Call for media moratorium on Leaving Cert coverage heard by Oireachtas committee

Press interest ‘undoubtedly’ contributes to student stress, exam commission chief says

Media coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland was almost unique in the world and contributed greatly to the stress of pupils and parents, the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was told on Tuesday.

Andrea Feeney, chief executive of the State Examinations Commission, said that according to research "there are only two jurisdictions, Egypt and New York, as far as I can recall, where there's a higher level of media coverage in relation to the examinations. So we're quite unusual."

“We’d like a moratorium if possible,” she said.

Ms Feeney was responding to questions from committee members. Fianna Fáil TD Jim O'Callaghan asked whether it "adds to pressure on students when it's elevated in the public mind to being such an important annual event?"

Ms Feeney responded: “Undoubtedly. It certainly contributes. I’m sure it’s not all of it, but it certainly contributes to it.”

Committee chair Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe said he believed "that our national broadcaster RTÉ and other national radio outlets as well, and our print media, are reckless in some of their coverage coming up to the Leaving Cert."

There was was a media moratorium prior to general elections and suggested something similar might happen prior to the Leaving Cert.

Not only was media “driving the students mad, but they’re driving the parents mad as well”. He told the officials he was glad Ms Feeney said she “would like something done about this, but what can be done?”

Was there something the politicians can do? he asked. “Have you spoken to the national broadcaster, specifically our national broadcaster, who are getting taxpayers money, who are not responsible in some of their coverage and I’d be interested in your views and of any conversation that you’ve had with the media on this?”

Culture

Arlene Forster, chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) , said she felt a lot of such attention "goes back to how embedded the Leaving Cert is in our culture, in Irish society". The NCCA had not had "direct engagement" with "the broadcaster on that," she said, but it would welcome such engagement with the media.

“Absolutely, we would be open to that,” she told Mr Kehoe.

Agreeing with Ms Forster, Ms Feeney said such media interest in the Leaving Cert in particular, “was a symptom, not a cause. And they are reflecting broader societal imperatives. They are, maybe, contributing to stress or maybe reflecting the stress that is there in any event.”

However, over the past two years, “there has been a huge amount of coverage on the Leaving Cert because of the extraordinary circumstances, because of Covid,” she said. “But what there hasn’t been in August, there’s been no coverage of high achievers in the past two years.”

Neither in 2020 or 2021 were there “photographs on front pages saying ‘this is the student who got 9 A1s of 8A1s’. It didn’t happen in either of the last two years. And that is a change, because prior to that it was part of the firmament in August.” This was “healthy,” she said, and “should continue to be the case”.

It was her view, however, that, “as the senior cycle changes over time, the media interest will change as well”.

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Riordán described the Leaving Certificate as "incredibly brutal." There was now "an industry that's built around it. We have to be honest about that."

There were “grind schools, there’s people who are willing to sell notes, there’s a whole industry built around getting your child or getting a young person through this system. And parents are able to buy that extra resource or to use those extra resources. So there’s an inequality fundamentally at the heart of the Leaving Cert,” he said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times

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