Opinion: The class of 2022 deserve a choice in Leaving Cert exams

The voice of students must be at the heart of the Leaving Certificate debate, so says TD for Cork South Central, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education
Opinion: The class of 2022 deserve a choice in Leaving Cert exams

A general view of pupils sitting an exam at Lawrence Sheriff school Rugby, Warwickshire.

THE Leaving Certificate is an important milestone in the lives of young people in Ireland. For many it is a rite of passage, symbolising the beginning of adulthood, and a means to leave home, to continue their education into third level or enter the world of work.

In a ‘normal’ year, it is a culmination of two years of teaching and study, and recognises the end of 14 years of primary and secondary education.

To put it plainly, the last two years have been anything but normal for the Leaving Cert Class of 2022.

I have spoken to dozens of sixth year students over the last number of weeks. Each shared their own unique experience of the level of disruption to their learning over the last two years, but all were united in their worry and anxiety at sitting ‘traditional’ Leaving Cert exams this June.

Many of the young people who contacted me had themselves contracted Covid-19 in the last number of months, or had to isolate due to being a close contact. This for some meant two or even three weeks of absence from school at a time. Many teachers similarly had to self-isolate, some more than once. These levels of absence have been compounded by the new, highly contagious Omicron variant.

Since schools went back after Christmas, absences of up to 40% of children and staff have been reported as a result of self-isolation. 

One 6 th year I spoke with, on his third day back in school, had only two of his seven scheduled classes due to staff absences. This is in no way the fault of the teachers or the students who have contracted Covid. The reality is, that absences will continue to occur as we navigate Omicron. It is frustrating that the Minister for Education does not seem to recognise this reality.

Sinn Fein TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Sinn Fein TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

The lack of preparation and contingency planning from the Government with regards the Leaving Cert is alarming. The Minister continues to point to traditional written exams as the be all and end all solution.

Whether a written exam in June is physically possible is frankly irrelevant when many students feel, given their disruption to learning, that they would be unprepared to sit a written exam, regardless of additional choice added to the papers. If the Minister listened to students, she would know this.

The Leaving Cert is never a fully level playing field. However, this year, Leaving Cert students are facing a Russian roulette of disruption to their learning, based on whether they were unfortunate to catch Covid-19, or their teacher did, or they were a close contact.

The reality is, that the level of disruption varies hugely from student to student, based in the most part on factors entirely outside of their control. Some students may not have missed any class time with their teacher, whilst others may have missed weeks.

The only way to ensure fairness for the Class of 2022, I believe, is to give students a choice between written exams and calculated grades. This choice is necessary in recognition of the fact that there are many students who simply have not had the opportunity to cover the course.

The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union, the largest representative body for secondary school students on the island, has called on the Minister for Education to revise the Leaving Cert plans to take into account the huge disruption 6 th year students have faced. They have rightly stated that to continue with a traditional exam would be in complete disregard of students’ best interests.

Leaving Cert students have made it clear; they need a choice. The Minister cannot continue to ignore the voices of students here.

There has been nothing normal about the last 24 months for Leaving Cert students. Not knowing what is happening is putting huge pressure on them and causing incredible stress and anxiety. For the Minister to push on with ‘normal’ exams is to sleepwalk into a mental health crisis among this age group.

It is abundantly clear that further changes to the Leaving Cert will have to be made this year. The Minister must put the voices of students at the heart of this debate, and take decisive and urgent action to bring clarity and peace of mind to the Class of 2022.

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