Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
State Examinations Commission: Engagement with Chair-Designate.
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting all mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to airplane safe or flight mode, depending on the device.
I welcome our witness, Mr. Pat Burke. I advise the witness that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The opening statement submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. Mr. Pat Burke is the chair-designate of the State Examinations Commission. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has announced that she proposes to appoint Mr. Pat Burke as chairperson of the State Examinations Commission for a period of five years. The State Examinations Commission is responsible for the development, assessment, accreditation and certification of the second level examinations which are the junior certificate and the leaving certificate examinations.
Today the committee has an opportunity to engage with Mr. Burke regarding his appointment. I welcome Mr. Burke and I invite him to make his presentation to the committee.
Mr. Pat Burke:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to attend this meeting. I have submitted my presentation to the committee and I propose to give a synopsis of it at this stage.
By way of personal introduction my career has been as a civil servant. I should probably admit to being a lawyer by background but essentially my career has largely been spent with the Revenue Commissioners and latterly over a 20 year period with the Education Department in its various manifestations, more recently as the Department of Education and Skills. Over that period I have been involved in most of the major issues in the Department and I had responsibility for very many of its functions. Of particular relevance to today's meeting is the fact that before the State Examinations Commission was established I had responsibility for the State exams as they were then a function of the Department. It was a difficult period in the history of the State exams and we attempted to deal with public confidence issues at the time by making the exams significantly more transparent than they had been up to then, most particularly, by allowing leaving certificate students to see their marked scripts which, frankly, was unthought of and unheard of at the time but is now very much part and parcel of the way the system runs. It is probably an example of the fact that sometimes big changes, while they seem dramatic at the time, have a tendency in our system to bed down fairly quickly and almost become the new normality.
The State Examinations Commission is a major undertaking and the State certificate exams are themselves major life events for students. They touch the lives of so many people every year and they attract a vast level of media print and attention, some good and some not so good in that it may be responsible for raising pressures and tensions for students where it would be better if that did not occur. What is at the core of our examination system is the absolute essential need to maintain public confidence. In my judgment and in my operational experience with this endeavour, public confidence can only be maintained if one does one's absolute level best to have as foolproof a system as possible and to minimise the potential for difficulties. However, in the nature of operations like examinations and which is attested to internationally, the simple scale of examinations invariably gives rise to difficulties and there has to be an absolute immutable candour in dealing with those difficulties. That is the core essential; no messing, straight down the middle, telling it as it is and sort it. This is preferable to creating the sense that nothing can ever go wrong and it is the only thing that maintains public confidence. That is a core function of the incoming commission, in my judgment.
The exams do not operate in a vacuum. They are part of a joined-up fabric in our system that involves entities such as the National Council for Curriculum Assessment and the third level institutions because the examinations are the entry point to third level. Collaborative arrangements and relationships are very important in the running of the exams which cannot be operated in an isolated or ivory tower setting. We will continue to need strong and good relationships with groups such as management bodies, teacher unions, parent bodies and so on.
Partnership is sometimes a word loosely used. But the thing only works if you have that strong sense of shared ownership.
I would like to mention briefly that the five commissioners in the new commission are non-representative, as it is not a representative group. Commissioners are appointed independently and operate cohesively as a commission. It is essential that they bring a range of skills and backgrounds to the commission because that expertise will be needed in the coming years. Apart from maintaining the delicate flower of public confidence, which is essential, there is also a need to follow a change agenda. Some of the changes will be in areas such as the new junior cycle programme, while others will involve changes to the leaving certificate grading structure. Other will be made as time passes. We will need to use technology much more critically in areas such as marking. It will be important to get it right because it is very much a question of public confidence, as it is with any entity. We have to guard as best we can against losing that confidence or operating in a way that causes problems.
I thank the joint committee on my own behalf and that of my fellow commissioners. I give it a personal assurance that I have taken on this role consciously and will give it 110%. I will be unstinting in giving whatever is required to the role. I know that this applies to my fellow commissioners also.
I welcome Mr. Burke and thank him for agreeing to take on this role. His background and career will certainly stand him in good stead. He will be able to bring his experience to the scope of the State Examinations Commission's activities and I wish him well in his new role. As he outlined, the State Examinations Commission has a daunting logistical task on its hands every year. It carries out that role well. As Mr. Burke pointed out, its transparent and honest approach is absolutely crucial to the confidence the public and students certainly have in the examinations system. Some of the changes made in recent years - Mr. Burke reflected on the ability of students to see and review their examination papers - have contributed greatly to this.
