Explained: How might Leaving and Junior Cert exams take place in 2022?

Both educators and students have weighed in with their views, with some calling for a hybrid approach while others insist that 2022 should bring a return to traditional exams
Explained: How might Leaving and Junior Cert exams take place in 2022?

Sarah Mooney

Debate is growing over the way in which both the Leaving and Junior Cert exams will be held this year, as a third cohort of students prepares for the process amid a pandemic.

Both educators and students have weighed in with their views, with some calling for a hybrid approach with a choice between sitting exams and accredited grades, while others have insisted that 2022 should bring a return to more traditional exams.

Here are the issues facing students, teachers and the Department of Education, as we look at how State exams might take place this year.

What do we know about the upcoming exams?

The final form of the exams in 2022 has yet to be confirmed.

It is understood that the Department of Education is focused on running a traditional Leaving Cert, with some extra choice on written papers in recognition of the tuition losses suffered by students.

It is also proposed that an alternative set of exams will run shortly after the main set for students who experience a close family bereavement, Covid-19 illness or other serious illness during the first exam period.

The Minister for Education announced last month that oral exams and practical performance tests will take place outside of school time during the Easter holidays, to minimise time out of classes for teachers who take on the role of State examiners in these assessments.

The Department has said that all arrangements for the 2022 State exams will be guided by “prevailing public health advice” at the time.

So what’s the problem?

Students, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and representatives of Opposition parties are now united against pressing ahead with traditional exams.

Despite no school closures during the current academic year, Covid has continued to make its presence felt with both student and staff absences impacting education across the country.

Amid concerns about the disruption students have faced over the past two years, the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) has said exams "cannot go ahead as planned.”

A poll of an estimated 30,000 students – to be published next week by the ISSU – will likely add to pressure for change.

Could calculated grades be a solution?

The option of re-running last year’s system of giving students a choice between written exams and accredited grades based on teachers’ estimates looks to be highly difficult, if not impossible.

Current sixth year students who did not complete transition year did not sit the Junior Cert in 2020 when it was cancelled due to Covid - meaning there is no objective data on their previous exam performance.

This information was crucial to the standardisation process for marks estimated by teachers, which helped ensure fairness and consistency in accredited grades awarded in 2020 and 2021.

On this basis, the State Examination Commission (SEC) told education partners earlier this week that it will not be possible to run calculated or accredited grades for this year’s cohort of students, according to informed sources.

In addition, despite the national standardisation process aiming to decrease grade inflation, Leaving Cert results soared to record levels in 2021 - overall 2.6 per cent ahead of 2020’s record-breaking results, which in turn were 4.4 per cent ahead of 2019 exams.

This had a knock-on effect for CAO points, which are used to award third-level places, and the process has faced criticism for this reason.

Some students who received sufficient points still missed out on their chosen course, with limited third-level places meaning random selection had to be used in a process the deputy president of NUIG has described as "a lottery".

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has ruled out creating more college places this year to alleviate this issue, after a record number of new places were provided last year.

What are teachers saying?

Amid calls for a hybrid approach similar to last year, a number of teachers’ unions have expressed the view that “traditional” exams should take place in 2022.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents over 19,000 teachers and lecturers, has said there is “no justification” for offering additional options, and also cited reports that pupils are disengaging due to an expectation that they will not have to sit exams.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), which represents about 18,500 secondary teachers, has said is it “committed” to an externally-assessed Leaving Cert in 2022 “in line with the students’ and teachers’ expectations.” “The preservation of Ireland’s high quality, fair, and independent State exams system is vital,” it said.

Both the ASTI and TUI have noted that the standardisation of grades carried out over the last two years cannot be replicated this year because no Junior Cert data is available for a significant number of students.

The TUI instead said it believed “further consideration could be given to extending the breadth of topics covered in papers or adjusting marking schemes” to take account of this year’s circumstances.

So who is supporting a hybrid model?

School principals have voiced their support for a 2021-style Leaving Cert, pointing to the disruption caused Covid-related absences among teachers and students.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) said there needs to be a discussion about what exactly a hybrid system looks like, but is backing measures to support students.

“We would be in favour of the State running the State exams next June, but we also will be saying we need to consider how else we can capture their assessments,” Paul Crone, director of the NAPD, said.

Representatives from Sinn Féin and the Labour Party in recent days have called for a hybrid model, with the campaign also backed by some in Fine Gael, one of the three parties in the coalition Government.

Senator Regina Doherty, a former minister and senior party member, on Sunday called on the Minister for Education to give “strong consideration” to introducing some changes to exams, describing the hybrid option as a “compassionate one”.

Is there any chance of permanent State exam reform?

In September 2021, Minister for Further Education Simon Harris questioned if the Leaving Cert points race is “the right way to go”.

Mr Harris said the pathway between secondary and third level education was “not the international norm”, and said the country should be “braver, bolder, and more ambitious”.

“I hope one of the good things to come out of Covid, if we’re brave enough and bold enough as a country, and all the education partners, should be to say there is a better way, there must be a better way,” he said.

Speaking separately, Minister for Education Norma Foley said that the pandemic has created an opportunity to think differently about the Irish education system and the Leaving Cert.

“There is an opportunity now to take a root and branch look at everything,” she said.

However, there has been no indication that permanent reform is imminent, as education authorities focus on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

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