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Face masks, pods and a two-metre rule: This is how the Leaving Cert exams will work this year

While some students have opted for Accredited Grades, thousands will sit their Leaving Cert examinations this month.
Jun 6th 2021, 7:00 AM 15,879 11

THIS YEAR’S LEAVING Certificate examinations begin on Wednesday and between face coverings, pods and early starts, the experience will be quite different for students than in previous years.

This year, students had a choice of whether to sit an exam in each subject or receive a calculated grade, to be known this year as an SEC-Accredited Grade.

Students who opt to sit an exam will receive whatever result is higher between the two.

As thousands of students prepare to sit the examinations this week, let’s take a look at how the process will work this year and how it will differ from previous years.

Face coverings

The State Examination Commission has issued guidance for schools on how to safely conduct this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations in light of Covid-19. 

The guidance outlines that students, superintendents, school personnel and attendants will be required to wear face coverings at all times.

Any student who refuses or fails to wear a mask will be refused access to the examinations.

The only exception to the wearing of face coverings will apply to candidates who have been exempted on medical grounds.

Candidates will not be allowed to present for their examinations if they have been diagnosed with Covid-19, have symptoms of the virus, are a close contact of a confirmed case or have been instructed to self-isolate, quarantine or restrict their movements.

At the examination hall

Candidates will be required to be in their assigned seat in the examination centre at least 30 minutes before the start of exams on the first day and at least 15 minutes in advance of their exams on subsequent days.

Those who are late for their examination will be allowed to be admitted to the exam up to 30 minutes after the start time, but this time will be forfeited.

Candidates won’t be allowed to leave the exam centre within the final 10 minutes of the exam.

At the examination centre, there will be at least two metres between candidates and from the superintendent’s station.

In a standard-sized classroom, the maximum density will be 10 candidates plus the superintendent.

Multiple centres may be located in school gyms, and other large areas subject to the two metre physical distancing rule and an overall centre density rule of no more than 50% of the numbers possible in that room if applying the two metre distance per candidate.

Schools have been asked, as far as is reasonably practicable, maintaining each centre as a pod for the duration of the examinations in each centre. This is to help avoid interaction with other groups.

Candidates will be assigned to the same desk in the same examination centre for the duration of their exams, other than for specific logistical reasons such as aural exams. 

Dealing with Covid-19

The SEC guidance outlines that the operation of the Leaving Cert exams does not change the measures that schools need to take in preventing and controlling Covid-19.

Nor does it change the response of schools to dealing with an outbreak within the school, it says.

If a candidate, staff member or SEC superintendent develops symptoms which could be consistent with Covid-19, they should self-isolate immediately, not attend the examination or school premises and discuss the matter with their GP.

If this happens shortly before the exams when the candidate or superintendent is at the school or during the examination, the candidate or superintendent should not continue with the examination and should seek medical advice.

Throughout the course of the Leaving Certificate examinations, the Department of Public Health will continue to engage with schools, as they have been up to now, if they receive a notification of a case of Covid-19 in someone who attended the school setting whilst infectious.

This includes undertaking a public health risk assessment and identifying cases and close contacts as appropriate.

The SEC states that it is not up to the schools, or the SEC itself, to seek or identify cases or contacts, or to close exam centres without the direction of public health clinicians.

“School management should not take any action nor should they refuse entry to the examinations to those they believe may be close contacts, or those they believe to be unwell or have symptoms. These determinations will be made by public health in a timely manner,” the guidance says.

Contingency arrangements for candidates unable to sit exams

The SEC has acknowledged that there may be circumstances in which some candidates will be unable to take their examinations and will instead have to rely on Accredited Grades.

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As noted above, candidates will have to miss their exams if they have Covid-19, have symptoms of the virus, are a close contact, or are self-isolating, quarantining or restricting their movements.

A number of students in Limerick are to miss their exams as a result of being a confirmed Covid case or a close contact after a spike in cases in the county. The absence of back-up papers for students who have to miss exams for these reasons has been criticised, with Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire commenting that this situation was “entirely predictable”. 

Candidates could also miss their exams for other reasons such as medical emergencies, including hospitalisation.

Given the unique circumstances of this year, and restrictions on accessing hospitals, there will be not sitting of examinations in hospitals or other out-of-school settings as might have been possible in previous years.

It could also be the case that some candidates may experience a bereavement or other trauma over the course of the examinations and won’t be able to sit the exams.

In the event of a bereavement of a close relative, the SEC says there continues to be flexibility in scheduling an examination to allow a late or early start to an examination scheduled on the day of the funeral but there will be no opportunity to sit an examination on an alternative date as there was in 2019.

The SEC also notes that while less likely, circumstances also need to be considered where it is not possible to run the examinations due to a more significant disruption such as a school closure, or a local, county, regional or national lockdown.

In circumstances such as the above, the vast majority of candidates will have Accredited Grades available to them as a safety net in the event that they are unable to take their examinations, even if they have not opted for Accredited Grades.

“Even if candidates have not opted for an Accredited Grade in a subject or in any of their subjects, the Accredited Grade, provided the candidate is eligible, will be available as a contingency in the event that the candidate cannot sit the examination in June,” the SEC says.

‘Serious consequences’

The SEC’s guidance outlines that the actions of Leaving Certificate candidates between now and the end of exams in June “could have very serious consequences not only for them, but for others”.

“While the country is starting to open up, the actions of all involved in minimising the opportunity for Covid-19 to spread will be instrumental in ensuring that Leaving Certificate candidates can be provided with the opportunity to take their examination in June,” the SEC says.

The guidance says candidates and staff should follow the basic public health advice in relation to social distancing, stay within their normal pod (such as their class or family pod) and to limit interactions with others, even in outdoor settings.'s coronavirus newsletter cuts through the misinformation and noise with the clear facts you need to make informed choices. Sign up here

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Hayley Halpin


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