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Teachers union urges members not to engage with Leaving Cert grading system

The guidance was published by the Department of Education this evening.
May 21st 2020, 7:24 PM 41,975 67

IF A PARENT attempts to canvass a teacher over their child’s Leaving Cert grade, the principal of the school will be told to notify the Department of Education and tell the parent to stop in the first instance.

That is one of the guidelines contained in the advice issued to schools today on how grades should be calculated by teachers in lieu of the now-cancelled Leaving Certificate examinations.

However, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has said it is advising its teachers not to engage with the system until a legal indemnity to give them protection is up to the standard they require. 

In a statement, Minister for Education Joe McHugh said the guide for school was made with “fairness and the interests of the students at the heart of our decision making”. 

“The guidance is very clear and strict on the issue of canvassing of teachers and principals,” he said. “Canvassing would be unfair to students and to staff in a school, and it will not be tolerated in any circumstances.”

Leaving Cert students will have the option of sitting the exams at a later date – when possible – “in the spirit of fairness”, the department says in its document.

Marking criteria

The grades for each student will be calculated using a number of different factors, in what is a complex, detailed process.

The first is the teacher’s estimation of a student’s marks and rankings. Teachers are told to take into account factors such as a student’s records of performance over the years, how they’ve done in class assessments, their previous results and comparing this year’s students to others previous taught.

Schools will be asked to provide what they think the “best estimate” to what a student would have got.

The department says: “It is critical to the process that the school gives this most likely mark, and not, for example, the mark that one may hope the student might get, or the mark one may think they have a reasonable chance of getting ‘on a good day’.”

If there is a student who performs better than others, teachers are urged to estimate the gap “appropriately” and avoid inappropriately clustering students together. 

They are also urged to avoid “unconscious bias”.

It says: “For instance, research in many countries shows that teacher estimates of student performance are often affected by the teacher’s experience and perceptions of the student’s classroom behaviour. By being alert to this source of unconscious bias, there is a better chance of examining the evidence more objectively, focussing on evidence that is clearly about attainment in the subject and not about other factors.”

Once all that is taken into account, a teacher will draft the estimated percentage mark for each student and then rank each one.

The next step is the alignment process, which is where teachers on the same subject ensure they are applying the same standards to their students.

“However, crucially, once the alignment process is complete, the estimated percentage marks and the class rank orders are considered to represent the collective professional judgment of all those involved, rather than solely the professional judgment of an individual teacher,” the department says.

The marks will be overseen by a school principal and then standardised by the Department of Education.

The department sought to emphasise that this will not involve any “predetermined score” being imposed on any individual or school. 

If the group of students in a school in the current year is particularly “strong”, the expected level of achievement of the group will reflect that fact. Likewise, if one or more individuals stand out as particularly strong, that will be reflected in the school’s estimated marks and thereby be taken fully into account.

Canvassing

The department says that the “school-based process must not be compromised” in calculating grades. 

School staff are told that they “must not under any circumstances” discuss or disclose with any student or parent the estimate marks and ranking the school is submitting to the department. 

The department says: “Allowing access to and discussion of estimated grades before the calculated grades process is complete would interfere with the process being carried out in an objective manner and ensuring equality and fairness between all students.

“If teachers discussed the marks with some students but not others, or if some teachers did this and others did not, these discussions might actually influence (consciously or unconsciously) or be perceived as influencing the mark the teacher submits to the subject alignment group.”

Parents/guardians and students are further urged to not contact teachers or school staff either formally or informally, directly or indirectly with a view to influencing the process. 

“Teachers and schools must not be subjected to any type of influence, inducement (including gifts), pressure or coercion by a parent/guardian, student or any other person in relation to a student’s mark or ranking either before or after it has been assigned,” the department says.

This includes any financial, economic or other personal interest which might be perceived to compromise the teacher’s impartiality and independence in the context of the decision-making process.

If such an approach is made, teachers are urged not to engage on the topic, and make a formal record of the contact to the school principal who will then inform the Department of Education if the contact persists. 

The department says it’s of vital importance that the same care and diligence is provided to cases where a teacher has been canvassed to ensure transparency in the process.

The purpose of the notification of this information to the Department is to ensure the transparency, the maintenance of appropriate records, and adequate oversight of the decision-making process associated with the process of assigning estimated grades and rankings.

The department adds that teachers and school leaders – as they will be implementing the calculated grades process – will have arrangements put in place to extend a State indemnity to them and to the boards of management of their schools. 

The indemnity could be invoked where someone is sued in their own capacity. 

“This indemnity will be subject to conditions around notification and cooperation with the State in defending any legal cases should they arise and will only be capable of being invoked where a person has acted bona fide, i.e. has made every reasonable effort to carry out their role in accordance with the guidance provided in this Guide and the relevant circular of the Department of Education and Skills.”

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However, the ASTI union said this legal protection is inadequate. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Six One News, ASTI President Deirdre MacDonald said teachers were taking on very onerous work and needed to be fully indemnified.

The Teachers Union of Ireland, however, welcomed the safeguards and said the legal indemnity offered was of “vital importance”. 

Its president Seamus Lahart said: “While the guidance is as comprehensive as is possible, we will of course urgently address any rising issues with the Department.”

This evening, Sinn Féin’s education spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that it was “extraordinary that it has emerged that the legal protections for teachers to protect them from litigation is not to the satisfaction of the ASTI”. 

He called on McHugh to engage with ASTI “on an urgent basis”.

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