I apologise because I will have to leave early. Before I do, I will mention a couple of issues that I would like Mr. Burke to look at and take on in his new role.
I ask the State Examinations Commission to review the use of retired teachers as examiners. It is an issue that arises every year. Perhaps Mr. Burke might seek to assess it when he takes on his new role. Younger teachers who are in part-time and temporary employment should be prioritised when these posts are being filled in order that they can supplement their wages and develop their careers. They need financial support to encourage them to develop their careers. That is why younger teachers should be allowed to act as examiners and correct examination papers, where possible.
I also raise with Mr. Burke the issue of special accommodation for examination students. I know that he has worked with the special needs section in dealing with this issue. According to recent figures, the State Examinations Commission received 2,495 applications for special accommodation for students in 2012. I refer to the provision of readers or other forms of assistance to help students in their leaving certificate examinations. I understand that at junior certificate level decisions on accommodation are made within each school, whereas the State Examinations Commission is responsible for the provision of accommodation at leaving certificate level. The number of applications increased from almost 2,500 in 2012 to 2,669 in 2014, but the number of refusals increased from 669 to 894. Given that there was a significant increase of 37% in the number of refusals, I ask Mr. Burke to review the matter when he takes up his new role in order that students will have the accommodation they require.
I wish Mr. Burke well and look forward to seeing him serve on the State Examinations Commission successfully in the next five years.
I thank Mr. Burke for appearing before the joint committee. I want to touch on two issues. I will come back to the issue of reasonable accommodation which has been mentioned by Deputy Charlie McConalogue.
Is there any move to introduce an online system of paying examination fees to the State Examinations Commission? I understand the fees have to be paid in a bank. One cannot even pay them in a post office. This creates difficulties for people living in rural areas, or those working full-time who may not have access to a bank. Is consideration being given to the introducton of an online payment system?
I understand 13.5% of students who made applications under the reasonable accommodation scheme last year, including children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger's syndrome and autism, were refused support. We have heard about many cases from people who have come to our offices. I have printed the details of three cases with which I have been dealing. A woman called Laura told me about her son, who has dyspraxia, Asperger's syndrome and various other difficulties, including physical ailments, outside of his learning difficulties. She and her son applied in March 2014 for a scribe in the leaving certificate examinations, but they did not receive a decision until March 2015. They were told the delay had been caused by a significant backlog of cases. If people in such circumstances could be informed at an earlier stage, they could prepare. I know of other cases in which occupational therapy reports requested by the State Examinations Commission were submitted in support of applications, but the applications were refused, despite the provision of documentation from qualified professionals. This is something that needs to be looked at.
In many cases, pupils who received support in the junior certificate examinations are being refused support in the leaving certificate examinations. I know of a young girl who applied for a scribe because she has a difficulty with her handwriting. The State Examinations Commission examined her application and asked her to take a short test - that is how her mother described it to me - before adjudicating that her handwriting was legible. The point the family has made to me is that the requirements of a State examination over a number of weeks are not reflected in the State Examinations Commission's short handwriting test. This was not taken into account and the student in question was refused a scribe. I accept that her handwriting was probably legible during that short period, but it would not be physically possible for her to maintain that level of handwriting over the course of successive days of examinations.
These real issues need to be addressed. In cases in which reports have been received from professionals in support of the provision of assistance for students who previously received such assistance in the junior certificate examinations, how does the State Examinations Commission come to a decision not to grant assistance?
I welcome Mr. Burke. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him the best of luck in his great job.
I am a great believer in the leaving certificate, just as I was in the "inter", as we called it. The leaving certificate programme has served the country and families very well. It has been kind, good and expansive. It has also been highly developmental. Mr. Burke made a point about its transparency. It has been good and I like its structure. Examinations are very important as we need to be able to form our minds and memories. They are very good for young minds, both practically and from the point of view of memory.
I would like to mention something that disappoints me.
I have worked in the third level sector a lot and it blames the second level sector for the calibre of students. I would tell the third level sector to look in the mirror because, at times, its teaching level is very low. This is now all over the newspapers because it must do simple things with students and teach them the basics. That is what university is about, namely, teaching new basics in a new way. I am a great believer in the second level structure and believe it is a mighty and very robust one.
