Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

State Examinations

2:30 pm

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley, for coming to the Seanad to listen to my request that the same compassionate model be afforded to students who will undertake the leaving certificate this year as was given to students in 2021 and 2020. These students have been severely impacted by the Covid pandemic. There is no doubt that the continuous negative strain Covid has had on so many students is too significant to ignore. In the past week and a half, since we came back after Christmas, my office has been inundated with students who tell me about their lives as a result of Covid and how their mental health has been severely impacted by the strain of the past 22 months and, in particular, the unpredictability of the current climate.They have described to me how hard the past 22 months have been and how new restrictions, new cases and being identified as a close contact have increased the burden they all feel. They have missed so much work in class and so many social experiences. Even the peer support they receive from each other has not been available to them because we have been asking them to stay away from each other. They have very much adhered to that and to the request to stay at home. Their social lives have been entirely disrupted, whether they involve school breaks and lunches or activities outside school. They have undoubtedly suffered. While we say that schooldays are the best days of our lives - as an older lady, I can now probably look back with nostalgia - the doom and gloom of the past couple of years have certainly overshadowed our young students' lives.

I acknowledge and appreciate that allowances were made last August to reflect the changes and the challenges faced by the students. I am absolutely sure students acknowledge them also, but we really do not believe they are anywhere near enough. A decision was made to grant last year's students the hybrid model to give them the option of sitting the exams. I absolutely believe they should sit them and hope it will be safe for them to do so. The option of receiving accredited grades came as such a relief to most students last year. It is absolutely the safety valve that we need to provide students with this year. To me, the hybrid model is a really compassionate one. Compassion is what our students absolutely need now.

We will continue to talk about the reform of an outdated education system, involving the sitting a series of rigid and seemingly future-defining exams, because I really do believe there are more lenient models we can put in place, but the immediate focus has to be on the well-being of the young people outside Leinster House today. I say this not just because I have spoken to them, their parents and teachers for the past couple of weeks but because I have a student living in my house. This is the second person in my house who will have done the leaving certificate under Covid. I can genuinely tell the Minister that the man I have at home has gone through a far more stressful experience than his older sister. It is incumbent on us to recognise the unprecedented crisis and the consequences for students every single day, in addition to the stress they are currently experiencing.

I acknowledge that the Minister is having a stakeholders' meeting tomorrow. I welcome that because the decisions arising from it will give the students certainty. I ask her to consider the stress experienced by students and their well-being and allow them to have the stress-release valve of sitting the exams this year while also having accredited grades. Thus, they can commit and focus for the next couple of months knowing that a safety valve exists.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and allowing me the opportunity to address it. I extend my best wishes to all in the House for the year ahead.

I am very conscious of the disruption experienced by students who are due to do their leaving certificate examinations this year - the class of 2022. It is welcome that schools reopened at the normal time after the Christmas holidays. I am very much aware that schools are working tirelessly to deliver the best possible educational experience for their students.

All planning for the 2022 examinations is guided by the prevailing public health advice and will, as always, have regard to the well-being of students. My Department continues to engage with the partners in education on all matters relating to the leaving certificate examinations of 2022. The next meeting of the advisory group of State examinations, to which the Senator referred, is planned for tomorrow. The group includes representatives of students, parents, teachers and school leaders, as well as the State Examinations Commission, SEC, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, higher education and, of course, my Department.

Adjustments to the examination papers for the 2022 State examinations were announced in August 2021. These adjustments were designed to take account of the disruption to learning experienced by students in the early part of 2021, in addition to providing for some possible further disruption in 2021–22 school year. The adjustments ensure that the overall structure of the examinations remains intact while allowing greater choice for students.Revised arrangements for leaving certificate oral examinations in Irish and modern foreign languages, and the practical performance tests in leaving certificate music, were announced last month. These examinations will now take place outside of school time over the first week of the school Easter holidays. By moving these examinations to the Easter holidays, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, aims to minimise disruption to teaching and learning, especially for those candidates preparing for their examinations, as this change will limit teacher absence from schools.

The SEC also recently provided some further information to schools regarding aspects of the 2022 State examinations. This included postponing commencement of assessment of what are known as the leaving certificate applied February tasks, from 31 January to 14 February. Schools were also reminded of the flexibility that is available regarding the dates for completion and authentication of course work for leaving certificate candidates.

I also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations will be run in 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations. This will be for students who are unable to sit the main set of examinations for various reasons, including Covid-19 illness, bereavement or serious illness.

Finally, the Department has also provided a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners, to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils in a Covid-19 context. My Department will continue to engage with all partners in education on all matters relating to leaving certificate 2022 examinations. It is important to note the advisory group has been involved at every step of the way. The next advisory group meeting for State examinations in 2022 has been planned for tomorrow, Thursday. As previously outlined, this is a large and widely representative group of all the voices in education, including students, parents, teachers and managerial bodies.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for setting out the timelines, and that she has accepted the recommendations for changes to date. As the Minister said, however, they were made last August and I believe what has happened to our young students in the past four to five months is unprecedented. My son comes home telling me he has literally sat and shivered throughout the whole day with hands numb because the schools are so cold. I do not say this to be critical, because obviously every decision we make as a State, and indeed the decisions all our teachers make in this regard, are to try to provide the safest and best environment where children can continue to learn and so as not to learn remotely as we had to do the previous year.

Only before Christmas the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, called for a delay in the return to school of our students and teachers until a short week-and-a-half ago. It seems alien now, given we are talking about lifting restrictions this weekend. The TUI was so concerned about staff absences and the environment in which the children, students and staff are working that it made that call over our Christmas holidays. This jars with the fact the TUI is now saying we should carry on as normal and do the exams, as if the past 22 months had not happened for the students. Of students surveyed by the Irish Second-level Students' Union, ISSU, last week, 68% said they wanted the hybrid model. They spoke about their stress levels, their well-being and their fears. We talk about the stress students are under during normal circumstances of a leaving certificate year, which is why we talk about reform, but this past 22 months has been anything but normal. Therefore, the leaving certificate this year cannot carry on as if we were living in normal times.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Doherty for the opportunity to come to the House today and to hear her views. As I outlined earlier, it is very important we are conscious of what has been experienced by the class of 2022. I am extremely conscious of that. As previously outlined and as reiterated by the Senator, accommodations were made with the exam papers in August. Equally, there have been recent changes to the operation, including the orals taking place over Easter time and the musical practical exams. Notwithstanding that, it is important that all voices are afforded the opportunity to be heard with regard to how we progress.

I am pleased to say we had a number of engagements with the advisory group, the last of which was on 20 December. The next engagement with the advisory group, which includes parents, students, teachers, and managerial bodies, will take place tomorrow to consider their views and advice on the State exams for 2022.I look forward to that engagement. It has been a very productive and useful forum for us, right throughout Covid, which has worked very well and co-operatively in the best interests of the education sector and, of course, the students we serve. I look forward to those deliberations and discussions tomorrow. As always, it will be most helpful.

Sitting suspended at 3.46 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.