Schools undermined by mixed messages

 

Sir, – At 6.21pm on Thursday evening, I received an email from the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Unit, with a guide to the processes of the State grades.

Time and time again over the past weeks, principals and teachers have had to second-guess what is likely to be contained in these long-awaited communications from the Department of Education, and in an effort to ease the extreme and mounting anxiety of our sixth-year students, we have done our best to give them some certainty when the decision makers have failed to do so.

Two weeks ago we met with our sixth years remotely to determine whether or not mock exams would support their learning. Over 80 per cent wanted to sit a formal mock exam, to gain some examination practice, to gauge their progress in relation to where they would hope to be in June, and to give focus and structure to their study practices.

We decided to begin our exams remotely this week, and that if we were to return to school at any stage we would move to small group, socially distant, face-to-face exam scenarios. This necessitated considerable effort on the part of school personnel to distribute the exam papers, but we were happy to do so, believing as we did that it was in the best interests of our students.

To date we have completed four days of mock exams, attended by 90 per cent of students, who approached the exams with determination to gain as much as possible from the experience. We have a further five days of exams scheduled to take place in school next week, with all the associated planning and organisation that this entails.

On Thursday evening, at the end of a very long day, I read in this email that we are advised that “the period following the return to in-school teaching and learning should be used to maximise opportunities for teaching and learning of students”, and so mock exams should not go ahead.

This message is being delivered weeks too late for us, and is one of the many examples of how the work of schools is being undermined by mixed messages and by the dissemination of information in a most untimely fashion.

While we are staunch in our belief that the mock exams are an essential tool for all students to measure their progress to date and to prepare for the written exams that we will encourage every student to sit, in much the same way that one would be loath to take a driving test without some form of pre-test, students and their parents are tonight receiving the message via the media that mock exams are unnecessary and unhelpful.

As principals and teachers we know our students, and we know best how to support them. It is unacceptable to place us in a vacuum where we have to fill in the gaps to support the wellbeing and mental health of our students by making the best decisions, in consultation with our students and their parents, only for our work to be undone by the powers that be making unilateral statements that have not been informed by the needs and wishes of our students on the ground.

It is not unreasonable to expect that school management be consulted and informed of developments in a timely manner, and while I hold the journalists of The Irish Times and other such publications in high esteem, I would prefer if they were not the intermediaries through which vital information is disseminated to school leaders. – Yours, etc,

EILEEN O’DONNELL,

Principal,

St Raphaela’s

Secondary School,

Stillorgan,

Co Dublin.