I wish to ask about two matters. Mr. Burke must do something about the grading system for honours mathematics. We talk about confidence in honours and pass mathematics, the business of grading and of doing pass if one does not really make it doing honours. All of this is a complete mess. Saying 29% in honours maths is the equivalent of 50% in pass maths is baloney. One either passes or one does not. Whatever way it is worked out, it must be clearer and restore confidence, which has been eroded.
I have been raising the following matter for months. Some 25% is given to those doing mathematics and yet it is not given to those doing music. It is a banking system of education and it is sort of a capitulation in terms of how we regard creativity. We should award marks for creativity. If 25% is given to mathematics, then give it to a language or choice subject. I ask Mr. Burke to bear this in mind because it raises the question of the kinds of knowledge we empirically think are more important than anothers. Dell, Microsoft and pharmaceutical organisations will look for creative minds as well as people who studied physics.
I happen to be looking at end-of-life issues, loss and bereavement across Departments. I wonder what the commission's policy is when it comes to dealing with students who suffer great loss and bereavement during examination times. I am talking about family loss, sibling loss and bereavement. How the bereaved are treated at examination time is very important. Are extensions granted? Are allowances made?
Confidence in the examination system is very important. It has been somewhat eroded and it is being eroded bit by bit in regard mathematics.
Another issue is externality. I will not ask Mr. Burke for his opinion on an internal or external examination process. I believe we should keep the process external as it maintains confidence in the process and keeps it arms length.
I wish Mr. Burke good luck in his new role as it is a wonderful job. I believe totally in the junior and leaving certificate examinations and I hope things move onwards and upwards and that there good changes ahead.
It is a pleasure to meet Mr. Burke. I will continue on from where Senator O'Donnell left off and speak about how students are dealt with when they suffer a bereavement during the leaving certificate. I am particularly aware of how much pressure such loss puts on students because as my niece sat her leaving certificate examination, her father was dying of cancer. She took her exams at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and was driven to Dublin to visit her father in hospital and was back to sit an examination the following day. I thought that was the most inhumane way to deal with somebody going through a crisis. I experienced something similar with my son in that during his leaving certificate examination, his sister was in St. James's Hospital being operated on for cancer. We must find a way to deal with human issues while at the same time retaining the integrity of the examination system. That will be a challenge for Mr. Burke.
I refer to the leaving and junior certificate examinations and the CAO and everything that goes with that, including the life changing opportunities that arise as a result of a three-hour or four-hour examination. I have left my trade union hat behind so I can say that there was some benefit in having ongoing assessment that could offset the damage that three hours might do to an individual.
One of the things that concerns me is the teaching of languages, which includes the teaching of our national language and our approach to international languages. Recently, on a visit to Finland, a young 12-year old student spoke perfect English as he walked me around his school. When I queried him on his level of English, he informed me that he was equally proficient in Swedish, Finnish, Russian and German.
That shows there is something wrong here and that there is a challenge there.
I fear there is also a challenge coming down the track for the State Examinations Commission, SEC, as entry into third level education will change as we start to move back, hopefully, towards apprenticeships with the expansion of further education through SOLAS. The SEC will have a role there. I am interested in hearing where the SEC intends to go. Special accommodation has already been mentioned but it is a challenge for the SEC.
On a personal note, it is rare that somebody like me gets to meet somebody like Mr. Burke at the start of a new career. I am 100% confident that public confidence will be 100% taken care of while the SEC is in his hands. I have worked with him in the past and I know that he is a man who if he meets a difficulty will come straight out and tell people what it is. He will not hide behind anything. It is not often that we get appointments right but in this particular case, the powers that be have picked a great chairman. I congratulate him and wish him all the best.
I wish Mr. Burke well in his new role. I also compliment him on being instrumental in the policy decision to open up scripts to students. Mr. Burke is an innovative individual and I am sure some of my suggestions can be implemented as I see no reason they should not be. I would like him to put to bed, or address firmly, one or two issues, if he can do so. I have raised these issues in the past but I have never been able to get to the bottom of them. My first point is on errors in examination papers. I am not aware of the extent, or otherwise, of them this year. I know there was an error in the junior certificate history paper. The incorrect year was given in the essay section on various political leaders. I understand that students were informed verbally of the error in the examination halls. I do not know how many students were affected but in some schools, students with special requirements are located in outer rooms and I know of one case or two cases where such persons were not informed of the change. In the first instance, there should not be a typographical error and papers should be fool-proof at this stage but if an error occurs, there must be a mechanism to ensure every student is informed. In this case, the error was not earth shattering as it was a junior certificate examination but if the same happened in a leaving certificate paper, it could have had serious implications. Some students may not have answered the question because it was incorrectly worded even though they could have answered it. I am not sure whether the error generated publicity at the time.
