A testing system for Leaving Cert students with difficulties

Almost 9,000 students with disabilities need accommodations in State exams, but there are growing concerns about a lack of transparency and how the process is managed

Róisín Lowe is a star student. She got an A in Junior Cert English. There’s almost no reason she shouldn’t perform well in her Leaving Cert next year, except for one: Róisín has dyslexia. She says that, like at least 9,000 other students, she needs some special arrangements to be made if she is to have a fair shot at the exam. But will she get them? Right now, she has no idea. It’s a constant source of stress, she says.

For her Junior Cert, Róisín (17) was granted a spelling and grammar waiver. But now, precisely because she performed so well in that exam, she risks having that waiver taken away. “I see a word and think I’m spelling it correctly, but the words move about on the page,” says Róisín. “If the examiner doesn’t know I have dyslexia, I’ll be marked down and could lose out on the college course I want.”

Róisín is a fifth-year student at St Leo's College in Carlow. Her application will be submitted next March, but it may take up to a year before it is assessed by the National Educational Psychological Service, which will then pass it on to the State Examinations Commission, which manages the Junior and Leaving Cert exams. "The teachers make the decision for the Junior Cert," says Róisín. "Why do we not trust them to make the right decisions for their students when the Leaving Cert comes?"

Róisín’s concerns aren’t unfounded. This year the State Examinations Commission received 8,854 applications from students with various disabilities, injuries and/or illnesses under its Reasonable Accommodation in the Certificate Examinations (Race) scheme, which is designed to level the playing field for pupils with learning difficulties or physical disabilities.


The majority of applications – more than 70 per cent – came from young people with dyslexia, and are assessed by the National Educational Psychological Service. The remainder were from children with dyspraxia, autism-spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, visual or hearing impairments, other disabilities, or broken limbs or illness close to the exam, and are assessed by the commission. The students are looking for readers, scribes, spelling and grammar waivers, word processors, recording devices, rest breaks or other arrangements.

Complaints In recent years, disability support organisations have expressed growing concern about how Race is being run. In his recent report, the Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon, said he had received 61 complaints in 2014 about the commission, most of which related to its handling of applications for Race. Parents and students have complained about:

  • a lack of written explanation to applicants when accommodations are refused.
  • the difficulty involved in appealing a decision when applicants have no idea what they are appealing.
  • school-based assessment tests administered by the commission, which, they say, do not fully measure the nature of some children's learning difficulties, particularly dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Parents and disability rights organisations have also expressed concern that some students are only given a final decision weeks or even days before the exams begin. We asked the commission how many students were given a decision very close to the exam, but no answer was forthcoming; we are appealing this.

Muldoon, as well as Ann Heelan of the Association for Higher Education and Disability, says there is a simple solution: the commission should be more transparent and should explain its decisions.

The commission says it has enhanced the Race application process, so for the 2016 exams applicants will get an explanation if their request is refused. It adds that, while a rationale was never automatically provided, “there has never been a difficulty for any applicant in having details of the reason why their application was refused released to them by the commission”.

Heelan says, “Yes, they give a reason, but that reason is often simply that they have assessed the student, and their reason often makes no sense to a parent who has provided them with an extensive medical or occupational report. Their answers are not transparent.”

The commission says it is reviewing its processes and is in regular contact with the Ombudsman for Children.

Opaque process But the process remains opaque. Applications on the grounds of dyslexia are referred to professional psychologists in the National Educational Psychological Service, but applications on the grounds of physical or behavioural conditions are determined by administrators in the commission, who, the commission says, “may consult with the special needs co-ordinator or learning support teacher in the applicant’s school”.

Earlier this year, Irish Times journalist Joe Humphreys revealed that, as far back as 2008, the commission did not implement a series of recommendations aimed at making the provision of exam supports for students with special needs fairer and more transparent.

The Irish Times submitted a number of Freedom of Information requests to the commission, seeking more details on the administration of the Race scheme. We were only granted access to a portion of the information requested, and are appealing the the commission's decision.

Students can be asked to sit school-based tests as part of the commission’s assessment procedure. These tests have formed part of the commission’s assessment procedure. Ann Heelan says these tests, which are often as short as 10 minutes, have been favoured above recommendations from occupational therapists and educational psychologists who have worked with the children for years.

“The Leaving Cert is what it is: a text-loaded examination in a range of subjects based on writing essay-style answers,” says Heelan. “This disadvantages many candidates with dyslexia and dyspraxia from the very start.”

Heelan has seen cases where students seem to fulfil the criteria for Race, with extensive supporting documentation, but are still turned down. When decisions come late in the day, this has an impact on exam performances, says Heelan. In some instances, they have been delivered on the day of the exam. She says it is “indefensible” that decisions are arriving within weeks or days of the exam.

The commission says students do not need to obtain a professional report because schools can provide a psychological report or scores on standardised tests, as well as details of the candidate’s performance under exam conditions. It adds that, over the past two years, the National Educational Psychological Service has undertaken a significant training programme with schools on the Race scheme to ensure schools understand the process.

Rosie Bissett, chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, says students who secure a reasonable accommodation for their Junior Cert should retain it for the Leaving Cert. She argues the commission should allow teachers make the assessment, trialling outcomes with students to see what works. "There's always a fear of an abuse of the system, that accommodations will be given to favourite students. But all that would be required is a random sampling process if a school has more applications than the expected average – although some schools do, of course, have more dyslexic students than others."

