches, the government was determined that the exams would go ahead this year, just later than planned. 

Today Minister McHugh announced a total reversal of this decision, stating students will instead receive calculated grades. Anyone who is unhappy with those grades can still sit exams at a later date in the future “when it is considered safe to hold” them. 

He said the decision was taken following an assessment of public health advice and “other information”.

Although he said this was “not a perfect solution”, he said there is compelling evidence that the exams cannot be held in a reliable and valid way, or in a way that would be equitable for students. 

Support for the original postponement

When the government first confirmed the postponement to 29 July, it followed weeks of calls for clarity. With schools closed for an undetermined amount of time at that point, students who were studying at home wanted to know if and when they would get to complete this important stage in their education. 

In terms of the government’s plan for easing back restrictions, the new date of 29 July would have put the start of the Leaving Certificate in Phase 4, during which larger groups of people will be able to visit another household, small weddings would be allowed and hairdressers would be able to reopen.

At the time, Minister McHugh said the final arrangements for the exams, including where they were to be held and how physical distancing would be managed, would be determined by the State Examinations Commission on foot of public health advice at the start of June.

Following the announcement, the two teachers’ unions – the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) – welcomed the fact that the government was “still focused on running the LC, given both its importance and the high level of public trust that it enjoys”.

Other representative bodies, including the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) also at the time said they “appreciated the clarity” brought by this announcement.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesperson Thomas Byrne also welcomed the “clarity” he said the decision had brought. In a statement he said:

While some students have advocated for alternatives such as predictive grades, the Leaving Certificate remains the best option. Although they are not perfect, the State exams offer a fair, transparent system by which students are judged on their performance. This would not be possible through the alternatives.”

‘Not straightforward’

However in the two weeks that followed, questions about how the State exam could actually be held and concerns about the fairness of current home-schooling arrangements created fresh uncertainty. 

Thomas Byrne told TheJournal.ie that he has been asking the department for the public health advice in relation to the exams since shortly after that announcement last month. 

While he said he was initially in favour of the decision to press on with the exams, “it became clear over the course of April” that they could not go ahead as planned. 

His clarity came after hearing from constituents and other groups. 

“We’ve been getting a huge amount of correspondence from students, parents and teachers. Just to give you one example, I heard from an immuno-compromised mother who was worried about the prospect of the student doing the Leaving Cert in that way.

“There was also a student campaign around it. We heard of other issues like a lack of broadband in student’s homes – and for teachers as well in some cases. There were things that were rolled out much earlier in other countries and not here, such as e-learning platforms.”

When the government on 1 May revealed its roadmap of easing restrictions, it announced schools would not reopen for classes until the new term in September.

However the Taoiseach and the Education Minister both said it was still the plan that the Leaving Certificate exams would go ahead as planned from 29 July and that students would get classroom time over a two-week period beforehand.

“It’s still the plan that sixth years will get some class time before the exams start on the 29th of July, there is a lot of work going on how this can be done safely with social distancing, it’s not straightforward, it is difficult,” the Taoiseach told RTÉ’s Ryan Tubridy when he appeared on The Late Late Show.

“And of course we are still exploring alternatives, like for example predictive marking, but that’s not perfect either, but we’ll be guided by the public health advice at the end of the day whatever takes place.” 

Calls for predictive grading

Over the last week, there has been increased pressure on the government to move to that predictive marking system, including from the students themselves. 

The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) released a survey which found a majority of students (78.6%) were in favour of cancelling all exams and using an estimated grading model. The union has welcomed today’s announcement. 

Inequality in terms of access to digital learning tools was also consistently highlighted. A survey by the the National Parents Council Post Primary (NPCPP) found that one in five students had only limited access to a device and 17% did not have a reliable form or broadband in their home.

On 22 April, Minister McHugh had announced €10 million of funding to support the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged students.

He said Leaving Certificate student would be prioritised for this funding, stating it would “help to give the students the tools they need to succeed”. But at that point, students had already been learning from home for several weeks without those supports – that disadvantage would be hard to redress. 

One of the more prominent voices to enter this debate was Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon, who had called on the government for clarity on the exams in the early April.

A key meeting

Yesterday, Dr Muldoon met with the minister to discuss issues surrounding the Learning Cert exams. Among the complaints he brought to the minister were those made on behalf of children who do not have a secure, reliable broadband service. 

“Families who do not have the financial resources to provide high quality broadband or the equipment needed to stay up to date with schoolwork have contacted the Office of Children’s Ombudsman,” his office said.

There are also students who do not have the support of parents or family members who are IT literate and can understand and help with online activity.”

Today Muldoon also welcomed the decision to cancel the exams, stating he believes it “has been made in the best interest of young people throughout Ireland”.

Public health input

It became clear in recent weeks that the government was not willing to share the public health advice it had received in relation to the exams – it had stated that decisions would be made on how to manage physical distancing at the start of June. 

At Department of Health briefings, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan was equally coy, confirming only that he had engaged with the Department of Education and would be on hand to provide up to date public health advice whenever it was required. He refused to give details of the advice in relation to the exams that he had already provided. 

The Education Minister’s remarks today indicated that public health advice provided to his department since his initial announcement has not been in line with his own hopes for the exams to go ahead. 

“I have made every effort to run the 2020 Leaving Certificate as close as possible to the way the examinations were originally intended to be held,” he said. 

“My desire had been to allow students to undertake the written and practical examinations in July and August but I have compelling evidence, based on medical advice and other assessments, that the Leaving Certificate examinations cannot be held in a reliable and valid manner, nor in a way that would be equitable for students.”

This evening, Dr Holohan confirmed the cancellation was in line with his team’s advice, but stopped short of saying NPHET had asked for the decision. 

“We have no expertise in the running of exams,” he noted. 

McHugh acknowledged that this is not a “perfect solution”.

The two teachers’ unions have reserved comment on the decision until after their executive committees meet this evening. With significantly increased responsibility now on their members to estimate the grades their students would have achieved in the exams, this may be the next hurdle for the government. 

While the union reaction is – for now – a big unknown, what we do know is that the powerful lobby groups of students, parents and the teachers themselves, as well as the conservative approach of the country’s public health team all played their part in cancelling the Leaving Cert exams for the first time.

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