The Irish Times view on children in the pandemic: a generation hit hard by the crisis

Ministers say the decision to abandon the Leaving Cert finally gives students some certainty; they said the same two weeks ago when announcing a different decision

Unable to decide whether the Leaving Cert should take place or whether results should be determined by in-school assessments, the Government appears to have chosen both options. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Unable to decide whether the Leaving Cert should take place or whether results should be determined by in-school assessments, the Government appears to have chosen both options. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Unable to decide whether the Leaving Cert should take place or whether results should be determined by in-school assessments, the Government appears to have chosen both options. Ministers say this finally gives stressed sixth-year students some certainty; they said the same two weeks ago when announcing a different decision, now reversed. The move is understandable and arguably the least worst solution. But it will almost certainly leave students in disadvantaged areas worse off, place teachers in an invidious position and leave questions hanging over the integrity of Leaving Cert 2020.

The Department of Education had a difficult dilemma, of course. The Covid-19 crisis has brought the economy and much of society to a standstill, and our inability to predict the behaviour of the virus makes it very difficult to plan for a large, nationwide event such as the Leaving.

But the decision will come at a high cost. It would have taken a big logistical effort, including the hiring of many more invigilators, but it’s not entirely clear why social distancing could not be observed by spreading exam students around the empty schools in which the Leaving takes place – potentially in August, several months after many European states will have reopened their own schools.

For all its faults, the Leaving Cert has one essential quality: anonymity. Every student has not a name and address but a number. For those two or three hours, at least, they are judged equally, no matter who they are, what school they went to, what their teacher thinks of them or where they grew up. For the class of 2020, none of that now applies. Given that teachers’ assessments will be adjusted in line with the “expected distribution” of grades in each school, class divisions will be further entrenched. Predicted grades are, as Minister for Education Joe McHugh said just over a week ago, “inherently biased”.

The anguish that many exam-year teenagers have been feeling is reflective of a broader theme of the past two months: while young people are less likely to fall ill from Covid-19, they are very heavily exposed to the worst effects of the crisis it has caused. Young children are losing out on socialisation opportunities at a key moment in their development. Their worlds have contracted in ways they cannot understand; they cannot even walk into a supermarket without receiving glares of disapproval. They are missing out on schooling – a loss that impacts most severely those from poorer backgrounds.

And the damage will linger long after the immediate crisis has faded: today’s 18-year-olds, facing into the second recession in their lifetime, will go out into a world with fewer jobs and greater uncertainty – a world emerging from a generational trauma whose scars will take a long time to heal.

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