Leaving Cert: ‘It feels aimless. I don’t know what the story is’
Covid-19 multiplies uncertainties for sixth-year students and their parents
Luke Casserly: “We are the ‘lucky’ ones, getting to be the guinea pigs.” Photograph: Shelley Corcoran
“The class of 2020”. Back in September, 2013, that opening caption on the presentation at the introductory evening for parents of first-year students provoked a shudder of wonderment about where we’d all be after their six-year journey through second-level education.
We hoped they would find plenty to spark their passion in the classroom, on the sports field, in other extra-curricular activities – and emerge as well-rounded young adults at the end, having made friends for life on the way.
But nobody could have even started to imagine where we were all going to arrive just three months short of their rite-of-passage that is the Leaving Cert. In these “unprecedented times”, one sub-group of the population which needs special consideration is the approximately 60,000 due to sit their final State exams this June. Not to mention their parents.
To be honest I had always scoffed at the notion of being a “Leaving Cert parent”, having observed the drama of some who you would swear were going to be sitting the papers themselves. However, since walking in those parents’ shoes and having found it impossible to be immune to the constant thrum of seasonal exam chatter, I am a little less judgmental.
Now of course Leaving Cert parents, of which I am one again, are in unchartered territory. Our offspring are home from school, trying both to avail of whatever distance learning can be offered and to revise, while huge uncertainty hangs over them.
In the best of times, sixth-year students have always had to cope with the anxiety of heading into the unknown. It’s natural for them to worry about how they will perform in the final State exams. Will their results be a passport to their preferred destination? What will life be like without school, when that’s all they’ve ever known?
The march of Covid-19 has multiplied those unknowns and imposed on these teenagers a suspension of normal life. So, what can parents do to help them through?
“It’s not greatly different from parenting the class of 1978 or whatever – or into the future, 2040. There are basics,” says the president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, Deirdre MacDonald.
Encourage them to follow their school timetable at home as much as possible. “Routine is very important for mental health and for good study.” While extra time in bed before the start of the school day is most teenagers’ preference, she doesn’t recommend it because “there are more distractions later in the day.
“I know you can’t turf them out of the bed but you can incentivise them,” she says, not ruling out financial bribes.
They need to find a quiet place in the house to study and to leave their phone somewhere else, except if they need it for their work. This requires self-discipline not to use the phone as the means of social engagement it usually is.
To students, she says: “Don’t be afraid to email teachers and share your concerns. They may be remote but they are not inaccessible.”
MacDonald, who teaches maths and social, personal and health education at the CBS secondary school in Wexford town, acknowledges that it is hard, in these circumstances, for Leaving Cert students to concentrate on study but says “that is part of life. I think there is great learning for everybody.
“I have always said you can’t teach resilience. You can give information re coping strategies, but you build resilience.” And this building of resilience “is happening now whether you like it or not. It will stand them in great stead going forward.”
Parents should remember that generally young people adapt to change better than we do, she says, and also “that they are all disadvantaged to the same extent”. Remind your student son or daughter that the State Examination Commission always does its utmost to ensure the integrity and equality of the Leaving Cert.
At the time of writing, one uncertainty has been lifted with the news that all students have been awarded 100 per cent in the oral components of their language exams and in the music and home economics practicals – without them taking place. That might have been a cause of celebration for some but disappointment for others who feel they are at a disadvantage now they will only be tested through writing.
The Department of Education and Skills has a helpful Frequently Asked Questions guide about these decisions on its website.
While parents need to empathise with their son or daughter on their difficulties, help them keep a sense of proportion, MacDonald suggests, by reminding them of the greater losses that this pandemic is inflicting on others.
“Treat them as an adult,” she adds. And if that doesn’t work, point out to them that they haven’t responded to that approach so now you may have to revert to parent-child measures.
Leaving Cert students need to know that they are the main priority of the Department of Education, which is working with the schools to minimise the effect of the Covid-19 fallout on their education, says Paul Rolston, communications director with the National Parents’ Council Post-Primary.
