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'I was completely panicking': Leaving Cert students at Dublin school taught wrong English text for two years

The mistake was only discovered six days before the students started their exams this year.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

A TEACHER AT a south Dublin secondary school said it was “human error” that led to her teaching Leaving Certificate students a text that was not on the syllabus for this year’s exam.

The mistake emerged on 31 May this year when a student from the class noticed the film The King’s Speech, which they had studied since 5th Year, was not on the list for the comparative section of the Higher Level English syllabus. This was six days before the first exam.

A report compiled by the board of management of the school, seen by TheJournal.ie, found only one class was affected. At the time the error was realised, the English teacher for that class was on an immersion programme in Zambia with a group of students.

Three other teachers volunteered to teach an “intensive” three-hour preparation session on an alternative text for the students on 1 June – the day after the error emerged. The first English exam was due to take place on 6 June. 

The film Juno was chosen to replace The King’s Speech as one of the teachers had taught it previously and it was considered the most easily accessible for students. The principal informed all parents and students by text message and requested they view the film online in advance.

“She also apologised for the distressed caused by the mistake,” the report said.

One student who was in the class, and who only found out about the error when she received the text message from her principal, told TheJournal.ie she cried when she got the news.

“I was completely panicking. My parents were more calm than me at the time trying, to comfort me and say that it was going to be okay. I was already nervous about English even before we found out so it threw me off completely.”

On the day of the three-hour session, 20 of the 23 students in the class attended and an offer of online support over the weekend was made to allow for queries and the correction of material. 

“I did feel it was very helpful and I appreciate the time they took to help us with the whole situation, but I didn’t feel prepared for the exam,” the student said. 

She expressed concern about the fact that the mistake had not been pointed out after the class’ mock exams were corrected by an outside firm. This was revealed as part of the board’s investigation.

“We all used the wrong film and no one noticed. English wasn’t my strongest subject so I wasn’t expecting to do that well in the mocks, but I did think my marks were lower than they should have been,” the student said. 

‘Distress’

The principal informed the chairperson of the board of management and the State Examination Commission (SEC) on 1 June of the “oversight and the level of distress that it had caused among the body of students and parents”, according to the report. 

Four parents made contact with the school by telephone, email and letter expressing “dismay” at the error that had occurred. Some parents made official complaints to the SEC and two contacted the Department of Education and Skills. 

“The impact of the episode was described as ‘devastating for the students’ and detracted from the vital last days of revision,” the report noted.

It was established at this time that if students had gone on to use the wrong text in this section, one-third of the marks for the section would have been deducted. This means it is likely those marks were deducted in the mock exam. 

The board also heard from the SEC that it could not take this error into consideration in marking – something the student who spoke to TheJournal.ie said the school did not tell her until the day she received her exam results. 

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) contacted the principal after it was informed by the Department of Education and Skills that two parents had made complaints. The report said these complaints “might involve the national press getting in touch with the school.”

“In the event there was no approach to the school from the press.”

The principal met with students after each of the English papers and the report said “all expressed satisfaction that they were well prepared by the three English teachers on Friday 1 June in the additional teaching session to undertake the comparative question”.

‘Shock’

At a board meeting, issues in relation to “accountability, transparency and learning from mistakes” were raised. The board agreed that “the error should be a learning experience” and strategies should be put in place to ensure there be no risk of recurrence.

The English teacher visited the school on 12 June and learned from students of their “ordeal of the previous week”. She sent a text message to the principal “apologising for the error and expressing her shock”.

In an interview with the investigator from the board, the teacher confirmed she had received a copy of the material for the examination in February 2016. She explained that the choice of film is usually discussed at English department meetings which include all of the English teachers in the school. 

She said these meetings had in previous years taken place during Croke Park hours [the 33 unpaid work hours in the public pay agreement], but this had changed in 2017 and it had proven difficult to schedule them.

She also said the agenda had been dominated by the requirements of the new junior cycle. Notes are taken during these meetings, but they were not retained in electronic format or circulated to members of the school’s management team. The report notes teachers inform each other orally about the choice of film halfway through the academic year. 

The teacher made reference to the correction of mock exams by an external company, pointing out that the selection of the wrong text was not addressed on the cover sheet accompanying the corrected scripts.

The report notes the teacher “can only attribute her error to her referring to the syllabus/prescribed material for 2017 rather than 2018″.

It also said her judgement was affected by “significant personal loss later in 2017, with the deaths of both her mother and brother within a period of three weeks”.

She expressed a wish to apologise to all the students and takes responsibility for what was human error.

‘Responsibility of the school’

The board’s report made a number of recommendations including:

  • Posting of all Leaving Certificate syllabi on the school’s website for students and parents;
  • The provision of set agenda for subject department meetings;
  • Formal minutes of subject department meetings to be sent electronically to the principal and deputy;
  • The reintegration of meetings into scheduled Croke Park hours;
  • Consideration of the integration of internal marking for mock exams.

The Department of Education and Skills confirmed it received correspondence in relation to the issue.

“In response to the correspondence, the department advised that each school undertakes to deliver the curriculum as it is set by the Department of Education and Skills,” a spokesperson said.

In addition to the Leaving Certificate English specification, notice of prescribed materials is provided to schools well in advance of the relevant examination. A list of materials for the Leaving Certificate English Examination in June 2018 was circulated to schools in February 2016, setting out the text and films for study in preparation for the examination.

“It is the responsibility of each school in this regard to ensure correct delivery of the curriculum and prescribed materials. Relevant parties were advised to contact the school directly in this context.”

The student said she was “annoyed” at the way in which the issue was handled and said she had not felt prepared for the exam, as the report stated. In particular she was critical of the decision not to tell students until the day of their results that the error had not been taken into consideration in the marking process.

“I understand that human error exists – it can happen – but I’m not satisfied with how it was dealt with it afterwards. I’m just thankful that at least I got into college, even after all that.”

The school’s principal told TheJournal.ie said the school had “carried out an independent investigation into how a mistake regarding an English text arose”.

“The recommendations arising out of the report are currently being implemented in full”.

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