Thursday, 28 April 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank my good friend and colleague, Senator Tim Lombard, for facilitating me going ahead of him. It is much appreciated. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I tabled this Commencement matter for one simple reason, that is, a young chap who is blind and who spoke on the Joe Duffy programme last week. He explained that he had done his Irish oral exam. Obviously, given that he is blind his does not see pictures. Part of the Irish oral exam is to describe pictures as Gaeilge. For a blind person to be asked in any circumstances to describe pictures in any language is not acceptable, but it is completely unacceptable for this to happen in a State examination situation.
I have been in touch with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland to try to get a handle on exactly how and why this is happening. It would appear that there is no consistency around the country. In some areas, special provision is made and a commonsense approach is adopted, but in other situations the rules are rigidly stuck to. That is not acceptable. We need the system to be consistent. We need to have a little bit of respect for a young person who cannot see what he or she is doing.
There is a much bigger question in terms of access to the leaving certificate, which I have spoken about before. The fact that we are one of the few countries in the world that does not provide the likes of the leaving certificate examinations in digital format is completely unacceptable. Were the leaving certificate papers in digital form, not alone would blind and visually impaired people be able to access them through the medium they use, anybody with a print disability would be able to access that material.
In the overall context, we have a long way to go in terms of making the State examinations accessible. On the specific issue of the picture elements of the Irish oral exam, we need an immediate response from the Minister of State.
I want to apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I thank Senator Conway for raising this very important matter. At the outset, I want to acknowledge the strong contribution he made at the weekend in promoting diversity in public life. It is important that our council chambers, Seanad and Dáil reflect the society they serve. It was a timely intervention at the weekend and something that we will robustly support in our Department in terms of trying to get diversity into political life. It is important interventions like that that we need in public life. The State Examinations Commission, SEC, has statutory responsibility for the certificate examinations and provides a scheme of reasonable accommodations at the certificate examinations, RACE, to support students with a complex variety of special educational needs. The RACE scheme allows relevant students to engage with the standard examination arrangements and to demonstrate what they know and what they can do in a way that does not compromise the integrity of the assessment. The focus of the scheme is on the need to remove examination access barriers while retaining the need to assess the same underlying skills and competencies, and to apply the same standards of achievement as apply to all other students.
An extensive range of examination supports is available through the RACE scheme to support candidates with visual impairments in taking their examinations. The SEC works very closely with the visiting teacher service of the National Council for Special Education in this regard. In the oral examinations for modern foreign languages and the Irish language, the provision for enlarged pictures sequences or role play cards will be provided to candidates who have been granted the accommodation of an enlarged examination paper under the scheme. The use of visual aides, magnifier or reading lamps can also be used if required.
In considering the possible accommodations for the oral Irish examination with regard to picture sequences, it is necessary to consider the demands of this aspect of the examination on all candidates. The oral examination is worth 40% of the overall marks available for this subject, with the picture sequences worth 80 marks out of the 240 available for the oral examination. Typically, candidates taking the oral Irish examination are expected to be familiar with 20 picture sequences but in 2022, to alleviate the burden on candidates due to Covid-19, this has been reduced to ten. Each picture sequence is an A4 page with a series of six pictures that present a particular story. Candidates have access to the picture sequences from the beginning of fifth year. Candidates choose at random one of the picture sequences and are expected to provide an account in Irish about the series of pictures. The candidate's ability will be assessed on both the descriptive narration and the interaction between the candidate and the examiner.
In recent years, in engagement with the visiting teacher service, the accommodation provided for candidates with visual impairments is to replace the picture sequences with a narrative description of what is happening in each of the storyboards presented in English. The picture sequences of the Irish oral examinations are assessing a core skill and so candidates may not be exempted from this element of the examination. The provision of the English language storyboards for students with visual impairments upholds a fundamental principle of the RACE scheme, which is that any alternative assessment provided must assess the same construct as the original test item and must not compromise the purpose of the examination.
I will bring the two issues raised by the Senator to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, specifically in terms of the variation from area to area and also the digital component.
I sincerely thank the Minister of State for his observations with regard to my Sunday Independentarticle at the weekend. I know diversity is an area for which he is responsible as Minister of State with responsibility for local government and I very much welcome his support of the concept of a diversity quota. I thank him for taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. It is an important issue. I do not believe the content of the reply comes with a solution but I have no doubt the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will pass on this serious issue and how it is affecting children or young people doing oral Irish. I know he will articulate that to the Minister of State.
I again thank the Senator. It is a very important issue. The Senator has outlined the media discourse in the last week with regard to the effect it had on a student in terms of their interaction with the SEC and the oral Irish paper. When there are issues like that, they need to be responded to. I will bring them to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, specifically the two concrete points the Senator raised in regard to what people are experiencing on the ground.