The groups of students who deserve particular attention

This year’s Leaving Certs have been the focus, but incoming sixth, third and first years also need concern and planning

This year’s Leaving Certs  have been battered by the backwash of the pandemic. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

This year’s Leaving Certs have been battered by the backwash of the pandemic. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

It is entirely understandable that when it comes to second-level students, this year’s Leaving Certs have been the focus. They have been battered by the backwash of the pandemic. Much of the fine detail about how calculated grades will work still remains to be clarified. However, there are three other groups of second-level students who also require particular attention.

Most of this year’s third years are very happy to have escaped sitting the Junior Cycle/Cert exams and they have time to compensate for any missed learning.

We still do not know enough about coronavirus to predict the impact of re-opening schools

The current fifth years, who will be sixth years in September, are much worse off. Those with more money, who live in areas with decent broadband and mobile coverage, and who have teachers who adapted rapidly to an unprecedented situation, are probably in the best situation. And even those students will face significant challenges, particularly if they have any form of learning or attention difficulties.

If instead, a student has a chaotic home background, has poor or no access to online teaching materials and has been alienated from the education system even before the pandemic, there are potential disasters brewing.

While some students have been more fortunate than others, there are few fifth-year students who have as much of their courses covered as their teachers would like. These students are also facing a disrupted return to school.

We still do not know enough about coronavirus to predict the impact of re-opening schools. Despite the fact that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week that re-opening schools may be one of the safer things that could happen, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan did not agree.

In addition, Dr Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, has said that coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, can flare up in patients up to 50 days after they have appeared to have recovered.

Some Irish universities have already decided to re-open weeks later than normal and lecturers are being warned that they may have to continue with online teaching. It is hard to see how second-level schools will re-open on time. 

If they have to do so under conditions of social distancing, is it even feasible? Most second-level schools have no hot water for handwashing. School corridors and stairs were never designed to facilitate social distancing, and neither was the teenage psyche.

Whether schools re-open fully in September or not, it should be acknowledged that incoming sixth years simply will not be able to complete courses. Examinations should be adjusted accordingly, starting long before September. 

Once the Leaving Cert guidance has been finalised, immediate attention must be paid to the format of next year’s Leaving Certificate. Extensive consultation with teachers and representative bodies must take place as soon as possible. 

Serious planning needs to begin now both for intensive in-service for teachers and adjusting courses and exams for those groups of students who have been most affected by these unprecedented circumstances

For example, it might actually improve the experience of higher level Leaving Cert English if the short writing task was dropped and only two comparative texts had to be studied. The number of poets to be studied could also be reduced. Similar small concessions in other subjects would make an important difference to students. 

Likewise, it might make sense to put a moratorium for incoming third years on what are called classroom-based assessments (CBAs). They soak up a lot of class time. Some of them are useful but some are, frankly, a bit odd. For example, the final CBA in modern foreign languages is written in English, which seems to defeat the purpose somewhat.

Incoming first years are the final group who need special attention. There is an enormous jump between primary and second level. Adjusting to the rhythms and boundaries of second level is always a challenge, including having eight to 10 teachers instead of just one. 

Normally, in the last months in primary school, all sorts of rituals bring an end to primary school and help students prepare for the transition. Many primary schools hope to have the pupils return for a proper farewell for at least a day in September or October but this cannot compensate for what they have lost. Imagine if as well as lacking proper preparation, these students have to commence second level relying on remote learning with unknown teachers? 

It is important to remember that not even the most technically proficient second-level teachers ever received training for teaching anywhere from 150 to 240 pupils from their kitchen tables. Sometimes it is quite entertaining, such as when a TikTok video erupts into class, or an over-eager invisible parent answers a teacher’s question instead of a student, but mostly, it is very, very difficult.

Live online teaching is exhausting, for reasons explained well by anthropologist Susan D Blum in Inside Higher Ed. Basically, online interactions with their strange eye-lines and awkward conversations mess with the way we interpret social and body language cues. Our brains get worn out trying to compensate. So this writer, at least, would be filled with dread at the thought of another term of it. However, it may be unavoidable.

Serious planning needs to begin now both for intensive in-service for teachers and adjusting courses and exams for those groups of students who have been most affected by these unprecedented circumstances.

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