Fresh talks aimed at resolving a row over plans for the Leaving Cert exams are due to begin on Friday between the Minister for Education and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI).
The union’s decision to pull out of confidential discussions over the exams on Thursday threatened to derail the Government’s plans to provide clarity for tens of thousand of students early next week.
However, late on Thursday the ASTI accepted an invitation to new talks with Minister for Education Norma Foley.
ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said current plans were unacceptable on the basis that calculated grades would become a "dominant option" and the Leaving Cert exams would end up "filling in assessment gaps".
Meanwhile, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said it was continuing to engage with the Department of Education to achieve “workable arrangements” in relation to this year’s exam.
It is understood that broad agreement had been reached among most parties that all students would be given the option of calculated grades.
Students would then have the choice to go on and complete the regular Leaving Cert exams in June.
However, the agreement of both teachers’ unions will be critical to providing a calculated grades option for students given that teachers would be required to assess their own students.
The Department of Education said it was “taken aback and disappointed” at the ASTI’s decision to withdraw from talks.
“At no stage of discussions today did the ASTI indicate its intention to take this action,” it said.
It said Minister for Education Norma Foley and her officials will continue to engage with all education representative bodies, including the teachers’ unions, to provide Leaving Cert exams and a separate option for students.
“Fairness and certainty for the class of 2021 is at the centre of what we want to achieve in these engagements. We are happy to engage with all concerned to achieve this objective”, the statement said.
The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) said the ASTI’s announcement has caused”stress, anxiety and worry to skyrocket” among students.
“It is adding fear into an already high pressure situation, and the delivery of clarity for students has been further pushed out due to this breakdown in talks,” it said.
The ISSU said students will be most affected by the decision and it was vital to “do right by them and show empathy.”
Most of the major Opposition parties have called on the ASTI to re-enter talks as soon as possible.
Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said “solutions will be found at the negotiating table, not away from it” and urged all parties to keep engaging.
Labour Party education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said nothing will be achieved by walking away from the table and encouraged the ASTI to return to talks.
Mr Christie said the ASTI had entered planning talks “in good faith” to explore how the option of a choice in the event that the Leaving Cert, or elements of it, did not go ahead.
“It is clear to us that the approach being developed would not provide the meaningful Leaving Certificate experience this cohort of students deserve,” he said.
However, he said process that was being developed in a manner that would see the Leaving Cert “relegated to a secondary position” with calculated grades the “premier option”.
“The lack of data this year would make the delivery of a credible calculated grades process extremely challenging,” he said.
“Given the widely accepted additional stress that students are currently experiencing, it is extraordinary that the only option being explored is that they would effectively prepare for two versions of a Leaving Certificate rather than one.”
He said the union was calling on Ms Foley to re-establish the focus of the talks so that “a meaningful Leaving Certificate experience is provided to this cohort of students, which they rightly deserve.”
The ASTI said it will “continue to engage constructively with the re-opening of schools process” in the meantime.
In a separate message to members of the union, Mr Christie also said there doubts had been cast regarding the running of oral practical and performance elements of exams.
“ These doubts must be removed,” he said.