State exams Q&A: What is happening with the Leaving Cert and Junior Cycle?

Leaving Cert likely begin in late July and could run until early September

Minister for Education Joe McHugh is likely to formally announce that the Leaving Cert will begin on Wednesday, July 29th.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh is likely to formally announce that the Leaving Cert will begin on Wednesday, July 29th.


When will the Leaving Cert begin, exactly?
Minister for Education Joe McHugh is likely to formally announce that it will begin on Wednesday, July 29th. He said in an interview this week that he is keen for it to start mid-way through a week - as is tradition - so students don’t face five exams in a row.

Why is it going to take so long to get a timetable for the exams ?
The official position is that a timetable won’t be available until early June. This, says Mr McHugh, will allow officials to have access to the latest available public health advice.

In an interview on Tuesday night, he said the easing of restrictions will impact on what is possible. For example, he said at present the maximum period a group of people can congregate indoors for is two hours, which would impact on the timing of individual exams. These rules may change over the coming weeks, allowing longer exams to take place.

Over what period of time will the exams take place?
Nothing is official yet, but there have been discussions over holding one major exam a day for public health reasons. The biggest exams - such as English, maths and Irish - could take place towards the start of the exam period to help speed up the marking process. Multiple smaller exams could be held towards the end of the exam window.

This would see the Leaving Cert take place over a longer period and could stretch into early September - the 2nd of September has been mentioned - by the time all the exams are wrapped up.

How certain is it that the Leaving Cert will go ahead?
Nothing is guaranteed. Mr McHugh said holding the exam in late July/August is the Department of Education’s “plan A” and all efforts will go towards making this happen.

He acknowledged, however, this was based on the assumption that the public will continue to abide by public health restrictions and that the Covid-19 curve flattens further.

As he said himself, the department is also examining “plans, B, C, D and E . . .” if the exams cannot go ahead.

Why aren’t predicted grades being considered?
Some other countries, such as the UK and France, are going down this route. Mr McHugh said it has been ruled out because there was “too much inherent bias” in the system.

“There’s the practicality of teachers’ grading nieces, nephews, sons or daughters, or teachers who are easy markers or hard markers . . . we don’t feel the policy of predicted grading is a fair system,” he said, this week.

Teachers’ unions and school management bodies share this view, though most students - based on an Irish Second Level Students’ Union poll - disagree.

Some education figures, however, maintain it is still possible and there are safeguards to deal with bias.

It has also been pointed out that the State Examinations Commission provides “expected grades” for students who - for reasons outside their control - cannot complete their exams.

What measures are in place to assist students with poor broadband or a lack of devices?
This is a real problem and threatens to widen the academic gap between the haves and have-nots.

On Wednesday, Mr McHugh announced a multi-million euro fund for schools to buy devices for disadvantaged students.

He also 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.

I’ve heard that the Junior Cycle is either cancelled or delayed. What’s actually happening?
The Junior Cycle as originally planned is , in effect, cancelled. The Department of Education has replaced it with school-based exams which will not be graded by the State Examinations Commission. The tests will be marked by teachers.

Students will not get a traditional Junior Certficate to mark their completion of three years of education.

They will, however, get a school-issued “Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement” which will reflect classroom-based assessments, assessment tasks and project work.

Do schools have to hold these tests in the next school year? Or can they hold their own in May?
Coláiste Bhaile Chlair in Claregalway made headlines when it announced it will proceed with its own tests in May. Presentation Secondary School in Kilkenny has taken a similar decision. It is likely others will follow.

The rules are a bit of a grey area - though it is hard to see how schools can be compelled to provide Junior Cycle tests in the next academic year given that they are no longer State-certified exams.

Mr McHugh has asked schools to hold off announcing their own arrangements and is working on fresh pland and guidelines with school management bodies and other stakeholders.

I’m worried about contracting the virus in an exam hall. What public health measures will be in place?
These issues are still being worked on and will be guided by public health advice. The cancellation of the Junior Cycle exams makes it much easier to hold exams in study halls where desks are at least two metres apart.

It is also likely there will be much greater use of “special centres” - or smaller exams centres, such as classrooms - for those who are immuno-compromised. Authorities insist that all measures will be guided by public health advice.

Will I be able to contact my teachers after the normal term ends in May?
Teachers’ unions have been told that the school term ends on Friday, May 29th.

Mr McHugh has asked that everyone at that point take a break for two weeks, but that a “ line of contact” with schools/teachers be available remotely after these two weeks.

This is aimed at maintain a link with Leaving Cert students and helping to iron out issues or queries they may have, rather than teaching normal classes. It is then expected that from mid-July schools will reopen for two weeks.

I’ve heard the schools will reopen for two weeks in July. When will this happen?
Mr McHugh has requested that schools and teachers provide two weeks of school-based engagement for Leaving Cert students in July, ahead of the start of the exams. This is likely to be from July 13th, though no official date has been announced.

Will it be safe to go back to school?
Social distancing will still be in operation, so it is likely that classes will be split into smaller groups.

All teachers are being requested to return to school, so staff members will be available to support students for study skills, revision or other areas where they require help.

I’ve heard of some resistance from teachers’ unions. Will teachers actually be in school?
There were contrasting signals from the two secondary teachers’ unions when the decision to postpone the exams was first announced.

The TUI said it would encourage it members to support students, while the ASTI signalled that the plans could not be enforced. However, they both now seem to be on the same page and say that the needs of students must come first.

There, of course, may be genuine healthy reasons why some teachers will not be available to return in July.

When will we get our Leaving Cert results - and will colleges or further education courses start later as a result?
No official date is available yet, though it is likely that results could be issued in October.

Third level colleges say they will be in a position to admit students in late October or early November. Further education colleges will likely follow suit. Colleges say they will cut short holidays and reading weeks so students finish up as normal in May.