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Leaving Cert student: The government needs to listen to students for once and for all

Stella Butler shares her frustration at what she feels is a lack of long-term planning from government on schools.

Stella Butler

CHRISTMAS BREAK WAS one to remember. With the introduction of a curfew for hospitality and everyone around us going into quarantine, many wondered whether it was time to prepare for harsher restrictions.

In school, before the Christmas holidays, the big question on everyone’s mind was “Will we be coming back?”.

We were given refresher tutorials on how to use Zoom and it was recommended that we bring our books home from our lockers, just in case. Heads were racing with the worry of mocks, practical and oral exams.

During the holidays, we were compulsively checking the news for any update or even statement from the government regarding schools. When it was finally released, and while the government insisted that the reopening was the best for students, it really felt to us that student safety was not at the forefront of the decision.

Basis of the decision

It is extremely hard to understand the government’s decision to reopen schools without what felt to us, the students a proper, clear plan in place. That means looking at issues like ventilation in classrooms and proper planning and choice around exams.

To hear the discussion this week around maintaining the Leaving Cert in its old, traditional format – which let’s be honest, has been in dire need of reform for some time – is bound to have worried so many students like me. For the last two years of this pandemic, we’ve seen the same pattern emerge coming up to state exams and every time, no clear plan has emerged until the last minute. We deserve to be heard.

Can we not accept at least that we’ve learned one thing from the pandemic along the way – we are never truly in control and Covid might just have other plans? So, with that in mind, can the government not at least listen to students, hear our concerns, bring us into the conversation?

The government cannot keep requiring the school and exam system to continue on as they were and expect different results. The pandemic is continuing. We may have better vaccination rates but we still have very high case numbers.

High Covid numbers

With astronomical daily cases, of course, high absences from school were to be expected – of both students and staff. Yet the government doesn’t seem to have acknowledged that this will have a massive impact on students. Many Leaving Cert students fear that while they are absent, they will fall behind on important coursework.

Likewise, those who are in school are unsure whether they will have a teacher and if they do, many teachers will not move on with the course with so few students. Where does this leave those preparing for upcoming exams? Would the unions and government have us believe we’ll just all sail through?

The conditions in schools on a daily basis are far from ideal. For example, many of the students who could attend classes by Friday last sat in classrooms with all the windows and doors open. With a high of 3 degrees on the day, it is difficult to fathom how students are expected to perform to their highest potential in class.

With mock exams rapidly approaching, are Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert students now expected to sit in a freezing exam hall on the day? Meanwhile, many disabled and vulnerable young people have been left feeling totally abandoned throughout Covid.

Accredited grades

As it stands, in June, are we really to believe now that the class of 2022 will be sitting the traditional Leaving Cert without an option for accredited grades? Will we repeat the mistakes of the pass and kid ourselves another year?

At the start of the academic year, students were delighted to see that modifications were being made to certain papers because of the three months of remote learning during fifth year. Six months on, it’s evident this will not be enough. So many students have fallen behind because of absences and this is only growing after the January reopening.

As it is every year, many of Ireland’s exam students now feel that those who can afford extra help such as attending private schools or accessing grinds will do astronomically better than those who can’t. This year, especially with the number of prolonged absences, students from wealthier backgrounds have the luxury of accessing private tuition.

This inequity has always been present in the Leaving Cert system, but the current circumstances are making them increasingly more apparent and further deepening the socioeconomic gap in education.

Our government makes major decisions around the lives of Irish students and yet young people are not consulted along the way. The Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) recently said that “This demonstrates a disregard for how important the voice of students is in this discussion, as an equal stakeholder in education”.

It’s hard to have faith in the government’s plans around schools anymore as it just doesn’t feel like they have our best interests at heart. Yes, we’re in this pandemic and yes it’s challenging for everyone, but we’re in this pandemic long enough for the government to have ample time to plan properly.

We should consider at least planning for the need for remote learning as well as prioritising exam year students and students with special educational needs. The government must absolutely now consider making additional adjustments to the Junior and Leaving Cert exams before it’s too late for the Class of 2022. It is time we were heard.

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Stella Butler is a Leaving Certificate student in Dublin.

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