The second issue is in regard to scripts being opened up for perusal by students. I raised the issue of the return of materials on the art course with the previous Minister for Education and Skills. The scripts and materials are sent back to he schools where pupils can, quite rightly, view them. I do not know what happens to them when they go back for re-examination or whatever but they may be destroyed. I have been approached by the families of some students who would like the artwork to be returned to the students and I cannot see why their request cannot be facilitated. For many of the students, it is probably the most important piece of artwork they will do in their career.
The artworks and materials are already in schools so it would be no problem for families to get them back. Returning the items to students would save the SEC the difficulty of destroying them. The items should be returned be it needlework, painting or whatever and I can see no reason not to do so.
Another important issue is the rechecking of examination papers. Time and again I have encountered families who have sought a re-check but missed a course by the time an upgrade was granted. As a result, students end up in places as far flung as Aberdeen or end up doing a different course. In Britain, a re-check is done in such a timely fashion that it can be implemented in the same academic year. Perhaps the matter is outside the remit of Mr. Burke and is the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills or perhaps the teachers' unions
It is very unfair that if someone gets a mark in an examination that they sit in a particular year and the grade is raised, it is not taken into consideration for the CAO offer of college places for that year. Surely, by the time the second round comes, it should be taken into account. That should definitely be addressed.
My next point is anecdotal and may not be correct. In the oral leaving certificate this year, I am told that one of the pieces might have been Donegal Irish. I do not know if that was the case. I do not know if there is a requirement in schools to do the various dialects, but if there is not, it is something that should be taken into consideration. It is unfair if a school in Kerry is carrying out the Irish through Gaeilge Mumhan and the students are faced with Gaeilge Chonnacht or Gaeilge Donegal. That may not be the case. One student told me that and I do not know how true it is.
I also have a small technical point before I go onto my main point. The changes to the travelling subsistence payment for supervisors this year were not articulated when they applied for the positions in the beginning. They were in the small print later and the supervisors were not given leeway like the correctors were. That has caused a bit of dissension.
My main point is particularly pertinent at leaving certificate level. After the teachers mark their examination papers, they send in their first batch. I do not know how it operates. There are 50 or 100, or whatever. I have been informed by correctors that very often the papers are returned to them and they are told to reduce the number of As or Bs. I can understand that if the standard of marking is too lenient and is not standardised but there is a strong view from correctors that this is the bell curve coming into existence. I have never been able to get to the bottom of this but there is an onus on the State Examinations Commission to publicly articulate not only the system of marking, but also the policy. I know for a fact that last year's junior certificate biology papers were returned to the markers, who were instructed to reduce the number of Cs. If it is a level playing field and everyone drops, that is fair, but I would hate to think that someone who might get a B in Kiltimagh would get an A in the same exam if they sat it in Gorey. I see Mr. Burke shaking his head to say that does not happen but I would like to know why this policy exists in that case. If it is because he is of the view that the marking is too lenient or too harsh, that is well and good, but the strong view I get from correctors is that the bell curve is coming into play. If that is the case it is unfair but the State Examinations Commission should articulate fully what the position is. I thank the Chairman for her indulgence.
I add my own best wishes to Mr. Burke in his new role. The experience he has outlined is very relevant to his new role, as is the case for his fellow commissioners. I am aware that the new commission was appointed through the new process under the Public Appointments Service, which is also very welcome. Does Mr. Burke have any responses to the issues raised?
Mr. Pat Burke:
I will answer the questions in sequence and will try to be as straightforward as possible in my answers. The first question related to using young teachers as opposed to retired teachers. That is done. Young unemployed teachers are given priority in the selection. There is a tricky area here of ageism and there are constraints on how far one can go. One cannot, for instance, rule someone out because they are over a certain age but it is permissible to give priority to unemployed young teachers or teachers with less than full hours and I am sure that is done.
I will now talk about the issue of reasonable accommodations, which was raised on a number of occasions. There is no glib answer to this. I would undertake that the new commission will look at this, get a full report from the State Examinations Commission executive, and satisfy ourselves that it is operating optimally. Part of the difficulty is because at junior certificate level, the schools have discretion on this. There is quite a loose - I am not using that word pejoratively - regime of special arrangements at junior certificate level. That is legitimate enough, because the junior certificate is not high stakes. It is not a competitive examination - an advantage to one student does not disadvantage another. In real world terms, one can probably justify that.
