Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Topical Issue Debate

State Examinations

1:45 pm

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I raise an issue which affects approximately 1,000 students who are due to sit the leaving certificate examination in the coming week. They have special needs and applied through the Department to the State Examinations Commission for a reader to assist them in reading the examination papers in order that they will be able to answer the questions to the best of their ability. Many of them suffer from dyslexia and as a result have a difficulty in reading examination papers. However, they have been refused this special support. Members will understand what I am talking about. There is a system in place under the State Examinations Commission to provide readers for students sitting the junior and leaving certificate examinations. Last week I asked about a case in Portlaoise, to which I will return, in a parliamentary question. I then asked for the overall numbers involved, which I received in a letter from the State Examinations Commission last night.

The reasonable accommodation provision under the certificate examinations scheme has been designed to assist students with special needs. It applies to candidates with a physical disability, a visual or hearing impairment or a specific learning difficulty. The purpose of the scheme is to remove as far as possible the impact of the disability on the student in order that he or she can demonstrate his or her level of attainment. The provision is very clear. The reader does not help the student to answer the examination questions. He or she just reads them to the student who must reply in full himself or herself. The scheme has also been designed to ensure no candidate with a reader will be given an unfair advantage. We understand the scheme which is both good and fair.

Last year 914 students were refused a reader under the scheme. I can only conclude that the figure is of the same order this year, as there is no reason to think otherwise. I asked for the figures for each of the past three years to see what was going on. Last night the State Examinations Commission told me that in 2012, 669 students had been refused a reader. The figure increased to 894 in 2013, while last year it was 914. I am sure the figure this year is the same as last year at least. In a short period of time since 2012 the figure has risen from 669 to 914, an increase of 245 students or 37%. That did not happen by accident. It was a deliberate policy on the part of the Government to cut the funding available to cut down on the cost of examinations. The former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, took the clear decision to cut the number of readers provided.

The students concerned have passed through the full primary and post-primary education systems. Because they have special needs, they have been assisted along the way. In their final examination they need a continuation of the help they have received, but the Government has slammed the door in their faces. They had the assistance of a reader in their junior certificate examinations. Does the Minister of State know how they feel having been deprived of the services of a reader at this stage? They have been reduced to tears and their parents are helpless. This is cruelty shown to students sitting the leaving certificate examinations. The Government has stepped up its approach in the past couple of years. The number of refusals was 600 when it entered into office and is now around 1,000. It is slamming the door and students are crying and afraid to sit their examinations because they are being deprived of a facility of which they were able to avail in their junior certificate examinations.

1:55 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Fleming for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the position with regard to the State Examinations Commission's scheme of Reasonable Accommodations at the Certificate Examinations, RACE. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan, who is out of the country today.

The State Examinations Commission, SEC, was established as an independent agency in 2003 and has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the certificate examinations. Students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia as well as those with physical conditions are accommodated in the examinations under the SEC's RACE scheme. However, the existence of a specific learning difficulty does not automatically make a candidate eligible to avail of reasonable accommodations in the certificate examinations. Even though candidates may have a specific difficulty with reading, writing or spelling, they may not require the provision of any special accommodations provided that they can read the examination papers at the required level and write legibly.

The range of accommodations available to students includes the use of a special examination centre; provision of modified, brailled and enlarged papers for visually impaired students; access to readers, scribes, word-processors, tape or voice recorders for students with physical conditions, dyslexia or other types of specific learning difficulty; and exemptions from components of the examinations such as the oral or aural or the waiver from spelling and grammar in language subjects. Where candidates have reading difficulties, a reader may be provided. Some students may apply for and be granted more than one type of accommodation.

In the case of the leaving certificate, all applications for reasonable accommodations on grounds of specific learning difficulties are referred to the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, for consideration. This is not the case with the junior certificate. Decisions are made at a local level for junior certificate students. It is only at leaving certificate level that the NEPS becomes involved in the decision making process.

Eligibility thresholds apply to the various types of accommodations which can be made under the scheme and each case is considered on its own merits. Each application must include information supporting the candidate's request for a particular accommodation, including current school-based testing on ability and attainments in order to inform the psychologist's recommendation under the schemes' criteria. For example, applications for readers at leaving certificate level must show evidence of a specific learning difficulty and must be accompanied by supporting information which will allow NEPS to make an assessment of the applicant's degree of reading difficulty. The NEPS assessment of eligibility for the purposes of the RACE scheme is made on the basis of all of the information available and as required, in consultation with the school concerned.

Appeals against any aspect of the SEC's decision on RACE applications can be made to an appeals committee which is independent of the SEC. Neither I nor my Department have any role in reviewing decisions on RACE made by the SEC or the independent appeals committee. Candidates who continue to be dissatisfied with the outcome can appeal further to the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children.

