The Minister for Education has had to make difficult decisions to provide certainty to Leaving Cert students, postponing exams to August. By August we'll be five months into the pandemic. Nobody knows where, or how, we'll be. If we look to the East today all that's clear is that nothing is clear. Many of us will struggle with the new norm.
August exams will apply additional pressure on already stressed students and families, particularly the socially and economically disadvantaged. Students may have been bereaved, have themselves been sick and be living with the impact of parents losing jobs.
High achievers will probably cope. We should, however, be concerned for the remainder, many of whom are likely, as fatigue sets in, to become disengaged, disinterested and to underperform. There will be an ongoing dance between loosening and tightening restrictions. However, Covid won't have gone away or be any less infectious.
There is, therefore, no certainty August exams can happen. If they do, it will be under very challenging conditions. We'll expect 60,000 students to travel to schools nationally to sit exams in restricted environments, with the possibility of infection ever-present. This year there are just too many questions without clear - and safe - solutions.
When schools re-open, teachers will be required to do much more than teach. Many students will return traumatised, their families overwhelmed and finances decimated. Teachers will be required back in schools refreshed and ready. Are we going to string them along through the summer too?
So, if after further weeks online and back in school, it's not possible to hold exams, what's plan B? For everybody's sanity a further extension is not an option. There is an alternative, implementable immediately, which requires fair consideration. Here's how it could work:
Schools supply expected grades to the State Examinations Commission (SEC). Teachers predict grades based on evidence in filed records, schools’ IT systems, mocks, Junior Cert, CAT4 testing, project/practical work etc.
Grades will be proposed to the principal and deputy. Where there are exceptional individuals or classes, supporting evidence will be provided. The principal and deputy will consider and then sign off on expected grade against national criteria, one of which will be the school’s performance in, say, the previous five years. The school will also rank students in every subject.
Where conflicts of interest occur (relationships, family friendships), staff will recuse themselves and will be appropriately replaced. Data will moderated by the SEC and anomalies investigated. Final grades will be determined by the SEC. It will be forbidden for schools to discuss expected grades with student and parents. Enquiries and complaints will be handled only by the SEC.
There could be two appeals mechanisms. Students could request a desk review of documentary evidence and moderation mechanisms. Alternatively, students opt to sit a written paper in any subject. Assuming the majority of students accept their grade it should be possible, with significantly less than 60,000 students, to safely accommodate exams. Each paper could be second-marked by a different examiner. This result will be binding, irrespective of whether it’s higher or lower than the expected grade.
At a time when fellow citizens don gowns and face masks in life and death situations, asking teachers to exercise professional judgement honourably and impartially should not be viewed as onerous
Teachers currently predict grades for students applying outside Ireland. Further education teachers and third level lecturers grade their students, subject to moderation, for terminal exams. Further education grades in many courses count for third level entry. All high stakes.
Understandably some teachers will be reluctant to grade students. We should not, however, underestimate the professionalism of teachers who, as was demonstrated again recently, always place their students first. At a time when fellow citizens don gowns and face masks in life and death situations, asking teachers to exercise professional judgement honourably and impartially should not be viewed as onerous. Teachers globally, including Northern Ireland, are currently engaged in similar processes.
To mitigate against shortcomings, colleges could, in 2020, increase the number of places available. First year examinations can subsequently adjust numbers advancing to second year. Given the anticipated shortfall of fees from international students, extra fee-paying Irish students might be attractive.
Additionally, colleges could retain a percentage, say 10 per cent, of places for students who accepted expected grades but didn't get their chosen course. Colleges could devise entry procedures - a matriculation-type exam or interview.
Although they are well aware of potential shortcomings, expected grades is the preferred choice of most students surveyed by the Irish Second Level Students’ Union. Students and their families will be most impacted. Why don’t we hear them? Is it that we’re not listening? Or that they need to raise their voices higher?
Built-in safeguards outlined will result in a system, while imperfect, which offers the fairest possible outcome. It should be possible to conclude all this in a relatively short timeframe, allowing us all to move on, avoid an interminable ordeal for students, families and teachers and ready ourselves for the more difficult challenges ahead.
Exceptional circumstances requires exceptional measures. If we want to offer certainty and fairness, there is a way. We should bite the bullet now and do the right thing for the class of 2020.
Barry O'Callaghan is a former principal and chair of the National Association of Principals and Deputies (NAPD) leading for learning committee. He has written this article in a personal capacity.