ASTI agrees to further talks in bid to resolve Leaving Cert impasse

‘Students have to be the number one priority’ but issue to important for union to be outside talks - Taoiseach

It is understood broad agreement had been reached among most parties that students would be given the option of calculated grades. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

It is understood broad agreement had been reached among most parties that students would be given the option of calculated grades. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has agreed to further engagement with the Minister for Education in a bid to resolve a row which has plunged planning for the Leaving Cert into uncertainty.

The union’s sudden withdrawal from the Leaving Cert planning process this week has threatened to derail plans to provide more than 60,000 students with certainty over the future of the exams.

Following a “constructive” meeting with Norma Foley and her officials on Friday afternoon, the ASTI said in a statement that more work is being done with a view to finding a resolution to the impasse.

It did not say whether it was prepared to re-enter the planning process for the exams and has declined to comment further.

Ms Foley reaffirmed her “strong belief” that a confidential planning process with all stakeholders remains the best forum to advance discussions. She extended an invitation to the ASTI to re-engage in this.

She said discussions will continue with all the other partners throughout the weekend.

Ms Foley reiterated her commitment to providing “clarity and certainty” to students at the earliest possible time.

On Friday Taoiseach Micheál Martin has pledged to put students first .

“Students have to be the number one priority. They are going through a lot of anxiety and stress and strain right now. And all parties to this issue must do what we can to alleviate that stress and that means clarity fairly soon,” he said.

“We were surprised yesterday at the unilateral decision (by ASTI) to leave the talks process and I think it’s very, very important that we, over the next number of days, get this sorted in the interests of students ….. there has to be clarity for the students’ sake.

Speaking during a visit to a new Covid 19 vaccination centre at Cork City Hall, Mr Martin said he believed there was “an understanding of what has to be done” and the Government was giving the union time and space to come to a decision

“Government has given space, for discussions to take place in a reasonable way and in a reasonable timeframe. Critically if there is to be a written exam as some unions are advocating for, and if there is to be a traditional Leaving Cert alongside other options well then classroom time is important.

“And Leaving Cert students coming back into the classroom to have classroom contact and engagement with teachers is a very important aspect of realising the option of a written examination subject,” he added.

Mr Martin said that the whole issue of how the Leaving Cert was to be conducted this year in the midst of a global pandemic was too important an issue for young people for a teaching union like ASTI to remain outside the talks process,” said Mr Martin, a former teacher who served as Minister for Education from 1997 to 2000.

Earlier, Government ministers criticised the ASTI’s decision to pull out of formal planning talks on the Leaving Cert.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said it was “beyond unhelpful” that anyone would walk away from the process.

Minister of State in the same department, Niall Collins, said “the country looked on in shock” at what happened last night

The ASTI’s decision to leave discussions had threatened to derail the Government’s plans to provide clarity for tens of thousands of students next week.

The president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said it would remain at the table.

ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie earlier said plans being discussed 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”.

The ASTI’s president, Anne Piggott, said that her union was committed to finding a solution as quickly as possible to find an exam that would “have standards”.

‘They need a plan’

Mr Harris was asked about the situation at a press conference on Friday morning where he announced new online further education courses for workers in the pandemic-hit hospitality sector.

He said that when it comes to the issue of the Leaving Cert “the most sense has come from the mouths of the students” adding: “They need clarity. They need a plan. They need this uncertainty to be taken away from them.”

He said Ms Foley is working 24/7 to deliver that and is engaging with all stakeholders, very intensively.

Mr Harris said: “It is has beyond unhelpful that anyone would walk away from that process.”

The Fine Gael minister added: “Look that was yesterday and today is a new day. I’m very pleased that the ASTI have accepted an invitation from Minister Foley to meet with her this afternoon.”

He said the message from Government is “get in a room, get this sorted and stay in a room until it is sorted.”

Mr Harris said there are no perfect solutions in a pandemic but Ms Foley is trying to “find the best possible way forward that serves students well and that has the confidence of teachers.”

He said he still hopes and expects that the issue can be resolved in the coming days.

Parents of children sitting the Leaving Cert have described the breakdown in talks on how to manage the Leaving Cert this year as “a complete mess” .

A parent who contacted The Irish Times on Friday morning said it was “incredibly stressful” for his daughter and she was increasingly anxious over “the dithering by the Minister and unions”.

The parent who asked not to be identified said the “overwhelming majority of students want predicted grades considering the amount of tuition time they have missed.

“Every day there’s some sort of tears from my daughter. There’s a lack of clarity over mocks, orals and practicals, a complete mess.”

On Newstalk Breakfast, the ASTI’s president, Anne Piggott, said she had serious reservations about calculated grades given the lack of data since there were no mock exams for Leaving Cert students. “The lack of data is a problem.”

If students were to have a choice – it should be one or the other (written or calculated grades). It should not be a case of “a bit of this or a bit of that”.

The ASTI was going to meet the Minister to discuss the issue but would not be returning to the talks, she said. “We want students to have certainty.”

TUI

However, the TUI’s Martin Marjoram said his union would continue to engage with the Department of Education to achieve “workable arrangements” in relation to this year’s exam.

He said it was essential the expertise of teachers inform the process and that they not be passive participants.

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Mr Marjoram said the TUI had remained in the process “because we think we can influence it”.

He expressed the view that the solution would be different from last year’s Leaving Cert but refused to be drawn on details of the negotiations saying it was not appropriate to debate them on the airwaves.

The union understood there needed to be a contingency plan in the event written exams could not go ahead because of public health concerns. It was important for students there was an outcome that would not be torn up afterwards, he said.