On 1 February 2022 Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Norma Foley announced there would be “extensive” changes made to this year’s Leaving Certificate (LC) exams in order to provide students with more choice and better reflect the line of questioning which was used in last year’s examination papers.

This was in response to the previous announcement that the LC examinations would return to their pre-pandemic sit-down model.

Last year’s hybrid-model allowed for students to decide between sit-down examinations or accredited grades, which led to some of the highest LC scores on record. 2021 also saw CAO points requirements rise in many college courses.

Disrupted learning

According to the Government statement, the changes to the 2022 papers will take into account the amount of disruption in learning which has occurred – not just over the past several months – but throughout the past two years.

Minister Foley has also announced that the 2022 points will be no lower than those in 2021, which had also been a concern. The changes, she says, made to the exam papers will offer more choice and provide “certainty and clarity” as well as “the fairest pathway to successfully completing their post-primary education”. They largely involve keeping the structure and overall layout of the examination papers as familiar as possible to the students.

The Department of Education also announced that an alternate set of LC examinations will be held shortly after the main set of exams.

This will be to accommodate any students who couldn’t sit their examinations for COVID-19 or other personal reasons. They stated there would be “strict eligibility criteria” for those who wish to sit the later examinations.

Teachers unions’ responses

Irish Country Living asked the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) the same question: with recent announcements in mind, what, in your opinion, is in the best interest of secondary school students preparing for their LC examinations?

President of the ASTI Eamon Dennehy, told Irish Country Living that this year’s LC students have endured an enormous amount of uncertainty, and that the minister’s announcement adequately addresses this disruption.

“A critically important change is the introduction of measures to ensure that aggregate LC results in 2022 are no lower than last year,” he says. “This will provide a level playing field for our 2022 LC students. Students and their teachers can now have the confidence that the exams will be fair and transparent and will take into account the unique circumstances of the LC 2022 cohort.

“As a teachers’ union our greatest concern for second-level students is the lack of adequate investment in their education by Government,” he continues. “The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) publication Education at a Glance 2021 found that Ireland is 36th out of 36 countries in terms of investment in second-level education as a proportion of GDP (gross domestic product). Schools are continuously cash-strapped.

“Many parents struggle with education costs such as uniforms, educational materials and other resources. Investment in education is the only real way to tackle social inequalities and ensure equality of opportunity for all.”

Similarly, the TUI welcomes the announced changes. A representative of the union says the TUI has “consistently made the point that, in the absence of full Junior Certificate data for all students, there was simply no viable model for an alternative assessment mechanism that could guarantee fairness and equity for the class of 2022”.

They added: “Students and teachers now know exactly where they stand and can make the most of the remainder of the school year. With the clarity provided, school communities can maintain their focus on the important business of teaching and learning in the weeks and months ahead.”

The TUI representative also notes that excessive focus on CAO points is not a flaw of the senior cycle in itself, but is instead a “byproduct of a national obsession with progression to third level that distorts the true meaning of education and often leads to invalid and unfair comparisons between schools”.

Who benefits?

While clarity is always welcome in these situations, we also can’t deny that the hybrid model used in 2021 was preferable for many students, including those living in under-privileged areas or for those who, for one reason or another, simply do not perform well in a traditional sit-down exam environment.

A lot has been said regarding the mental health of LC students. While stress associated with exams shouldn’t necessarily be considered a negative thing (overcoming stressful situations is a crucial aspect of entering adulthood), the traditional LC has long been criticised for only working to the advantage of a certain cohort – or type – of student. Couldn’t the Government have taken the opportunities the pandemic provided to create a more equitable form of assessment?

Other impressions of the decision to go back to the pre-pandemic approach to the LC are that this decision benefits the system more than the students. Irish Country Living sent these questions to the Department of Education, a representative responded, saying the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has completed an advisory report on senior-cycle programmes and vocational pathways and the report has been submitted to the department for consideration. The representative says this report offers an ambitious programme of work which would include changes to the LC to better capture the full range of students’ skills and aptitudes.

“The minister is aware of the desire in the education community and more generally that the NCCA Advisory Report be published but the department must first complete the consideration of the report,” they say. “The minister is currently focusing on what the implementation of the report would involve and what can be done to best ensure the further evolution of senior cycle. The department and minister have been considering the report carefully, with a view to delivering a senior-cycle programme that meets the needs of the students of today and the future, and the report will be published once those considerations are complete.”

From the student

Toby Lambe (right), who lives in Co Tipperary, sat his LC in 2021 and was pleased to receive an excellent results. Unfortunately, as his programme of choice (veterinary) increased in points last year, he missed out on the opportunity.

Undeterred, he has decided to sit the LC again in 2022.

He says that many of his classmates are relieved regarding these new changes to their LC papers, but he is concerned the changes are providing false hope to students.

“Most people quite like the changes [to the LC papers] because it seems like you’re able to do less study, but I don’t think that’s how it’s going to be,” he tells Irish Country Living. “I think it depends. Sure, you won’t have to study as many topics – but the topics you do study – you’ll need to go really in-depth and in detail.

“For biology, they’ve taken a good few questions off the paper so it’s gone down significantly – probably a third of the marks – and it’s less room for error,” he continues.

“People complain about it already because it’s a massive two-year course condensed into one small exam. Those were the pitfalls before, and now what they’ve done is they’ve made it even smaller, so I feel like [those marking the papers] are getting less of an indication as to how much the student actually knows.

“It makes me feel a bit more nervous because there is a chance – because of the new layout – that I could go up in marks, but any little mistake I make will also matter more.”

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