Leaving Cert 2022: Government in wait-and-see mode over hybrid option

Officials acutely aware that giving students choice will create a different set of problems

Teachers’ unions  support the full return of State exams this year. Photograph:  Bryan O’Brien

Teachers’ unions support the full return of State exams this year. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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A key meeting of the advisory group on planning for the State exams is due to take place on Thursday but don’t expect an announcement on what the format of the exams will look like in 2022.

All indications are that the education system is still in wait-and-see mode over calls to deliver a hybrid Leaving Cert; much will depend on the level of pressure facing the Government between now and the end of this month.

Senior figures are acutely aware that bowing to demands for a choice between exams and teacher-assessed grades may be popular in the short term but could cause all manner of political problems when results are issued next August.

Calls for students to be given a choice between exams and teacher-assessed grades have been ramped up dramatically in recent times.

One by one, the main Opposition parties have joined in a chorus calling for change, followed by the main secondary school principals’ association.

Most significantly, the Irish Second Level Students’ Union has rowed in with an opinion poll which indicates that two out of three senior cycle students want a hybrid Leaving Cert. The organisation’s formidable lobbying power – aided by social media – pressurised the Government to deliver an alternative to the traditional Leaving Cert over the past two years.

Their main argument is that students have experienced huge disruption over the past two years: school closures, patchy remote learning, combined with the volume of teachers and students who have been out for Covid reasons.

On the other side are teachers’ unions who support the full return of State exams this year.

The unions – who are opposed to assessing their students for State exams – argue that circumstances this year are radically different from previous years and there is no justification for offering additional options.

Adjustments to exams

They say schools have remained open this year and that adjustments have been made to this year’s exams to reflect this. Furthermore, they say that the absence of Junior Cert results for a large cohort of students – whose schools do not have a transition year programme – means teachers’ estimated grades cannot be reliably standardised.

So, where does the Government stand? Minister for Education Norma Foley has said adjustments to the 2022 exams, which include more choice and fewer questions, depending on individual papers, take account of disruption to students’ learning experiences.

It would, of course, be far cleaner and straightforward for the education system to revert to traditional exams. There may also be scope to make further adjustments to the exams by having fewer questions or placing a greater weight on student projects, and so on.

The prevailing political environment, however, is another matter. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said last week that the possibility of a hybrid Leaving Cert had not yet been ruled out and a decision would be made soon by the Government. This was a significant shift in tone. A contingency plan is being drawn up, according to sources.

However, there is also recognition that a hybrid Leaving Cert could create a series of new political landmines.

A return to some form of teacher-assessed grades will, inevitably, lead to more grade inflation. This, in turn, means CAO points for students will increase and students losing out on places due to random selection. This will trigger a desperate hunt for yet more third-level places to ease some of the pressure. All this at a time when the third-level system is stretched to capacity, according to university sources.

Many parents, and students, won’t thank the Government for the current situation, and fewer still will remember it was the Opposition which demanded a hybrid system in the first place.

As of now, there is still a distance to travel before decisions are made. Whatever happens between now and then, we know one thing for sure: the predicted grades genie is out of the bottle; getting it back in may prove harder than anyone ever imagined.

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