COMMENT: Revised Leaving Cert Plans Are Simply Unfair On Teachers And Students

In this week’s column, Gavin argues that while the Leaving Certificate of 2020 couldn’t go ahead, the plan to replace it is unworkable, unfair, and the wrong option

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Imagine the hypothetical situation of two teachers, both of whom teach, say, German to Leaving Certs.  One can be from Clare – we’ll say the other is from Claremorris.  

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Both get an identical message from a student:

“Sir, thank you for everything this year.  It’s been great to be in your class and I really learned a lot.  I hope you don’t mind, but I really need a H2 to get the points I need for college, so please be nice when picking my grade!  Vielen Dank.”

In their heart of hearts, the teachers know a lot would have to go right in their exam for these students to get a H2.  Their performances up until now don’t warrant that grade. But they’ve been working hard in recent weeks, and had shown great improvement. Maybe, if they’d only had the chance to prove themselves…

So the teachers do as they’ve been told by the Department of Education, and use their “professional judgement.”  In Claremorris, our teacher looks solely at the student’s performance in the exams to date.  There’s no evidence that the student deserves a H2, so they don’t get one.  Our Clare teacher is more sympathetic – they want to ensure that their students don’t lose out in any way.  So they rank the student that little bit higher as a result.  The principals in both schools sign off on the results, and come August, one student will have an experience that is wunderbar, and the other will be left sehr traurig (that’s very sad, auf Deutsch).

Now, neither teacher has done much wrong.  Both acted honestly, and used their “professional judgement.”  But they’ve interpreted that crucial phrase differently, and as a result their students have had different grades which can so easily make all the difference.

This lobbying shouldn’t happen.  It puts teachers and principals in an invidious position.  But it has already started.

Since Friday, some teachers say they have already received more emails from their students, some of whom are stressed. Others have, all of a sudden, been handed in homework assignments that are weeks overdue. Add to this the possible phone call from a concerned mother, and a quick word from an uncle to a principal that he knows through the GAA. It could even be unintentional, in the form of a joke when a student meets their teacher in the shop. In a country of tight-knit communities, this is all unavoidable and it is impossible to not be influenced by it, in some form.

Teachers are now being asked to rank and judge the very same students that they have previously been tasked to guide, nurture, and support.  And while there have never been more alternative educational opportunities for students, there are real lives at stake, heightened emotions at play, and far-reaching consequences to the judgements made in schools throughout the country.

The Department insists there will be clear and detailed national guidelines for teachers to follow, including how to handle conflicts of interest.  These could see students reported to the Department after any attempted lobbying, or canvassing.  But let’s be honest – there has never been a set of guidelines that do not have at least a degree of wriggle room, and not everyone will be reported.

Even in the Department’s own planned actions, there are issues.  It’s special unit to review grades will look at information “will look at information like how students from the school have performed in the Leaving Cert in the past, and use this information to adjust the grades to make sure this year’s grades are in line with previous years.” So, no matter how good or bad your grades are, your Leaving Cert results will be impacted by what happened in the same school in recent years.

In other words, from now until the students receive their results in Augist, their performance is more reliant on the students who sat the exam last year than on anything they can do themselves.

To put it another way, quite simply, there is too much inherent bias in this system.  The policy of predicted grading is not a fair system.  And don’t just take my word for it.  Those are the words of Education Minister Joe McHugh, just last month.

I understand that the Leaving Certificate couldn’t proceed as planned this year.  I appreciate that students did not want it to, and that this plan has been devised as a ‘least worst option’ in extraordinary circumstances.  I have listened to those who back this switch, but I am not won over by their arguments.  Fairness has been compromised to arrive at this point, and that’s a compromise too far.

In the world of advanced digital technology, I find it impossible to believe that students could not have been given a chance to earn their grades, as expected, in a remote examination this summer.  Failing that, couldn’t they be accommodated by our Universities and Institutes of Technology through online learning for at least the start of their courses? When appropriate, a further exam could be held to determine which students can keep their places, should physical space be an issue once the colleges re-open, with an offer of re-entry for those who miss out.

Is that ideal?  No. It’s not completely fair, either.  But it does give every student a chance to stand their own two feet.  For all of its flaws, the Leaving Cert has at least always given us that.

This messy ‘solution’ will instea inevitably be the subject of legal challenge, and is unfair on a group of students who are being denied the chance to chart their own courses.

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One aside, on this issue, while we’re here.

If your schooldays are long past you, think back to when you finally ‘escaped’ your school, or the exam hall, for the last time.  The relief of it…

For the 2020 Leaving Certs, the end of their time in second level education came in the form of an announcement at government buildings last Friday, or a breaking news alert the evening before.

This virus is taking a lot from us, including things that are much more important than this rite of passage.  But the little moments make long-lasting memories, and I for one feel for the teenagers who’ve had that robbed from them.