Dáil debates

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

State Examinations

10:30 am

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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2. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if she will constitute an independent inquiry into the 2020 leaving certificate which would examine the circumstances leading to the cancellation of the exam, the design and implementation of the calculated grades system, the ensuing errors and omissions and the knock-on effect on the CAO process; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30311/20]

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Minister said that while not her fault directly, the 2020 leaving certificate was a difficult process for all involved, not least for the students. Will the Minister facilitate an independent investigation into the entire 2020 leaving certificate, which would examine the circumstances leading to the cancellation of the written exam, the design and implementation of the calculated grades system and the errors and omissions in order that we can learn from this for the leaving certificate class of 2021?

10:40 am

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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The decision to adopt a model of calculated grades by my Department was a result of Covid-19 and the circumstances that prevailed at the time in question, which prevented the State from running the conventional leaving certificate examinations this year. The system of calculated grades is complex and sophisticated. It had to be developed from scratch, specifically for the leaving certificate and within an extremely tight timeframe, in order for students to get their calculated grade results in time. Results were issued on 7 September 2020, and this ensured that deadlines for the Central Applications Office, CAO, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other jurisdictions’ college entry systems would be met insofar as possible.

On 3 October, I announced that 6,100 leaving certificate students would later that day receive details of improved calculated grades following the correction of errors found in the coding used as part of the calculated grades process. As part of the round 4 offers made by the CAO on 8 October, some 485 of these students received a CAO offer on foot of their improved grades. Each of these students will be able to take up his or her offer in the current academic year. I also announced on 3 October that I had asked for a comprehensive independent review of the design and implementation of the calculated grades process to take place when the process is complete.

I want the independent comprehensive review to consider key aspects of the calculated grades process. This will include the initial decision to adopt the calculated grades model; the question of whether the process met its objectives; the effectiveness of the process; how the process worked in terms of design and implementation; and the effectiveness of the governance and oversight procedures. Importantly, I also want the review to include the lessons that can be learned. The full scope of the review will be set out very clearly in advance.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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That is to be welcomed. We do not need to fall out over words such as "investigation", "inquiry" and "review" but I would be interested in knowing who the Minister intends to charge with responsibility for overseeing the independent review. I am sure she will agree me that if the students of 2021 have to face the same type of system, which we all hope will not happen although we do not know what will happen in the coming months, similar mistakes should not be made. Is the Minister in a position to outline the nature of the process to appoint an independent individual to oversee the review?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. It is my intention that the review will be an independent expert review and that there will be an international element to it given the expertise required in this field. The terms of reference will be set out and made available well in advance. The review will consider whether the calculated grades process met its objectives. It will raise questions as to how effective the process was in its entirety. The scope will be clearly set out and agreed in advance, and it will identify lessons for the future. It will examine how the decision was reached to develop a calculated grades model for leaving certificate 2020 when it became apparent that the traditional leaving certificate examinations were not possible in light of the health and safety advice at the time; the context in which the calculated grades model was developed and the impact on stakeholders; the calculated grades model's design, development and implementation; and governance and oversight procedures. It will allow for a full opportunity to consider all aspects.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am happy to welcome that and we are happy to work with the Minister. She inherited this situation. She has had successes. Opening up the schools has been a success. To a large degree, yesterday was a successful day for the Minister.

On the staffing schedule the Minister announced yesterday, involving a reduction in the pupil–teacher ratio to 25:1, which is welcome, will the arrangement apply to DEIS primary schools? They have a different staffing schedule. The worry we have is that if the arrangement does not apply, the senior end of a primary DEIS school will have the same staffing schedule as a mainstream school. I acknowledge it is beyond the scope of this question but perhaps the Minister could revert to me on whether the reduction in the pupil–teacher ratio will be passed on to DEIS schools, which have a separate staffing schedule. If not, there will be absolute equalisation between DEIS and non-DEIS primary schools at the senior end. The Minister will agree that this is not something we could support.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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As the Deputy is aware, the full staffing schedule has reduced from 26:1 to 25:1. There is unanimous agreement that this is a very positive step forward to the benefit of our schools.

With regard to the DEIS schools, the Deputy is correct that there are different bands. In the junior cycle, there is a ratio of 20:1. It is 24:1 at the higher end, that is, in third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes. Where juniors and seniors are together, it is 22:1. It varies. A substantial DEIS package of €5 million has been made available as part of the budget. Aspects of that will include the school staffing schedule.