Leaving Cert English exam postponed after 'leak'

Wed, Jun 3, 2009, 01:00

The State Examinations Commission has been forced to reschedule tomorrow’s Leaving Cert papers in English after a superintendent distributed the wrong paper to students in a Co Louth school today.

The exam – English paper 2 at both higher and ordinary level – will now take place on Saturday at 9.30am. Some 51,800 students are affected: 34,500 at higher level and 17,300 ordinary level.

Students at a school in Drogheda were given paper 2 instead of paper 1 this morning.

The mistake was realised by the superintendent and the correct paper handed out within minutes. But news of the contents of paper 2 spread like wildfire after students emerged from the exam shortly after noon.

News of the leak featured on the boards.ie website as early as 2.45pm. News of the leak was also communicated around the country by text message and e-mail.

It is a serious embarrassment for the State Examinations Commission, which took over responsibility for the exams from the Department of Education in 2003.

The commission said it did not become aware of the leak until about 4.30pm yesterday. It said it was logistically impossible to reschedule the exam for tomorrow morning.

The commission is bound to be questioned closely about this as an alternative English paper 2 at both ordinary and higher level had been prepared months ago. Every year the commission prepares alternative papers for each exam in case of leaks or other problems.

It is understood the school in question stored the entire range of Leaving Cert papers under high security. It appears the superintendent in question handed out the wrong paper; there is no question of any malpractice.

Paper 2 in English is perhaps the most dreaded of all Leaving Cert exams as students have to guess which of the eight poets on the syllabus will feature in the exam.

Each year the paper is the focus of much speculation as teachers and students try to work this out.

Today’s leak is the first major security problem for the exam system since part of the Leaving Cert art exam disappeared in 1995. It was the furore following that incident that led to the establishment of the State Examinations Commission.

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said the integrity of the exam had been compromised by the regrettable incident.

Labour Party education spokesman Ruairi Quinn said the cancellation of the two papers as a result of the premature distribution of the papers was an "educational debacle that should never have happened".

"While there will be additional cost to the taxpayer arising from the forced re-scheduling of the exams and parents will be furious, the principal concern must be the implications for the tens of thousands of students who were due to sit these papers tomorrow," he said.

"Students have been preparing for these exams for two years and have organised their study and revision programmes in accordance with the exam timetable there were given at the beginning of the academic years. Now they are going to have to totally refocus their efforts for a new date that we still don’t know."

Mr Quinn said the Minister must now seek a full explanation from the State Examinations Commission and that a commitment must be made to put procedures in place to ensure such an error can never happen again.

Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said the cancellation of tomorrow's exam had left students "unnecessarily stressed" and that answers to a number of questions must be provided immediately.

"This is outrageous. The cock-up happened in one exam centre yet every Leaving Cert student in the country has to pay the price," Mr Hayes said.

He asked why the English paper 2 was in the hall in the first place and why the State Examinations Commission (SEC) was not immediately informed.

"The news about the ‘leaked’ papers appeared on Twitter, facebook and various websites after the exam. It seems these ‘leaks’ preceded the SEC being informed."

He also asked why the decision to cancel tomorrow’s papers was taken so late.

"Surely an earlier decision would have allowed time for the contingency papers to be couriered to each exam centre." Mr Hayes asked why there weren’t enough contingency papers in place.

"Why is every student in the country suffering? The idea that this can happen in one place yet everyone has to pay the price smacks of incompetence of the highest order."

“The inconvenience and additional pressure on students cannot be overstated. The contingency exam on Saturday will dramatically change study patterns and students will feel an incredible amount of undue stress."

A helpline is available for students at 1800 713913.