Seanad debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

State Examinations

10:30 am

Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending. Anybody watching will be disappointed that the Minister for Education is not here but I understand this is because she is participating in the talks to try to finalise arrangements for the leaving certificate examinations.

From the start of the pandemic, which was almost a year ago, until now, 15 February, the Government has prioritised protecting lives and livelihoods. The allocation of €9 billion in the budget for education indicated that investment in both children and their education is a strong priority of the Government. For young people, this has been a really stressful year. We have had 12 months of a pandemic but young people have been living with it in a different way from adults. Young people, within their own families, have had to deal with the impact of infection. More than 200,000 people have been infected. Young people have had to live with the impact of their parents' loss of income and employment, and they have had to live with changed circumstances whereby they are trying to be educated remotely. I accept that there has been an improvement in this lockdown by comparison with the previous one in terms of the delivery of remote teaching but remote teaching is no substitute for classroom learning. The Minister of State would agree with that. He did very well from the point of view of education. He is a graduate of Trinity College and he also holds degrees from overseas. Therefore, he understands the value of education and how important the leaving certificate is for young people.

The members of the class of 2021 have lost five months of their senior cycle and have been denied the emotional and social supports that come with being in a classroom or in their school. They have been struggling to connect with broadband. Broadband is oversubscribed in many households because it is being used by siblings and parents who are trying to work. Many leaving certificate subjects have a practical component. Students in the class of 2021 have been denied the opportunity to have a practical learning experience. It is not just formal teaching they are missing out on; they are also missing out on informal learning from their peers, on the exchange of information, on sharing their struggles and on the identification of interesting parts of the curriculum or things that excite them.The mocks have gone, the orals are uncertain and it was devastating for these students to see adults and unions withdraw from talks. I am glad the talks have resumed and I appreciate they are confidential but I hope the Minister will update the House and the leaving cert students who I am sure are watching today and who are anxious for three things: clarity, certainty and choice. They are not unreasonable demands for the leaving cert students of the class of 2021 to be making.

I ask the Minister of State to talk when he is replying, if he can, about how the applied leaving cert will be managed. If he is in a position to give it, I would also appreciate some comment on the junior cert.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus go raibh maith agaibh, a Sheanadóirí, as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid an tSeanaid inniu. Tá áthas orm freagra a thabhairt in ionad an Aire Oideachais atá gnóthach faoi láthair agus gabhann sí a leithscéal. Bhí mé ag caint léi roinnt noiméad ó shin.

I thank the Senator for raising what is obviously an important matter, of interest not only to Senators, Members of the Dáil and all of us, but particularly to the 60,000 young people across the country who are due to sit the leaving cert this year and who are continuing their education. The leaving cert is not an end point; it is a part of their lifelong journey of education. I spoke to the Minister for Education and she sent her apologies. She is otherwise engaged but would like to have been here and has asked me to do this.

The Government is acutely aware of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the education system this year and last, particularly the unique challenges it poses to those preparing to sit State examinations. For leaving cert students, the continued closure of schools for in-school learning results in these students missing out on significant in-person class contact time. I pay tribute to those students and their teachers, in particular, who are continuing education despite the difficulties. There has been a huge amount of development in the provision of education, as I see with my own children, between the first stage of this pandemic and now. It will never be perfect, of course, and that is why we are having this discussion but there have been dramatic changes. That is to everybody's credit and that of the education system.

Planning for the 2021 leaving cert is under way by the Department and the State Examinations Commission. It is recognised that a flexible and agile approach is necessary in light of the fast-moving changes linked to Covid-19 but the welfare of students and their families is front and centre in all decision-making. The planning work under way is being helped by an advisory group of key stakeholders. This includes students, most importantly, as well as parents, teachers, school leadership management bodies, the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and obviously the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service. The advisory group has met on a number of occasions and a subgroup has formed to consider in depth the issues towards planning the 2021 exams, including those identified by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, in its recently published report on the 2021 State examinations and the return to school. I pay tribute to the ISSU for its key and central role in planning and its strength of voice on behalf of its members.

