Last Thursday we heard that a case taken by a dyslexic student against the State Exam Commission (SEC) had been successfully upheld by the High Court. While this is a welcome and positive outcome for the student involved, this itself does not guarantee that anything will change for the thousands of other families this year, and in years to come, who face similar barriers trying to ensure that appropriate supports are in place for their children.
Mr Justice Seamus Noonan said the decision of the SEC's Independent Appeals Committee refusing the student's application left him "none the wiser" about the reason for refusal.
He said the failure to give any understandable rationale for refusing was “all the more difficult to comprehend” when an earlier refusal of a reader was quashed for “precisely the same reason” (failure to give reasons).
The current court case confirms what we have known for many years: that the system for providing exam accommodations for those with disabilities or additional needs is dysfunctional and not fit for purpose. The underlying philosophy is wrong-headed, the methodology inherently flawed, and the opacity of the decision-making Soviet-esque.
This view is shared by countless young people and families up and down the country, and advocacy organisations across the disability spectrum. In March, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted the need for increased clarity and objectivity with regard to the Irish exam accommodations system.
We know of course that the system was not designed to be this bad intentionally. But it does seem a pretty good attempt to mimic such a scenario. To quote from the
No Country for Old Men
: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”
Many readers will know the title of this film comes from Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. Perhaps fewer readers will know that Yeats himself was dyslexic, and struggled in a school system that didn't recognise his difficulties.
Ireland can feel like "no country" for those who learn differently, or who have the temerity to ask that the State recognise and support them to achieve their potential. We might accept we didn't get it right for Yeats over a century ago. We simply should not accept this for our children.
The fallout from this “mess” means the courts –for those who can afford this route – and mediation services, including the Children’s Ombudsman, are clogged up with cases from families worried sick their children will not have their needs provided for. We might assume the Civil Service legal teams are then equally busy, scurrying around defending these charges. The cost to the taxpayer for all this unproductive activity is not recorded, but is likely very significant.
It is not actually that surprising we find ourselves in such a situation. A system has been designed to meet the needs of dyslexic students, without asking the same students and their families what they actually think about it. The active and ongoing refusal by the SEC to engage with key stakeholders, including the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, beggars belief. It may of course be symptomatic of an entrenched bunker mentality arising from repeated and sustained criticism; however this position is no longer acceptable.
We need the SEC to engage in regular and open discussion with the very people it is supposed to be assisting. Most of the solutions are straightforward, achievable and rather refreshingly cost-neutral or even cost-saving.
There are 18,000 young people applying for exam accommodations this year. These are your kids, your neighbour’s kids, your nieces and nephews, your brothers and sisters. And with the supports they are entitled to, these are Ireland’s next generation of surgeons, architects and entrepreneurs.
The lead-up to exams is stressful enough for young people, and especially so for those who face challenges related to disability or difference. The last thing such students should be doing, with weeks to go before their exams, is walking into the Four Courts begging for their rights to be taken seriously by an obtuse and indifferent system.
The time for turning away from this issue has gone.
Rosie Bisset is the chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland