Taste for gossip and technology cocktail lets cat out of bag

 

ANALYSIS:The rescheduling of English paper 2 would not have been required but for high-tech tools

PUT POWERFUL new communications technologies and a burning secret into the hands of garrulous Leaving Certificate students – and just add time.

Just such a cocktail of clandestine knowledge, thirst for gossip and a simple and effective means of disseminating small packets of information quickly sent the nation’s late teens into a frenzy on Wednesday afternoon.

While their technologically challenged elders remained in blissful ignorance for hours, Leaving Cert students, their friends and siblings were busy spreading the word about the leaked English paper within minutes of the end of morning exams at 12.20pm.

This isn’t the first time the Leaving Cert has suffered a leak, but in the pre-internet age it was easy enough to contain the damage. But not so now, in the age of Twitter, bulletin boards and mobile phone messaging.

Andrea Feeney of the State Examinations Commission (SEC) yesterday described the leak as a “slow burn” of information by SMS, tweet and online post – but in fact it was more like a bush fire.

By 12.39pm, one student already had three texts on her mobile about the error made at St Oliver’s community college in Drogheda, she claimed later in a post to boards.ie.

According to Ms Feeney, the exam superintendent who had mistakenly distributed the second English paper to students that morning instead of the first paper they were due to take collected the papers in less than a minute.

However, as is apparent from the leaks which surfaced by lunchtime, that was plenty of time for students in the hall to memorise or take notes of the contents of the paper.

The problem, at first, was getting people to believe there actually had been a leak. One of the first posters on boards.ie to relay news of the leak laced his message with a dose of scepticism: “Again I’ll say it, [my] bull**** detector is ringing like crazy at the mo.”

“Forget a leak, it never happens, and if it did they would simply issue the back-up papers immediately!” commented another poster.

Initially, it appears, texts bounced around groups of friends, and networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo were used to keep the information in private hands. But as ever more students got in on the secret, some let the cat out of the bag by posting to public sites such as boards.ie or the various Leaving Cert sites.

It was almost 5pm when the item reached Twitter, according to leading blogger Damian Mulley. By then, some students disclosed the contents of the paper in bullet-point fashion: “deception, Cultural Context, Keats, Longley, Walcott”.

The leak led to a flood of posts on boards.ie, where over 1,400 users were simultaneously logged on at one point. The discussion thread on the subject had attracted almost 2,000 posts by yesterday evening.

Yet, mobile phone operators say there was no noticeable spike in traffic yesterday. Vodafone said text and voice-call volumes on Wednesday were consistent with previous Wednesdays. O2 said Wednesday was one of the quietest days for texts over the previous fortnight.

By 3:50pm the SEC had heard of the leak, but it was after 9pm before it put a statement on its website postponing the English II exam to Saturday.

The decision caused much gnashing of teeth among this year’s Leaving Cert cohort, with much of their online ire focused on the superintendent who distributed the wrong paper in Louth. One student posted a map of the county with the word “Judas” printed on it.

Others railed against the decision to reschedule the exam on Saturday. By tea-time yesterday, almost 3,000 people had signed an online petition to move the exam to a later date.

More wistful – ie older – posters recalled problems with leaks in earlier Leaving Certs. “In 1994 when I sat the Leaving Cert, the English paper was stolen,” Karen McCormack tweeted. “This year a leak. Don’t they learn from the past!”

“A leaked Leaving Cert is nothing new,” recalled one poster. “Our year got a wrong paper back in the ’80s. But without internet or texting, that was that.”