Dáil row over penalties for canvassing teachers on Leaving Cert

Sinn Féin and Labour clash during debate on legislation to provide for accredited grades

Leaving Certificate students should not be penalised if another person canvasses a teacher in the accredited grades process without their knowledge, the Dáil has been told.

Sinn Féin education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire called for further safeguards for students because of the “serious repercussions an accusation of canvassing would have in certain circumstances”.

But Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Riordáin insisted “the message must be sent out to the entire education community that you cannot talk to a teacher about a particular student’s accredited grade for the leaving certificate. That is just a no-go area on every level.”

He warned that if there is any dilution of the measure “people will find loopholes, as they always do in Irish society. We have seen that time and time again.


“There needs to be a sacred space for teachers to do their work without interference from anybody, whether this interference is known to the student or otherwise.”

The two TDs disagreed during a debate on legislation to provide for accredited grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

Introducing the Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill, Minister for Education Norma Foley said it allows the State Examinations Commission, which is in charge of the exams process, to withhold results from a candidate where canvassing occurs.

Ms Foley said that “detailed procedures in regard will be provided for in regulations which are being prepared”. The Bill also allows the commission to “withhold results if false or misleading information is provided for the purpose of the award of an estimated mark”.

Mr Ó Laoghaire said he welcomed protections for teachers in relation to accredited grades. “Teachers are also members of our communities and they should be entitled to go to their GAA clubs or to the shops and be able to walk around without fear of being approached, lobbied or anything like that.

“It is important that we protect them and the supportive and close relationship between school staff, teachers and students,” he said.

But calling for further safeguards for students, he said “it’s not difficult to imagine circumstances where a person, be it a parent or someone else, would lobby a teacher on behalf of a student without the student knowing about it. It is the student who pays the penalty regardless of whether he or she knew or had any active hand, act or part in it.”

Mr Ó Laoghaire said this was the wrong approach “and I do not believe it would stand up in court. We need to adopt an alternative approach to ensure that students who are involved in canvassing or breaking the rules face sanction, while students who are not involved in canvassing continue to be entitled to have their leaving certificate.”

He added that “the parent or other person who is lobbying, not the student, should be subject to a sanction either by means through a fine or by another means”.

He said he was not in any way tolerant of canvassing. “I am simply suggesting an alternative means of sanction.”

But Mr Ó Riordáin, a former primary school principal, said the entire education community had to get the message that it is a no-go area on every level to canvass a teacher about grades.

“If one does this, one may potentially impact negatively on a young person’s future. That is strong message which should not be diluted,” he said.

“Regardless of the very unusual circumstances, we have to send out a message that strictly no canvassing can take place on any level whether the student is aware of such canvassing.”

He said that “while this measure is strict and tough, and potentially very difficult for students, this Bill must be clear that absolutely no canvassing on any level will be tolerated. We should proceed on that basis. It is a very important message, albeit a difficult one for young people to have to consider.”

Green reaction

Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh said the 87 per cent of students who have opted to do both the exams and accredited grades represent a data set to critically evaluate the Leavinc Certificate system.

“I am not sure it is an exam that does well in terms of rewarding creativity or critical thinking, and neither can slow, deliberative thinking skills expect to be rewarded in the three-hour pressure cooker of an exam situation,” he said.

Social Democrats education spokesman Gary Gannon agreed it was an opportunity to change the system, arguing that it is a myth that the exam "is some great meritocratic system. The pandemic forced us to cross the Rubicon in terms of the traditional leaving certificate examination. An immovable and archaic institution was forced to evolve and adapt in mere months."

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the examination system originated in imperial China "as a way of selecting people largely from elites" and perpetuating elites.

There was an opportunity to give everyone equal access by removing the leaving certificate barrier to educational fulfilment and potential “instead of a system that stresses, alienates and degrades the real meaning of education”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary correspondent with The Irish Times