Clarity over this year’s Leaving Cert is due within the next week, Taoiseach says

Teachers’ unions call for further changes to written exams instead of ‘hybrid’ model

Teachers’ unions want further changes to this year’s Leaving Cert written exams to account for Covid disruption. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Teachers’ unions want further changes to this year’s Leaving Cert written exams to account for Covid disruption. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has promised there will be clarity over this year’s Leaving Cert within the next week.

Mr Martin also said that Minister for Education Norma Foley is committed to reforming the exam in general “in a sensible, informed way”.

Mr Martin was responding to People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, who said students “still don’t know what they’re going to face this year” in terms of the Leaving Cert.

The Taoiseach said he accepted the need for clarity on the format of this year’s Leaving Cert and “that needs to happen quickly”.

“The Minister [for Education] is very possessed of that reality also and we’ll bring this to a conclusion within the next week,” he said.

“The Minister is committed to reforming the Leaving Certificate, not in some knee-jerk reactionary way . . . rather in a more sensible, informed way, in terms of the need for continuing assessment into the future and so on, and having a more varied Leaving Cert options for students,” he added.

Stressful

Mr Murphy said students are less than six months away from “what will be one of the most stressful exams of their life” and they don’t know what the Government is planning for them.

“We know that even in a normal [exam] year, more than half of students experienced mental or physical health issues as a result of the Leaving Cert. But these students this year have also had to deal with two years of complete disruption to their studies [as a result of Covid-19],” he said.

“It’s stressful enough already, without the added fear of having to miss an exam or perhaps lose out on a college place due to catching Covid in the middle of them [the Leaving Cert exams].

“They haven’t been able to have a traditional education. They cannot be expected to sit a traditional Leaving Cert. It is time, it is way past time, to give clarity to this year of students.”

The Dublin South-West TD said it was also time to “scrap the Irish version of the Squid Games”.

“What we call the CAO-points rat race is not necessary,” he said. “It is based on the artificial scarcity of third-level places and a dog-eat-dog market competition.

“It translates social inequality into educational inequality, with those who can afford grinds and private education having a huge head-start. The result is that 99 per cent of young people living in Dublin 6 go on to higher education when only 16 per cent of those from Dublin 10 go on to do so.”

Union calls

Teachers’ unions want further changes to this year’s Leaving Cert written exams to account for Covid disruption, instead of introducing a “hybrid” option of allowing students to choose between sitting the exams and estimated grades.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said further adjustments to the exams – such as fewer questions as well as additional choice – are needed to take account of disruption to learning experienced by the class of 2022.

Both unions want State exams to go ahead this year and do not support using teacher-assessed grades for a third year in a row. Parents’ and students’ groups have been calling for the latter due to continued pandemic-related disruption.

A survey conducted by the TUI indicates that 75 per cent of its members believe modifications to course content announced last August in subjects for examination are not sufficient.

It said additional changes need to take account of the difficulties experienced in covering course content because of pandemic-related disruption.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said clarity on the format of the summer exams is urgently needed. Changes to the exams, subject by subject, are needed soon as a “matter of extreme urgency”, he added.

“We are hearing that the current indecision [on the format of this year’s Leaving Cert] is negatively affecting student engagement with important Leaving Cert tasks. Many students think accredited grades are coming and they are starting to disengage,” he said.

“It also means that the mock exams – which are normally a ‘friendly’ learning experience – risk being transformed into a ‘cup-tie’ because students think they will form the basis for accredited grades.”

The ASTI said in a statement that it was committed to the operation of standalone Leaving Cert exams.

“Every feasible adjustment to the written exams should be considered to give students as much confidence as possible as they continue their preparations,” it said.

Grade inflation

Separately, a senior Department of Education official told an Oireachtas committee that grade inflation is a key lesson to emerge from the use of teacher-assessed grades over the past two years.

Dalton Tattan, assistant secretary general at the Department of Education, said the education authorities had sought to support schools and teachers as best they could on such assessments.

However, it was very “challenging” given that teachers were not trained to conduct formal assessments for State certification.

He said proper support and guidance would be needed if school-based assessments are to become the norm in future.

The committee heard that the OECD is to commence a review of the 2020 and 2021 approaches to the Leaving Cert, which could inform future discussion on senior cycle reform.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently conducting a review of the senior cycle. It sent a report on senior cycle reform to Ms Foley last May, which has yet to be published.

It is understood to recommend placing a greater emphasis on continual assessments and incorporating a wider array of learning, such as through work experience.

Meanwhile, Mr Tattan said progress is being made to spread the “load” of Leaving Cert assessment beyond the traditional high-stakes summer exams.

A majority of subjects – 62 per cent – now have at least one assessment component such as a project or practical in addition to the written exam.

He accepted, however, that some core subjects taken by the most numbers of students – such as English and maths – do not have any additional assessment component and retain a strong emphasis on the final written exam.

Mr Tattan said very high levels of stress associated with the emphasis on high-stakes exams are “something we do have to question”.