Pupil tells Oireachtas: exam was like a ‘competition to see how fast you could write’

Tara O’Sullivan (15) says students need longer completion times on Junior Cycle exams

Tara O’Sullivan (15): “Trying to squeeze three years of learning into a two-hour exam for a subject like English seems ridiculous.”

A 15-year-old schoolgirl has told an Oireachtas committee how completing her mock junior cycle English exam was like "a competition to see how fast you could write".

Tara O'Sullivan, a student at Loreto College, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, said reforms to the English exam introduced earlier this year had sparked anxiety and confusion among many of her fellow pupils.

She told Joint Oireachtas Committee for Public Petitions that she and her friends were not able to complete a mock two-hour exam based on the new curriculum. After posting a petition online, which gathered some 12,000 supporters, she quickly realised that students in other schools had the same problem

“I wasn’t the only one feeling stressed about it. Like me no one could believe the number of questions that they were supposed to answer in such a short time. It was like a competition to see how fast you can write instead of an actual test of your knowledge and ability.”


She added: “Trying to squeeze three years of learning into a two-hour exam for a subject like English seems ridiculous.”

The exam reforms meant the English exam now consists of a single two-hour exam, in contrast to two 2½-hour exams under the old Junior Cert.

“Furthermore, this dramatic decrease in time only serves to widen the gap between Junior and Leaving Cert, where we will be back to two long exams of over six hours total.”

She said one of the key elements of the new Junior Cycle was to carefully plan, draft and redraft everything we write. "The new English exam directly contradicts this philosophy. None of this makes sense."

One complaint

In a sitting of the committee earlier this year, the State Examinations Commission said, despite concerns over time available for students, it had received just a single complaint over the junior cycle English exam

It said the English exam was still being drawn up when Ms O’Sullivan’s petition was submitted, but did not say whether it resulted in any specific changes on foot of the online campaign.

Aidan Farrell, the commission's chief executive, said students who were facing into the first exam under the new reforms were understandably concerned for their prospects in the "real" English exam based on their experiences in mock papers.

However, he said reports from teachers and candidates on the 2017 Junior Cycle English exam showed “no difficulties were experienced by candidates in respect of completion time”.

Mock exams

Mr Farrell said the commission was not responsible for papers used in mock exams, which were often produced on a commercial basis, and declined to comment on the quality of them.

Ms O'Sullivan, however, said she was disappointed by "how little effect the dissatisfaction of students, parents and teachers nationwide" had on the decisions made by both the commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and in the Dáil itself.

“I’m glad the petition is before the committee even though it’s after our exams as I hope it will improve things for future students. Thank you again for inviting us and giving us a voice,” she said.

Ms O’Sullivan was accompanied at the committee by fellow students Ellen McKimm, Faye Dolan and Adrianne Ward.

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