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Concerns mount over mental wellbeing of students - Children's Ombudsman

Additional reporting: Daniel McConnell

The Children’s Ombudsman has added his voice to the growing concerns over the mental health of Leaving Cert students. 

As uncertainty over this year’’s exams continued yesterday as teaching unions and education stakeholders held talks about their feasibility, Dr Niall Muldoon urged for clarity to prevent further anxiety for students. 

"On a purely human level there are 61,000 children who are deprived of all the positive elements of finishing school," he said. "This is a crucial rite of passage for so many and it is the closeness of friends and the support of teachers and other school staff which makes the chore of studying worthwhile." 

This has been taken away from them, he added. "I really hope that clarity can be provided to children, their parents and teachers as soon as possible to avoid further anxiety amongst an already vulnerable group of people.”

Dr Muldoon met with Joe McHugh, the minister for education this week to discuss his concerns over the mental health of students. He also relayed messages to the minister about the sustained pressure felt by students for another two more months. 

The postponed exams are currently expected to begin on July 29. According to the Ombudsman, many families are suffering from financial strain. Some students are also concerned the funds will not be there to support them if they do get to college and some students are trying to study with other siblings in the house and parents working from home.

“We appreciate the engagement from the minister [on Thursday] evening and feel encouraged by his openness to considering a wide variety of options that could be made available to students, including the concept of calculated grades. We urged the minister to continue to look at a range of options and ensure that representatives of third level and further education institutions are involved in generating such options." 

The Education and Training Boards National Parents Association (ETBsNPA), which represents parents at schools run by 16 of the ETBs, said it was "gravely concerned" about the continued lack of clarity. The group is continuing to receive messages from "distraught parents." Parents are also concerned about the spreading of Covid-19 from an exam centre to a home. 

"ETBsNPA as an organisation dreads the possibility of learning of the death of a student or adult due to the Covid virus being sourced from an examination centre." 

Separately, there was stinging criticism in the Dáil of the Government’s lack of clarity over whether or not the Leaving Certificate will be cancelled. Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin said the current position regarding the leaving certificate is unacceptable. “Every single government in Europe has been confronted with how to complete school leaving examinations and prepare for a new higher education year. Nowhere has there been such a lack of clarity and confusion,” he said.

Labour Leader Alan Kelly described the handling of the Leaving Certificate as an unmitigated disaster. "This needs to be finished. We need a plan B and it needs to be out there this week. It needs to be agreed." 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he appreciates that the uncertainty is causing enormous stress. “If [the exams are] cancelled we must make sure that we can put in place an alternative which would be fair, which is extremely difficult."