‘A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders’ – student
The decision to cancel this year’s Leaving Cert exams has been met with almost universal approval locally. Education Minister Joe McHugh, made the announcement last Friday, reversing his previous decision to commence the State exams on July 29.
“When I first heard I was shocked because it took them so long to make a decision, and couldn’t believe they finally cancelled it,” Ellen O’Brien, a Loreto College student told The Anglo-Celt on Friday afternoon. “Personally I completely agree with the decision they’ve made because I think it’s the fairest way to carry out the exams considering the pandemic that we’re in.
“It’s unrealistic to put 60,000 students in schools across the country, some of who may have underlying illnesses, or family members with underlying illnesses, so I think this is the best way to carry it out.”
Making the announcement, Minister McHugh said: “I have compelling evidence, based on medical advice and other assessments, that the Leaving Certificate examinations cannot be held in a reliable and valid manner, nor in a way that would be equitable for students.”
St Patrick’s College principal Christopher Rowley was less surprised by the move, describing it as “inevitable”. At the heart of the decision lay “student wellbeing”, he surmised.
“There were too many variables that were uncertain - how schools would deal with the practicalities of having students in for exams, staffing, any issues around sickness,” said Mr Rowley.
He explained that a survey was conducted with St Patrick’s Leaving Cert students last week and it seems that the minister’s decision chimed with its findings.
“64% said they would like some aspect of predicted grades; 5% said they would like to do the exams fully as planned - end of July into August with all project work; 25% of them said they would just like to do the theory; and three per cent thought it would be a good idea to have a full repeat year.”
Since schools closed on March 12, Ellen had been waking early these sunny mornings and trying her best to study, but admits it was hard to remain focused. And with the restrictions, the burden couldn’t be lightened by meeting up with her friends facing the same challenges.
“It was the uncertainty that was getting to me,” she says. “You can just get periods of time where you lack motivation and you think, is there any point in me actually doing this? So it was hard but I got through it okay.”
Ellen wasn’t the only one to find it hard. Mr Rowley acknowledged that distance learning - provided by schools across the board - wasn’t suitable for all students.
“Some students found it hard to engage depending on circumstances at home, similarly on the other side, teachers find it very hard,” he said, referring particularly to those who were also looking after their own young children, meaning worklife extended into evenings.
“Then there are certain students who, without that face-to-face support from a teacher, find it hard to learn and progress,” said Mr Rowley.
The St Patrick’s College principal suspected that, if the exams had proceeded as planned, the grades would have lacked “authenticity”.
“The grades that will come out of this will be fairer than what would have been awarded if they had to go through the other process. Yes it would suit the kids who can thrive on learning on their own; it would suit the students who have very academic - straight theory subjects - physics, chemistry, there’s no project work. But students who were going through project work and were likely to have it amended or cancelled or whatever, they were going to significantly be impacted - the ability to complete projects in the two week window in July was going to be very difficult to achieve. So there was an element of lack of reality, and lack of authenticity around the results that were going to come from quite a few areas.”
Micheál Martin, local TUI rep, said that the advice from the department offers a “broad outline” on calculated grades, and currently lacks detail.
“That hasn’t been clarified whether that [full marks on coursework/orals] is back in with the calculated grade or whether they would still carry, as was committed at that time.”
He was hopeful that they would get sight of the guidelines this week, as the calculated grades are to be submitted by May 29.
Local Sinn Féin TD, and former Breifne College teacher, Pauline Tully agrees that the government’s Plan B needs fleshing out.
“There is still clarity needed on some aspects of the exams if students unhappy with their calculated grades chose to sit them at a later stage,” she said. “Also, the position of external students and students who are home schooled needs to be clarified. They are not able to obtain predicted grades, so alternatives are needed for those students.
“The predicted grades are also not officially a Leaving Cert, and we need more clarity on what this will mean for students who don’t go on to third-level. The Minister has acknowledged that there are ‘legal vulnerabilities’ about this approach.”
Pressure on teachers
In the place of the independent exam body, the SEC, now stands the very public face of the teachers. Some parents and students may be eager to ensure teachers come up with, to borrow Christopher Rowley’s phrase, their “authentic grades” or even authentic grades-plus.
Micheál Martin, who teaches engineering in Castleblayney College, opined that there may be attempts at interference from parents in a “very small minority of cases”.
“The safeguards to protect teachers from lobbying/canvasing are now urgently required,” says Mr Martin, noting that so far the Department has been silent on the issue. In the meantime, the TUI has advised teachers: “If there is contact by a student or a parent and the issue of grades come up - that conversation should be politely ended immediately and the approach should be passed on to the school management.”
Mr Rowley agrees that it’s possible teachers may encounter pressure from parents, but insists: “I have great faith in the professionalism of the teachers and I’m sure they will do their job here to the utmost of their ability.”
In announcing the new system, Minister McHugh guaranteed students “the right to sit the examinations at a later stage when it is safe to hold them in the normal way”.
Ellen O’Brien says that failsafe will offer some comfort to students.
“I think it’s good there’s the option that, if you are not happy with a grade, you can sit that exam if you want,” she said.
The Derryheen teenager is a talented musician and hopes to pursue Music Education in Trinity, but competition for the course’s 10 places is tough. She has also applied for a degree in journalism and a few other arts courses.
Deputy Pauline Tully says that this year, the challenge for students of getting into their preferred course should be easier.
“Universities and colleges will have reduced numbers of international students this year, due to the Coronavirus. We believe it is possible, via investment in third-level, and crucially scaling up SUSI, to allow more students to access their first choice course. Assessments conducted online could also be used for oversubscribed courses.”
Such decisions have yet to be made as the Department scramble to beat the clock on implementing Plan B.
The protracted spell of fabulous weather has been a welcome counterpoint to the threatening climate caused by the Coronavirus. Mercifully for the leaving Cert students, they can begin to take advantage of the sunshine as school’s out forever.
“When I heard the news I went outside and just completely relaxed,” Ellen told the Celt. “It’s like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. It’s very freeing now.”