Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

State Examinations

10:30 am

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome my colleague from County Cork, Deputy Burke, and thank him for taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Education. Will the Minister for Education make a statement on the ongoing review regarding reasonable accommodations being available to leaving certificate and junior certificate examination students? This has been a significant issue for many people and I have been chasing it for a long time. There is a significant petition of 30,000 people from the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, which is looking for a review of accommodations available to people doing the leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations. These are very basic accommodations available in other countries and at third level but for some reason, the State Examinations Commission has not implemented them in the leaving certificate or junior certificate examinations. One I always speak about is additional time. I cannot understand why additional time is not given to dyslexic kids. It happens in every other jurisdiction, as far as I can see, in Europe. It happens at third level and in universities, where students get additional time.For some reason we are stuck in a scenario where the State Examinations Commission does not allow for dyslexic children who are doing the junior and leaving certificate examinations. We brought this matter to the petitions committee last May and we got an absolutely frightening response from the State Examinations Commission that it would look at this and that the review would take two to three years. What does that mean? There are kids in primary school who would probably go through the leaving certificate process and this will not be implemented. It just does not work.

We will also need to start looking at other things regarding this review such as the bizarre situation where the Department of Education will give assistive technology grants to children and they may get these in perhaps first or second year but the State Examinations Commission will not approve that technology to be used until some time during their third year. Can one imagine this now? We are giving a dyslexic child a computer to help him or her to go through their school years and the State Examinations Commission will not give them the approval until some time in third year. They then sit in limbo for two years with this issue. It is beyond belief.

We have issues here which need to be dealt with in a timeline that is appropriate. The timeline we are receiving from the State Examinations Commission is two to three years for the review to happen. For me, this review needs to happen in two to three months. We have 13,000 children who have gone through the leaving certificate process in the past few days who are dyslexic and they need those accommodations to be brought forward and to be made available to them such as they would receive when they go to third level education or receive in other European countries. We are behind the times when it comes to this issue and there is no urgency on the part of the State Examinations Commission to prioritise it. It must be prioritised and moved forward and the children who are going through this leaving certificate cycle are struggling because of the lack of time they are being given for the exams. I do not understand how the State Examinations Commission is taking a two or three-year process to come back with what it proposes to do.

I will finish on the following point. In a report published in 2008, it was then recommended that additional time should be granted and that this be brought forward but the commission has not even brought that recommendation forward itself. We do not need any more reviews. We need this to happen and we need the State Examinations Commission to look at this issue in a timely manner. To do this in two or three years is not a timely manner.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will break with protocol now, even though I should not comment as Cathaoirleach, but as a former teacher and as someone who has family members involved in exams, I wish to concur with Senator Lombard. I know that the Minister of State is not the line Minister but this is an inordinate delay and it is having a negative impact on many students. I should not pre-empt the Minister of State's reply but I want to support Senator Lombard.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach. With all of us Members present from Cork, I wonder if we could have a Seanad sitting in Cork.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am here on behalf of the Minister for Education so the reply received is from the Department of Education. I thank the Senator for the opportunity to update the House on this matter.

The State Examinations Commission, SEC, has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the State examinations. The SEC is fully committed to providing an examination and assessment system with the highest possible standards of inclusiveness, equity and fairness and which enables all candidates to display their achievements. The SEC works closely with school authorities, the Department of Education, and other agencies to provide access to examinations for candidates with special educational needs. It also actively engages with persons with disabilities through their representative organisations.

For the 2016 to 2017 school year, the reasonable accommodations at the certificate examinations, RACE, scheme underwent fundamental reform. The reform focused on ensuring greater alignment of the RACE scheme with the overall policies of the Department of Education in the area of special educational needs; enabling greater access to the scheme by students with learning difficulties; and allowing greater autonomy to schools and certainty to students about the examination supports which will be available to them. These candidate-centred changes were informed by engagement with stakeholders which included representatives of students including those with special educational needs such as the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, the Special Needs Parents Association; school management and leadership bodies; Government agencies and statutory bodies. The RACE scheme continues to be subject to a process of ongoing review and improvement by the SEC. For example, recent enhancements to the scheme include the introduction of deferred examinations for leaving certificate candidates who miss their examinations in the main sitting due to close family bereavement, or serious accident, illness or injury.

For the 2023 leaving certificate examinations, the SEC piloted the provision of read-only digital versions of examination papers to 14 leaving certificate candidates who are vision impaired and under the care of the National Council for Special Education’s visiting teachers service. Following a Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, case about inclusion of junior cycle candidates in the pilot, and having given detailed consideration to the issue, the SEC decided to extend the scope of the pilot to junior cycle in 2024. The scope was also extended to include modified as well as standard versions of examination papers. A total of 26 leaving certificate and junior cycle candidates are included in the pilot arrangements this year.

In the context of senior cycle redevelopment, the SEC has commenced work on a comprehensive system-wide review of the RACE scheme. A focus of the review will be increasing the use of assistive technology to enhance access and integrity and to further support independent learning. Some areas of recent focus by commentators and stakeholders on RACE include the provision of supports for candidates who have processing or cognitive issues including those with autistic spectrum disorders; the range of supports appropriate to those who are vision or hearing impaired; and the adequacy of additional time within the scheme. A review is ongoing and the Department is looking at it.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The reason I tabled this matter is because of a statement made on Thursday, 16 May in a committee hearing here. The lady in charge of the commission said it would take two or three years for the review to take place. My issue here is the two to three years. We are looking at trying to get additional time for the students, which time is already in place in third level institutions. It is the same thing that has happened for the leaving certificate and junior certificate and that happens also across the entirety of European countries.

We also need to look at the issue of where children are given a grant from the Department to get assistive technology but the commission will only allow that to be used some time during third year in State examinations. Families are left in limbo for a two and a half year process. The lack of joined-up thinking absolutely baffles me here. We have children who are using assistive technology in first year and second year but the State Examination Commission will not give them the approval to use it until some stage in third year, if at all. I think urgency is required here.

In the Department's response, and it is not the problem of the Minister of State present here, the timeline of two to three years was not given. In the committee, the timeline of two to three years was given. I would consider that to be very disingenuous, to say the very least.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Senator. The SEC at this time is finalising the terms of reference and the composition of the structures that will underpin the review. The review will consider all relevant issues and will take account of the best practice internationally. This, therefore, is a comprehensive review. In this regard, I am assured that the SEC intends that there will be extensive consultation and engagement with as broad a range of stakeholders as possible, including young people with special educational needs, their families and representative organisations. The review will take place. The SEC is finalising the terms of reference together with its composition and that is all being completed at the present time. Progress is being made.

I accept what the Senator is saying about the two to three year timescale but, in fairness, it is important that there is that consultation so that we can take on board all of the views of people who are directly involved in this area, both the young people with special educational needs but also their representative organisations.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.19 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.30 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 11.19 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.