Minister hopes students will have clarity on Leaving Cert plans ‘in coming days’

‘Intensive’ engagement between education stakeholders as talks on exams continue

Minister for Education Norma Foley has been in discussions with education stakeholders. File   photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Minister for Education Norma Foley has been in discussions with education stakeholders. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA

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Minister for Education Norma Foley hopes students will receive clarity “in the coming days” on plans for the Leaving Cert exam, but it is dependent on the continuing discussions with education stakeholders.

Minister of State Thomas Byrne told the Seanad on Monday that “intensive engagement is continuing” to “advance progress, provide certainty and clarity at the earliest possible time”.

Mr Byrne said: “I understand from the Minister – she has told me – that it is hoped that students will receive this clarity in the coming days but that’s subject to ongoing engagement with all of the education stakeholders.”

It had been hoped Ministers would sign off on a new plan on Tuesday, but this could now be pushed out until later in the week. Taoiseach Micheál Martin previously said Leaving Cert students would have clarity this week around how the exams would be conducted.

Mr Byrne reiterated the Government’s mantra that a “flexible and agile approach” is necessary but said the welfare of students and their families “is front and centre in all decision making”.

The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) pulled out of talks last week because it was unhappy that the calculated grades system was being prioritised over course work, orals and practical exams.

It rejoined the talks following a “constructive” meeting with Ms Foley.

Mr Byrne said “we do note their willingness to engage on the process already set out”.

Providing an update to the Seanad on talks about the Leaving Cert exam 2021, Mr Byrne said the Department of Education had signalled the solution needs to include the following:

  • The State Exams Commission has to run the exams and the corresponding processes, which was an issue last year;
  • There needs to be better provision for out-of-school learners in the process, which was also an issue last year;
  • Some cognisance of coursework including orals and practicals;
  • Timely progression to higher and further education using either exams “or the outcome of any corresponding process”.

Mr Byrne said the bilateral meetings began last week, continued at the weekend and discussions are ongoing again on Monday. He told Fianna Fáil Senator Mary Fitzpatrick, who asked for an update on the plans for the Leaving Cert, that in other jurisdictions where State exams have been cancelled further work has to be done to clarify what is intended.

Noting the English experience, he said a consultation process on possible arrangements closed on January 29th and feedback is being considered while authorities have said there are “no straight options”.

Ms Fitzpatrick said students had lost five months of their curriculum. “The mocks have gone and the orals are uncertain,” she said. Leaving Cert students “are anxious for three things – they want clarity, they want certainty and they want choice”.

She expressed disappointment that more information is not being provided and “it is really disappointing that the Sunday papers seem to carry more detail than this House is being informed by the department. And I don’t think this is appropriate.”

Mr Byrne said whatever was in the weekend papers was not the complete story as the talks were continuing on Monday.

Stressing the role of the Irish Secondary Students Union, he said there was a change from education stakeholder discussions in the past.

“The big difference now is the voice of the student is there at the table and in the public realm and is taken very serious and that’s a major change.”

Fine Gael concerns

Fine Gael Senator Mary Seery Kearney expressed concern about students doing the Applied Leaving Cert who have not been able to do their vocational subjects.

She said calculated grades would not address their needs and she had written to Ms Foley about this because the issue was not being dealt with. “Where is their opportunity to perform these tasks, get these credits and do these projects?” she asked.

She said they do some traditional subjects but vocational subjects include woodwork, agriculture, horticulture, childcare, health and beauty, graphics, construction and engineering.

Applied Leaving Cert students are “subsumed among all of the other Leaving Cert students but there is a cohort that needs to graduate this year and calculated grades will not meet their needs”.