The Department of Education has indicated to the education partners that any corresponding process will need to include a number of features. The State Examinations Commission has to run the examinations and corresponding processes. This was an issue last year and the Department wants to address that. There needs to be better provision for out-of-school learners in the corresponding process, which we also saw last year. There must be some cognisance of performance and additional component elements of exams, such as course work, orals, practicals, etc., and timely progression to higher and further education using either exams or the outcome of any corresponding process.

Bilateral meetings began and continued last week and the weekend gone by and discussions continue today. In other jurisdictions where State exams have been cancelled, I understand there is further work to be done to clarify what is intended. This is natural because we are in an unprecedented situation. In England, for example, a consultation process on possible arrangements closed on 29 January and feedback from that is being considered. Ofqual in England has stated there are no straightforward options for how exams are to be replaced and we can all agree on that.The best we can do is to work together and all of us talk to ensure we get the best possible solution for our students. The Government, of course, is focused on identifying a solution for the students who are due to sit the leaving certificate this year, including the applied leaving certificate. The priority afforded to education by the Government has been clear throughout, with the Minister and officials working with the partners to reopen schools safely and identify the best way forward for the leaving certificate class of 2021.

As Senators will be aware, one of the partners withdrew from the process last week. Following engagements with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, however, the Minister for Education is very happy that it returned to discussions over the weekend. I believe everybody will welcome that. The Minister publicly welcomed it and the ASTI has returned now to confidential discussions with everybody else regarding the 2021 exams. We note its willingness to engage on the agenda that has already been set out on this process.

The Minister has also thanked the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, parent bodies, the student body represented by the ISSU, as I have said already, and the managerial bodies that help run our schools for their constructive engagement. That continued over the weekend and is resuming this morning as the issues continue to be worked out. Intensive engagement is therefore continuing with the education stakeholders to advance progress and provide certainty and clarity at the earliest possible time. I understand from the Minister that it is hoped students will receive this clarity in the coming days. That, however, is subject to ongoing engagement with all the education stakeholders. I note the comments made by the Senator about the junior certificate. I believe the Minister will address that issue in due course but I do not have an answer for the Senator on it today. I believe that, clearly, we all agree the leaving certificate is the critical issue today.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I thank Senators for allowing a longer reply but I believe it is an important issue.

Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for coming into the Chamber. A flexible and agile approach that puts the welfare of students as a priority is obviously welcome and we all support it. I must say, though, it is disappointing that the Department did not provide more information to this House and that the Sunday newspapers seem to carry more detail than this House is being informed by the Department. I do not believe that is appropriate either for the students - it is not fair on them - or for this House to be treated in that way. I thank the Minister of State for coming in today. I ask when he goes back to Cabinet and to the Department of Education from this House, however, that he please tell them we want clarity, certainty and choice for the students of the class of 2021. We would appreciate if the Minister could make time to come to the House at the earliest opportunity, accepting that it is not fair or appropriate to put an arbitrary timeline on it, and update Members in detail on the arrangements that are being put in place.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I have no difficulty in passing that message on to the Minister. In terms of what was in the Sunday newspapers, I know that talks still continue today. Clearly, I do not know the provenance of what was in the newspapers at the weekend, but it certainly cannot be the final answer because talks continue and that work has not been completed.

The Senator attached the sobriquet "young" to me, and I am glad she did so, even though it is a few years since I did the leaving certificate. Certainly, the big difference now from then, and probably more recently, is that the voice of the student is at the table. It is not just at the table but also in the public realm and in the media and it is taken seriously. That is a major change. I compliment the ISSU on the work it is doing because up until now, when there was an education issue, the teachers' trade unions rightly took centre stage. I have no doubt that will always be the case because they are key partners in education. Now, however, more and more, and we saw it last year and this year, the voice of the student through the ISSU is prominent in the public media and private discussions and, ultimately, in what will be the solution to this. I compliment it and encourage all students to support that organisation and get involved. It is important and is a huge and welcome change to the debate.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the reply and Senator Fitzpatrick for tabling the question. I believe all Members will be interested in the response and I know it will change as the hours evolve. Before moving on to the next matter, I ask Senator Fintan Warfield to take the Chair. It is the first time he has taken a Chair since he was 22 years of age. He chaired South Dublin County Council between 2014 and 2015. He will take the Chair for the remainder of the Commencement matters.