The difficulty is that there is a tighter regime at leaving certificate level, with much stricter criteria. I am not saying these criteria are perfect but let us take it that whatever scheme one has, one needs criteria, which must be applied objectively. The criteria at leaving certificate level are tighter than they would be at junior certificate level. There is little doubt about that. That is for the good reason that there is a significant issue of inter-candidate equity and fairness at leaving certificate level, which is not the case at junior certificate level. The one thing I am certain of is that the scheme is demand-led. In so far as one can ever be certain in life, I am certain that the one thing that is not happening here is that somebody is trying to save a few bob by denying special accommodations. I am pretty certain that is not happening. It is a demand-driven scheme. If somebody meets the criteria, they get the necessary arrangement. Does the scheme need to be looked at? A new commission should always look at everything under its remit. With an open and honest objectivity, I undertake that we will do that and we will get a report.
Some issues have been raised by the Ombudsman. There are issues of timing, there is no doubt about that. Issues like that should, of course, be dealt with but with any scheme of special arrangements not everyone will be granted them and some of the arrangements being sought would probably compromise the test instrument. We will approach this with an open mind. The objective here is to be as fair and outreaching as possible to the special needs candidate, consistent with the requirement not to compromise the integrity of the test. With that one stipulation, we will do as much as we can for the special needs candidate. Within the culture of the State Examinations Commission and the people who work in that area, there is very much a pro-candidate ethos. However, we agree that this is something we will review as a commission.
My understanding is that the online payment of examination fees is in train and should be. Believe it or not, the giro system was a big initiative in its time, but it is very dated now. There was a time when the kids were bringing either the medical card exemption or the examination payment into schools and schools were driven demented creating bank accounts for these fees, and so on, and that was changed in favour of a giro. My understanding is that the idea now is to move to online payment and I expect progress on that shortly.
Regarding the issue of the 25% extra for mathematics, I must confess that I was never sure when I was an official in the Department what the right thing to do with the bonus points was, because there is no absolute wisdom on this.
Mr. Pat Burke:
Yes, languages. All of them are vitally important. The reason for the policy on mathematics was the country's reliance on having a strong STEM base, where mathematics is a key matter. There is an economic dimension to it of course.
The policy view taken was that 25 points would go a long way towards incentivising that, and it has.
Why would Mr. Burke not consider that allocating those 25 points to a language of choice, be it German, Spanish, French, Russian or whatever, or to an arts subject on the leaving certificate programme, would be equally beneficial? He could argue for a balance, that we could keep incentivising those taking higher level mathematics, but we could also do the same for other choices. The allocation for mathematics capitulated to third level, which was the real purveyor of this. However, it has come back to bite them because the situation is a bit up in the air now, between higher and lower levels, grades and lower level courses being harder than higher level courses. It is about creativity and not necessarily about mathematics. From an educational point of view, the Department should propose some kind of balance. If 25 extra points are being allocated to mathematics, the same should be done for a language or arts subject.
Mr. Pat Burke:
That is a fair point. However, the counterpoint, and I have the advantage of not arguing from a Department perspective now, is that the purpose behind the 25 point bonus was specifically to increase the uptake of higher level maths. It has done that. If we spread that around a range of other subjects, we would mute that impact. If kids want to get the extra 25 bonus points, they do higher level maths.
On bonus points, if they were applied as suggested by Senator O'Donnell, they would be applied on the basis of subject choice or course selection, so the points could go for music if that is what the student opts for. There is no doubt there was an economic imperative behind the maths initiative and it has worked well.
It has not. Where are the studies that show that? The Senator cannot say that, because we have no studies to show that. We had an uptake. Now we have a downtake and now we have a fail-pass take and a pass-fail honours take. We have a pile of takes on it now. Therefore, it cannot be said it has worked brilliantly because it had an uptake. Ask the University of Limerick. It has done a massive study on where it is at. That study shows the uptake may be there, but the downtake in quality and in ability to add, subtract and multiply is very questionable. That is my version of it.
We must wait for at least ten to 15 years and for studies on it to decide on its success. Therefore I do not agree with it. This is a beef of mine, but perhaps as the new chair of the State Examinations Commission, Mr. Burke would look at this. Not everybody will choose to do music, because music needs massive ability to be able to do it at honours level. Students would need to have been studying an instrument from the age of nine. They must also learn the language of music and learn tempo.
Mr. Pat Burke:
And it will exercise them, absolutely, and it will have an input. Ultimately, the strict theology behind this is that this is a policy matter which descends from the Minister and the Department. A strong argument existed that a proportion of kids doing ordinary level were scared of the higher level. One would expect that as those kids now migrate to higher level, they will probably score the higher grade in the higher level, but in the C realm. That is what we would expect. What we are getting therefore as a policy objective is an exposure of a greater cohort of kids to higher level maths than we would have had previously. With respect, that is a legitimate policy objective.
Getting 30 points in honours maths is equivalent to 55 points in pass maths. I have never heard rubbish like it. It is not a qualitative argument and could not possibly be. You would get a percentage for writing your name. This is the gradation system and is part of the proposal.
That is not right. It needs to be rethought. I accept Mr. Burke's thinking on this, but I believe he could influence policy as chair of the commission. Obviously the Department sets its boundaries, but people are there to influence, see, advise, enlarge and extend these. They are not just there with a pen-----
I, Senator O'Donnell and our Vice Chairman, Deputy Jim Daly, went to Austria recently to look at the apprenticeship system there. In recent years, Austria, and countries with similar systems, introduced a state exam whereby a person who had taken the apprenticeship route could take the state exam and then move on to university or another third level institution. If we considered a similar system here, would the State Examinations Commission have the capacity to oversee such an initiative?
Mr. Pat Burke:
I suspect the difficulty the State Examinations Commission has with any new area of testing is the immutable time constraints on the current leaving certificate. Obviously, any organisation, if it is well resourced, can probably undertake almost anything, but there is a huge pressure point in regard to the time deadlines. This also arises in regard to some other issues. Senator Craughwell mentioned the issue of bereavement. Some issues in this regard are heartbreaking and I have seen that at first hand. Awful things happen, often just at the time of an exam. This has been a constant in the system over the years. We do not have the capacity to run a repeat exam. That leaves us with the question of whether there is some other way to provide a grade for kids in those circumstances.
Mr. Burke might remember that some years ago when a suicide occurred in Longford, the State Examinations Commission immediately said it would ring-fence that group of students and - I do not remember exactly what was said - treat their papers with some sort of discretion or understanding. It is unfortunate that the commission cannot apply this discretion at individual level where there is documentary evidence to support the trauma a family may be going through at the particular time, particularly where a parent dies. I will always admire my niece for how she came through her leaving certificate, having gone through this day in Dublin, day in Galway, type thing.
Mr. Pat Burke:
I could not but agree with the Senator on that when we consider the types of issues that arise. We now have the ability, if there is a national or localised problem, to run contingency papers or an alternative sitting. However, the concept of dealing with an individual student who has suffered a bereavement or where something serious has happened on the day of the exam is very difficult. Inexorably, this probably brings us in the direction of a repeat exam. All things being equal, it is not that anyone would say a repeat exam is a bad idea. After all, there are repeat exams at third level. The difficulty we have is the immutable deadlines.
Mr. Pat Burke:
Where does one draw the line? There were a number of other issues. I take the point about the particular challenges we have in the area of languages and we are probably unusual in this country in having compulsory Irish, which may be a factor in the lower uptake of a multiplicity of languages than might otherwise be the case. That is not an argument against compulsory Irish but an observation.
One question was on errors in the papers and the subject of the bell curve, and there is a slight connection between the two. I will try to explain what our system is because one does not often hear it articulated. In some jurisdictions there is a bell curve, where the top X% get grade A, the next grade B, the next grade C, etc. They change the grade boundaries every year to ensure that happens and it might mean the boundaries for grade A are between 79% and 100% in a particular year. That is an open and transparent thing but it is not the system we have. We have a system that works on the assumption that, year by year, there is not a dramatic change in the cohort. There may be slight variations but it would almost be perverse if the cohort for 2015 was appreciably different from the cohort for 2016. One would have to ask why that would ever be the case as human beings do not alter in that way. There is an expectation that, on a year-by-year basis, there will be a broad symmetry between the results, though it will not be absolute and there will be some variations.
The marking commences with a marking scheme which is designed to reward fairly what the students do on their papers and to result in an outcome that is not materially different from the preceding year or two. That does not mean that, over a period of time, things do not change in incremental steps because they do. Sometimes there is a syllabus change and that brings about something more material. If it emerges during the marking that we are getting a very significantly different outcome from the preceding year alarm bells ring. It can be because there is something up with the paper, such as a question that is phrased badly. In such a case the scheme is openly and transparently changed to reflect that. The marking scheme is the piece of equipment our system uses to generate a fair outcome. Some jurisdictions change the grading bands but we change the scheme in the way I have just described. There are arguments for and against both systems. It should mean that if in a given year - and it happens every year - there is a question that seems to throw a sizeable proportion of kids or is confusing it is, quite legitimately and transparently, dealt with in the marking scheme.
There is not a bell curve but we do accept, as a legitimate proposition, that there should not be 25% getting grades A, B and C in one year while 50% get those grades in the next year. It would be bizarre if that happened and it would only happen if there was something really strange in the test instrument and it tested the second cohort of kids less onerously than the first. That is the best answer I can give to the question on the bell curve and it also partly answers the points about questions that throw kids.
The other question was on errors. The fundamental problem with exam papers is that not that many people see them and that is for good reasons. When I ran exams I never saw an exam paper and would not have wanted to see one until there was a problem with it after the event, in which case I would take it home. Before the event, very few people actually see exam papers. In some countries they pre-test exam papers but this is not that common and there would be all sorts of security risks. There will inevitably be some erratabut they should always be marginal. If there was a serious mistake one would have to question whether the paper was fit for purpose and consider applying the contingency paper in substitution for the actual paper.
The purpose of sending in the batches is for individual examiners. A supervisory regime applies.
Sorry to interrupt, but it goes back to the school for the re-check so a student can go and see it. It survives the first transport. If someone does not look for a re-check one could arrange to leave it in the school and give it back. It is examined and returned to the school for the re-check so any piece of work, for example a still life, can go back to the school.
There are not huge numbers of people doing art. Everybody's artwork is returned to the school so that students are afforded the opportunity to look at it. Only a certain percentage look for a re-check. After the re-check it is sent back up to the Department and even if a student does not ask for a recheck it is destroyed somewhere in the Department. I cannot see the worry about it being destroyed in transit as it has been transported up and down already. If a grade A student, who will not look for a re-check, wants their artwork it should stay at the school and be given back.
All the artwork comes back to the school anyway because the school does not know until the night in question how many will come in to look at their material. It has to be there for them in case they all turn up but it then goes back up to the examination board. In the worst case scenario, those who do not look for re-checks should be allowed take their stuff away. Even those who do look for a re-check should be able to get their artwork back.
Mr. Pat Burke:
As soon as an exam takes place - and the big exams take place first - the papers go to Athlone and they are being marked almost while the exam is going on. It is a foot-to-the-floor operation. A certain timescale is allowed for the marking of the exams and, in the interest of safety, it cannot be shortened. The results usually come out in mid-August, as quickly as is humanly possible. My instinct is not to try to put pressure on those timescales because I would be worried that quality might suffer. Immediately after the results come out there is a week when the CAO is executing. We introduced the facility for candidates to come along and look at the marked scripts, which usually takes approximately two weeks from the results coming out. It is probably no harm to allow that two weeks because many of these kids have got their CAO offerings, are quite happy and do not want to see these scripts again in their lives.
However, some kids will want to look at them. All of that happens, which pushes back the timescales. We are hitting September at that stage and then the appeal marking takes place. The problem with the appeal marking is that some courses will be full. I know this from experience in the past. This can be a particular problem with pharmaceutical and medical courses. In other courses, the kids might be a bit late starting, or they will be allowed to change from where they are into another one. I am not saying it is not a problem, but it tends to be a problem in a small enough and limited number of instances. I just do not see where we can make the time savings without sacrificing quality. That is my worry. Third level institutions now have a modular approach. I do not know if that makes it somewhat easier to start a little later.
Would it be possible to reserve two places, perhaps, on these high-flyer courses? Mr. Burke mentioned medicine. Often one hears of a kid missing out on medicine because of five points and on the recheck he or she finishes up ten points ahead. Perhaps the onus lies with the CAO rather than the SEC.
We have discussed the matter exhaustively. I thank Mr. Burke for coming before the committee. We have had an interesting debate. On behalf of the committee, I wish Mr. Burke all the best in his new role. Hopefully we will have him back at some stage to give us an update.