A Leaving Cert student writes: ‘School has been anything but normal. So, why return to normal exams?’

Students say their education has been seriously disrupted over the past two years

Over the last two years my education – along with thousands of others – was greatly disrupted. During the 2019/20 academic year, schools shut suddenly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I was in fifth year at the time and attending a different school. While it operated remotely through Microsoft teams, there were no live classes. Instead, the approach was prescribed self-learning. Teachers assigned us work at the beginning of the week and we completed it in our own time.

In practice there it was no comparison with learning in a classroom. On top of the sense of isolation, trying to learn without normal interaction with teachers was very difficult. Like many others, I fell behind and became increasingly worried about how I would cope in the Leaving Cert.

I decided to repeat fifth year in a different school that was able to offer live classes.

Covid-19 only promised to get worse, which it did. Over the winter of 2020/21 school closures reoccurred. While live classes allowed us to tackle the majority of challenges, it was no replacement for a real classroom.

We now expect these same students to sit the most important exam of their life without ever having had the experience of a State exam

Living in rural Leitrim meant there were many challenges not only for the students, but also for our teachers: poor broadband connections meant classes could lag or disconnect at any moment.

The return to school has been much better, but not without challenges. Teaching and learning with face masks isn’t easy and freezing cold classrooms make it difficult to concentrate.

I want to acknowledge how amazing our teachers and principal have been at Carrick-on-Shannon Community School over the last two years; they've supported us through so much and are constantly interacting with us and providing support.

But I also want to acknowledge the fact that many of us have missed large amounts of education not only through school closures, but as a result of being close contacts or being diagnosed with Covid-19.

Personally, I’ve been working in Supermacs and in Beirnes of Battlebridge in Leitrim village as a barman and waiter to help save up for college. It meant that I missed numerous days waiting on test results, in addition to a two-week absence after I was diagnosed with Covid. The long-term effects I’ve since experienced have greatly affected my energy levels and my ability to concentrate in class.

These are just some of reasons students have been looking for a hybrid Leaving Cert this year. Our experiences have been anything but normal – so we shouldn’t have to return to normal exams.

While I welcome the changes announced by Minister for Education Norma Foley to this year's exam papers, they don't go far enough. As I see it, the changes simply do not take account of the volume of education we have missed.

The basis of the Minister's argument against a hybrid Leaving Cert was the lack of data to standardise teachers' estimated marks; the lack of Junior Certificate results for 25 per cent of students was listed as one of the main reasons.

Yet, we now expect these same students to sit the most important exam of their life without ever having had the experience of a State exam?

I’ve studied politics and society for the last two years; I aspire to be a journalist or a politician. I’ve learned to stand up for something I believe in, especially something that’s going to affect my future.

This decision comes at a time when the Oireachtas has been debating children's mental health and the need to prioritise wellbeing.

Those responsible for the decision to revert to an exams-only approach to the Leaving Cert say they heard the student voice. They may have heard it – but they listen? We students have a voice – and we’ll be prepared to use it come the next election.

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