The Deputy quoted figures in his question and while I do not have those figures in front of me I do know that 1,700 candidates were provided with access to a reader last year. The Deputy has argued that there has been an increase in the number of refusals but I do not know if there was a corresponding increase in the number of applications. Perhaps the Deputy has data on that issue and if so, he should put that data on the record of the House too. I will seek the data to which the Deputy refers because an increase in the number of refusals could be linked to an increase in the number of applications in general. I do not know if the percentages have changed in that regard. All of that being said, it is an independent and rigorous process. The criteria are set out quite clearly and decisions are made in accordance with a framework of principles which was established by an expert advisory group. The process is entirely independent. I agree with the Deputy that negative decisions on RACE applications can cause great distress. Indeed, I have had constituents come to my office to express concern in that regard. However, we must make sure that this scheme is fair and equitable to all students who are sitting State examinations.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The letter I received states that the number of applications received in 2012 was 2,495, in 2013 it was 2,572 and in 2014 it was 2,609 while the number of reader approvals was 1826, 1,678 and 1,695, respectively. There has been a very slight increase in the number of applications, of approximately 100 over the three years, but the number of approvals has dropped and the number of refusals has increased. To put it simply, two years ago 25% of applications were being refused but last year that rose to 35%. There has been a significant increase in the number of refusals.

The Minister of State has really washed his hands with his reply. The Department in charge of education is saying that when a young person goes to sit the leaving certificate exam decisions on support for that student have nothing to do with the Minister or the Department but are the responsibility of an independent body. The Minister for Education and Skills is responsible for education and she should take an interest in this matter. It is not acceptable for the Minister to wash her hands of this situation.

I raise this issue on behalf of the parents of a young girl in Portlaoise who came to my constituency office because after going through the original assessment process and the entire appeals process, they were notified on 23 April 2015 that the appeals committee had decided that their daughter would not be granted a reader. That was only a few weeks before the beginning of the leaving certificate. The girl has been in school since she was four or five and is now 18 years old and about to sit her leaving certificate. She has had support all along but it is only at the point of her sitting her final exams that support is being withdrawn. That is barbaric, amoral and cruel and it is not acceptable that the Minister for Education and Skills would wash her hands of such a situation.

The final paragraph of the letter I received from the SEC on the specific case in question asserts that the SEC is satisfied "that all due consideration has been given in this case". In other words, that is the end of the road for the application. What is shocking is that the Minister of State has just said that candidates who are dissatisfied with the process can appeal further to the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children. The girl only got word on her application a month before the leaving certificate is due to begin. Where is the Minister of State going with his reply? Does he think the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children can deal with that case in less than a month and overturn that decision? That is a nonsense reply. It is a further nonsense that the SEC never informed any of those people who were refused support that they had the right to take their case to the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children. It never informed me of same in its detailed, three page letter on the case I raised. Rather, the commission said that all procedures had been exhausted and it was satisfied with the decision. At the very least, the Department should tell the SEC to notify applicants of their right to appeal decisions to the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children. The Minister of State and I both know that such an appeal is utterly impractical in the context of the four-week time scale in this particular case. The damage has already been done for those students who are sitting their leaving certificate this year but I ask the Minister of State to ensure that next year all of those who are entitled to this facility are granted it.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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It is not nonsense for me to come into the House and outline the process. I was just telling the truth as it is. The Deputy might not like it but that is the process. It would be wrong for any Minister to be able to interfere with a process that is meant to be independent. This is a State examination, a leaving certificate qualification and we cannot ever be accused of giving an unfair advantage to any candidate. The process must be independent. Some Deputies, including myself and Deputy Fleming, might wish sometimes that it was not independent and that we could have some influence over the process but that would be completely wrong. The process has to be independent, must be able to stand up to scrutiny and ensure that the correct decisions are made.

The Deputy's point about applicants not being informed of their right to appeal decisions to the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children is valid. It is often assumed that people know of that right and perhaps it should be spelled out clearly to them. I will certainly ensure that is addressed. I also accept the Deputy's point regarding timelines. Indeed, some people are still awaiting a final decision. The timelines are a bit tight and we can certainly look at that before next year. I have no problem working on that but neither myself nor the Minister has any intention of changing an independent process so that we can have influence over it. That would be wrong and would not be fair.

The Deputy also spoke about the fact that the student in question had supports at junior certificate level. I wish to clarify that a more rigorous assessment process applies to the leaving certificate as it seeks to recognise the high stakes nature of this examination. It is the final State examination that is used, in most cases, to determine whether students can progress to further education, higher education or into a career. At junior certificate level the schools themselves make the decisions and are provided with guidelines by the SEC to help them to determine eligibility. In general the SEC provides the accommodations as determined by the school. Accommodations approved for a junior certificate student will not automatically be granted at leaving certificate and this is clearly outlined to schools, candidates and their parents in the RACE documentation. That said, I accept that very often people do not see the finer details in such documentation, which can cause difficulties.

I stress again that there is a different system in place for the leaving certificate and it is unfair of Deputy Fleming to try to muddy the waters. The arrangements for reaching decisions are different at leaving certificate level and the process must be independent. I cannot stress the latter point enough. I accept that it can cause great stress and difficulty but the scheme must be applied properly. The SEC cannot give an unfair advantage to one student over another. The idea of these supports is to ensure that students are in a position to reach their potential attainment levels and nothing impedes that but they cannot be given an unfair advantage. That requires a judgment call and I am sure everyone would have a different opinion on such judgments but that is what the experts are there for - to judge who is entitled to supports. I hope that in every case those who are entitled to support receive it.

All of that being said, it appears, based on the figures quoted by the Deputy, that the percentages have changed a lot so I will research that data further.