Minister urges schools to hold off cancelling Junior Cycle exams

Kilkenny secondary school is the latest to replace Junior Cycle with its own exams

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has asked schools to hold off cancelling Junior Cycle tests due next September until discussions take place with representatives of students, parents and schools.

Earlier this month Mr McHugh announced that Junior Cycle exams for up to 60,000 students would be replaced with school-based tests in the new academic year.

However, a number of secondary schools say this move will create unnecessary anxiety and stress among students. Instead, they are pressing ahead with their own exams and assessments between now and May.

Presentation Secondary School in Kilkenny announced on Wednesday that it is going ahead with its own exams for its Junior Cycle students.


Principal Shane Hallahan said the school was taking the move to avoid students being placed under "extreme pressure" over the summer.

“The current circumstances are difficult and stressful for students especially being separated from their peers as they try to prepare. I think we have to be conscious that so many young people have worked so hard for this,” he said.

The school’s move mirrors that of Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Co Galway, which announced on Monday that its Junior Cycle students will sit exams set by their own teachers during May.

Both schools plan to add these grades to the full marks awarded for the oral exams.

The lack of detailed guidance over plans for Junior Cycle exams has sparked criticism of the Department of Education and Mr McHugh by students, schools and Opposition parties.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Education said it was working with stakeholders in relation to details over the Junior Cycle exams and linked classroom-based assessments, assessment tasks and project work.

“The Minister believes that it would be preferable that those discussions are concluded before schools consider their assessment arrangements for Junior Cycle students in 2020,” the spokesman said.

This group is due to meet on a number of occasions and it is understood that official guidance may not be issued for another week or more.

Ultimately, schools are likely to have the freedom to decide what forms or exams or assessments best meet the needs of their students given that the Junior Cycle will not be a State-certified exam this year.

The group is understood to be working on guidelines for schools to follow in holding exams for students and what kind of materials could be shared across schools.

Meanwhile, Mr McHugh announced a special euro10 million fund for schools to support the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged exam students and other pupils.

Critics have said that a “digital divide” over access to devices and broadband will impact heavily on the least well-off students.

In response, the Minister said the euro10 million fund will allow students have access to devices.

In addition, he said the Government is working with telecoms companies to make a number of relevant websites “zero rated”. This would allow students to access these sites with no data costs.

In relation to buying devices, Mr McHugh said schools are being asked to prioritise exam classes, and then to look at where else access to technology is most needed.

“ I am confident this will make a real difference to thousands of students and provide the technology they need to be able to access online supports,” he said,

The Department of Education is due to send a circular to schools shortly, providing the details governing the funding for the grant and the top-up funding.

Fianna Fail's education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD welcomed the move but said it was unfortunate students "have had to wait almost six weeks for much needed ICT equipment".

"We know from a recent National Parents Council post primary that one in five children do not have access to quality broadband, so further action is required to get these students connected," he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent