Hybrid Leaving Cert may require use of ‘school profiling’

Use of historical data shelved in 2020 over fears it could penalise disadvantaged students

Minister for Education Norma Foley is engaging with education partners over the format of this year’s Leaving Cert exams. Photograph: The Irish Times

Minister for Education Norma Foley is engaging with education partners over the format of this year’s Leaving Cert exams. Photograph: The Irish Times

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A decision to run a hybrid Leaving Cert this year could require the use of controversial “school profiling” to ensure there is consistency in teachers’ estimated marks, the Government has been told.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and other party leaders were informed by senior officials that an accredited grades model – based on teachers’ estimates – may need to draw on schools’ historical results in the Junior Cert exams.

This is due to the absence of Junior Cert exam data for about 25 per cent of this year’s Leaving Cert candidates who never sat the exam in 2020 when it was cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns.

This data is regarded as crucial in the standardisation process, which aims to ensure teachers’ estimated grades in different schools are equitably awarded.

The Government had planned to use schools’ historical performance in 2020 when Leaving Cert exams were replaced by a system based on teachers’ estimates. However, it dropped the plan following opposition claims that it could penalise students attending school in disadvantaged areas.

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A decision on the format of this year’s Leaving Cert, meanwhile, is likely within the next week. Students are calling for the introduction of a hybrid Leaving Cert on the basis that many have experienced significant disruption to their studies due to the pandemic.

Potential options

Teachers’ unions, however, are opposed to grading their students for the purposes of the Leaving Cert and say further adjustments to the exams are needed.

It is understood Mr Martin, along with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, were briefed on potential options for the format of this year’s exam on Monday by officials including the Department of Education’s chief inspector Harold Hislop, secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú and Minister Norma Foley.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach confirmed that a lack of data and issues around grade inflation were discussed at the meeting. He said everyone had sympathy for students and that changes were being factored into the exams, such as greater choice in questions and flexibility over practical work.

A solution needed to take into account what was best for students as well as the wider system, he said, adding that nothing had been ruled out and that Ms Foley continued to engage with education stakeholders.

The decision to omit school profiling in the 2020 Leaving Cert was at the centre of an legal challenge taken by Belvedere College student Freddie Sherry, who argued that the decision impacted unfairly on his results.

However, the High Court ruled that the Government was fully entitled to make changes to the standardisation model which they considered to be in the public interest.

It found that Mr Sherry had not shown he, or Belvedere, were subject of an unfairness arising from the final approach taken and had “certainly not” established an unfairness that would lead the court to conclude the system was unlawful.