“It’s a tough time in their lives,” he acknowledges, “as it’s a big step anyway. Everybody is very committed to try to keep that as normal as possible.”
Keep reiterating, he suggests, that “we are going to get through this and life will come back to normal. That exam is going to be there, whether it happens in June, July or August, it is still going to be there.
“In our experience it is nearly always the parents who panic, rather than the students,” he remarks. Teenagers need to be calmly encouraged to keep the head down and keep studying, but it is important to get fresh air and exercise – not to vegetate – while respecting the advice on social distancing.
“Most of the Leaving Cert students have the vast majority of the course covered and they are now into revision time anyway,” he says. “It is not as disastrous as it sounds.”
There is not a lot of parents can do beyond support and advice because we can’t make them study. “We have never been able to do that,” he points out. “All we can do is surround them with, hopefully, good sense and support and be reassuring as parents that everything is there for them.
“These are unprecedented times but the things we have to look at and address are not that different from what we have always had to do,” he adds. “It might just be over a slightly longer time scale, until we get to the far side of this thing.”
The president of the Irish Second Level Students Union, Ciara Fanning, says it has been looking for consultation and clarification over the State exams. It is very difficult for students who “are in isolation, trying figure out what is going on”.
It is “such a difficult and confusing time” and the ISSU is hearing from some pupils who don’t have laptops at home to avail of whatever form of distance learning their schools are offering. But she also reports that people are dropping in spares to schools who can pass them on to those without.
The technological capabilities of schools and their staff also vary. As one student says: “A lot of teachers are older and clueless – my maths teacher didn’t have an email address until last week.” Then there is also the assumption that all students not only have broadband access but also know how to use the apps.
Having done her Leaving last year and now finishing her first year in Trinity College Dublin, Fanning says we are coming up to a time when some students would choose to stay at home and concentrate on revision, rather than attend classes. (Not that schools would normally recommend that.) However, “you usually take it for granted that you have the option [of school]”.
Right now, “whether or not you have great internet access, you won’t get the same level of education through your computer as you would in school and you won’t get the same kind of feedback from your teachers”.
There’s a gap on the wellbeing front too, she points out. “Teachers or guidance counsellors will notice if students are feeling really stressed and have a few words of reassurance. But it is really difficult now to expect parents to take on that role or for students to check in with themselves.
“It is a high-stakes situation getting into college normally, but now not knowing what is going on is hugely distracting for them as well.”
What’s her advice for parents?
“Try and put yourselves in their shoes. Most students are going to be really stressed and more irritable. Try to be there for them as best you can.”
Seek support for them if they are struggling with a particular subject. Some newly trained teachers are offering online grinds, she says, or there may be somebody in the neighbourhood who could help.
“The most important thing – and we would say this every year for the Leaving Cert – is just make sure your child knows that they are more than the points they get,” she stresses.
“It is really, really difficult to divide your self-worth from the grades you get on the page at the end, when you have been building up to this for two years. But this crisis has shown us more than ever how much we value our family and our friends over our grades in school and whatever kind of job we get.”
A fellow member of the ISSU executive, Luke Casserly, is in sixth year at St Mel’s College, Longford, and he says “our minds are in overdrive”. With all the speculation about whether the June exams will be postponed or cancelled and then what will happen with the CAO, “more clarity from the Department of Education would help”. But he appreciates that is a difficult thing to ask for right now.
“The Leaving is traditionally a slog that everyone has done and it hasn’t changed in years but now it has been disrupted and nobody knows what to think. And we are the ‘lucky’ ones, getting to be the guinea pigs.”
He is finding it very difficult to concentrate. “I am sitting at my desk here with my school journal, trying to do an English essay and it just feels kind of aimless because I don’t know what the story is.”
Casserly’s message to parents of students like him is: “Take it easy – pressure is a no-go right now. This year is the most stressful year of our lives as it is, never mind this added pressure. I know parents are very stressed out as well – having to work from home or some may have lost their jobs – but to acknowledge that already this is such a difficult time for us plus all this added stress.”