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Explainer: What are the options for this year's Leaving Cert, and why is it so complicated?

There’s a growing feeling among parents and students that the Leaving Cert should be cancelled.

Image: Leah Farrell

WHAT SHOULD BE done about the Leaving Certificate this year?

Students who have been preparing for two years for the senior State examination are confused over what to study, what to prioritise, and how to strategise for an exam that will be dramatically different from previous years.

Although a date has been provisionally chosen for the Leaving Cert to take place, sixth year students may be justifiably wary after plans were made for the Junior Cert, and then changed when schools and parents objected.

Now, the Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon is saying he has received a “large number of complaints made by parents and students” about the Leaving Cert over the past few weeks.

One teacher told TheJournal.ie that the problem is, no matter what arrangements are made, it will suit some students and not suit others, such is the difficulty of the situation.

Nonetheless, a decision needs to be made and made soon. So here are the options and the snags involved with each.

The Leaving Cert goes ahead on 29 July

Education Minister Joe McHugh first gave this date for the Leaving Cert on an Instagram Live chat with SpunOut, where he directly answered students’ questions for an hour.

At that point, he said himself that the details of the Leaving Cert, including whether it would be held on 29 July, would be confirmed during the first week in June.

There is a lot left to still be decided – although schools themselves are to organise how to socially distance students and desks , the Department of Education still has decisions to make.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie previously, student Molly Gordon Boles said: “We don’t have a timetable, we don’t know how the structure of it will work, we don’t know how it will work sitting the exam,” she said.  

For example, what will happen with practical exams? There are hours of work left to do in the practical exams for Art, Ag Science, Construction, and Engineering.

Awarding these subjects full marks isn’t as simple as it was for the oral exams and music practical: in the case of the Art exam, the practical project and life drawing account for 62.5% of the overall grade. 

The issue of slow broadband hindering some students in keeping up with lessons and accessing information was also raised, as being particularly unfair to students from rural areas or who don’t have a spare laptop or computer at home.

There’s also the issue of the written exams themselves: one teacher who spoke to TheJournal.ie suggested that there had been talk of reducing the written elements, to reflect the difficulty in studying during a pandemic.

Predictive grading

This would be a way of marking students based on their performance to date, through a mix of written and practical work, and could happen in a number of ways.

One suggested method would be to use the results of the Mock exams, which are held around Christmas time and involve a set of sample papers to give students an idea of what to expect from the State exams.

The problem with Mock exams, as was raised repeatedly on Liveline yesterday, is that students can sometimes access them ahead of time because schools don’t hold them in the same week.

The other issue is that not all schools hold Mock exams, and some students don’t perform fully in the preparatory exams but do in the final State exams in June.

Minister Joe McHugh said on the SpunOut interview that he didn’t believe that would be a fair system, because the way the exams are corrected could vary wildly from teacher to teacher and from school to school.

The result of the Leaving Cert is often linked to entry exams for a number of third-level education placements and other courses, so that’s a further consideration in any rescheduling of exams.

Yesterday, discussions at the Department of Education included “alternative assessment models” for the Leaving Cert.

ISSU survey

In a survey by the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) on four days from 1-5 May, 79% of almost 24,000 students said they were in favour of the exams being cancelled in favour of predicted grading. 

Just 15% of students were in favour of the current proposal of starting exams on 29 July. 

Despite the support for this option on ISSU notes the concerns of these students regarding predicted grades. It is clear that the predicted grading model needs to be developed, but it must ensure fairness and equity.

Ciara Fanning, president of the ISSU said: “This survey reinforces our mandate for clarification now – particularly as an increasing number of students are now in favour of cancellation and a thoughtful process established to ensure fairness and equity to all.” 

In April, the National Parents Council Post Primary surveyed more than 30,000 parents and asked them “Are you happy with the Department of Education and Skills decision to defer the Leaving Certificate State Exams to July/August of 2020?”

71% said no, and 28% said yes. 

Holding the exams later

There is some leeway for the exams to be held later, but not a lot. The exams are stretched out over a number of weeks, meaning this year’s exams should finish before the end of August (though a timetable is still to be published).

If it creeps any further into the autumn, things get trickier as it has to be carried out before third-level courses begin, and with enough time for the exams to be corrected. They will also need to be carried out before the other secondary-school years return to school – if social distancing measures are to be complied with.

There have also been concerns that there will be a second “wave” of Covid-19 in the autumn, so, depending on when the Leaving Cert would be pushed back to, it could be cancelled or postponed again if there’s a surge in cases.

“I believe the government cannot continue to adopt this wait and see approach with the Leaving Cert. It is becoming clearer with every week that passes that it is simply not tenable for it to proceed,” Fianna Fáil’s education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said.  

The Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon met Minister Joe McHugh yesterday to discuss concerns raised by parents and children, which related to mental health, special education needs, digital discrimination, and inequity in the provision of continuity of learning.

Muldoon also said that “on a purely human level there are 61,000 children who are deprived of all the positive elements of finishing school, the comradery, the sports days, fun days and general acknowledgement that they have moved from a child to an adult over a six year period”.

This is a crucial rite of passage for so many and it is the closeness of friends and the support of teachers and other school staff which makes the chore of studying worthwhile – but that has been taken away from this cohort of children and it will always hurt, no matter what results they get in the exams.

“I really hope that clarity can be provided to children, their parents and teachers as soon as possible to avoid further anxiety amongst an already vulnerable group of people.”

The Taoiseach acknowledged the stress Leaving Cert students are under, and told the Dáil today: “I fully appreciate the distress and the uncertainty which sixth year students are under.

“I still get nightmares about my Leaving Certificate maths paper, I know how traumatic the Leaving Certificate can be for many people. We will try to bring a conclusion to this matter this week as best we can,” Leo Varadkar said.

The ASTI and TUI issued this short statement today:

“The Executive Committees of the ASTI and TUI met separately last night (Wednesday).

“The unions will continue to engage through the advisory group of stakeholders in relation to contingency arrangements for the State Examinations and will not be commenting further at this point.

“Teachers continue to support their students in these difficult and extraordinary times.”

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