Bissett accepts there isn’t a bottomless pit of resources, and that those with the most need should be prioritised. “This shouldn’t be at the expense of those with milder or moderate needs, pitching disability against disability. As it stands, the system encourages perverse behaviour, with some parents saying to a child that to get what they want on the day of the school-administered test, they should deliberately perform poorly. It’s a bad system that encourages this behaviour.”


The State Examinations Commission’s response to a number of Freedom of Information requests suggests its record-keeping and decision-making processes need an urgent review:

We asked them for information on the number of students whose requests were accepted, rejected and part rejected. They said they do not keep a record of the number of students who are granted only part of their application.

We asked for information on what disability (for example, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism) or injury (broken arm, illness on the day of exam) applicants had. They said they did not have this information.

We asked for information on the number of complaints made to the customer services managers about the Race scheme, from parents or students. They said they did not have this information.

We asked for information on the number of students issued a response within a week of the exam for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015. The commission did not provide an answer.


Conor* is an 18-year-old first-year arts student at University College Cork. He was diagnosed with dyspraxia and sensory integration disorder at the age of eight. Years of occupational therapy followed. In fifth year of secondary school, he realised he might have Asperger’s syndrome and sought a professional diagnosis, which confirmed his suspicions. All these diagnoses were made privately because, says his mother Kate*, they knew they would be waiting more than a year on the public system.

Dyspraxia has always affected Conor’s handwriting. “It’s never really been legible. I’ve had several courses of occupational therapy to help. In first year of secondary school I started typing and, by third year, was using a speech-to-text tool.”

Conor was given a number of supports for his Junior Cert. He applied for the same – a scribe, a special centre (where a student doesn’t sit the exam with their other classmates), a spelling and grammar waiver, a word processor, a recording device and rest breaks. Kate thought it was a “form-filling exercise”. We have seen the documentation and ensuing correspondence with the State Examinations Commission.

Conor was denied a spelling and grammar waiver and a scribe, which he says he needed because his core hand muscles are not strong and his handwriting deteriorates over time. The commission didn’t explain its decision, nor why it rejected a professional assessment. Conor appealed.

Kate was advised by an experienced teacher to keep contacting the commission and to keep applying. “Don’t accept their decision,” the teacher said.

The exams were approaching. Conor was increasingly agitated by the additional worry of not being able to plan for his exams; indeed, the likelihood of developing anxiety or depression, as a result of stressful situations, can be higher for children on the autistic spectrum.

Kate contacted her local TD, Michael McGrath of Fianna Fáil, who became one of at least seven TDs to raise the issue in the Dáil. Around April, a staff member in the commission said Conor would be granted part of his request, but Kate had to push for this commitment to be put in writing. “I wasn’t seeking an advantage for Conor, just a level playing field. There’s no transparency; the contact should be with the parent, not the school.”

Ultimately, Conor was allowed to type and use a speech-to-text tool. He was given sensory movement breaks but not allowed a spelling and grammar waiver or extra time.

Conor says he has spent his life jumping through hoops to prove his disabilities. “I’m not going to grow out of Asperger’s or dyspraxia, but I’m required to have new reports on a regular basis.”

He is doing well at college, where supports for students with disabilities are generally much better than throughout the secondary school system. The college’s disability support service told Conor they would provide him with the same supports he got in school; Kate says this highlights the importance of making sure that children get the right supports at second level.

Kate has a second son, who has dyslexia. She’s dreading going through this system again, and says it has to change. “There needs to be more certainty for young people.”

* Names have been changed


Natalie is a resource teacher and mother of three, two of whom have dyspraxia. “My experience with students is that you can achieve what you want if you have the right teaching, motivation and support,” she says. “My own daughter got an A in Junior Cert art, which wouldn’t always be typical with dyspraxia because of the associated difficulties with fine motor skills. But she still has new challenges to face every day.”

For the average parent, it is difficult to find out and understand the criteria on which the application is judged, says Natalie. But she adds that the image of the State Examinations Commission as cold bureaucrats is not fair: “Any time I have phoned them and asked for advice about an application, they’ve always been helpful.”

The problem is wider and systemic, says Natalie. “I was an art teacher. I took the opportunity to train as a resource teacher, took time away from my students and then did a second course in helping students with autism spectrum disorder. Only a few centres – Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Cork and Sligo – offer this training. Who’s going to give up so much time to travel, at their own cost, for this training? The financial incentives have been removed.”

It means, she says, some schools are lucky to have experienced and well-qualified resource teachers, while some are not.

Natalie says parents sometimes have years of expectations that the child will get an accommodation. Those making the applications are sometimes not experienced enough and don’t know the right information to provide on the application. They’re usually teaching during the day, so they don’t have the time to adequately communicate with healthcare professionals.

“Parents have had to fight like mad for services for their child over the past decade; those kids are now coming into secondary school and the parents are ready to fight again,” she says. “I can understand that.”

There are reasons why the commission might fairly reject an application even if it seems, on the face of it, it should have been accepted. “The commission might decide to grant a tape-recorder, rather than a scribe, because it is the least intrusive support – it clearly shows the student’s knowledge about a topic. People in special education, including in the commission, want the best for children, but they don’t always know how to do that. I think the commission is learning, as are parents and teachers. Understanding of learning disabilities, particularly dyspraxia, is quite new.”