It is important to remember the purpose of the Leaving Certificate examination (versus the course) when trying to consider whether or not the exam should be held in August.
Firstly the Leaving Certificate – the actual certificate/statement of results itself – is a record of completion and achievement at the end of a two year upper second level course of study.
Secondly it provides a set LC exam results relied upon by students as a means of accessing third level places in accordance with agreements laid down by the universities in 1977 and since.
The third consideration is that approximately one third of students do not go on to third level in the year after the Leaving Certificate exam but still need to have a standardised assessment-based qualification.
In 2018 there was 46,624 net acceptances of CAO places offered (QQI Level 6/7 and 8) – approx. 87% were first-time LC exam students – let’s round that up to 41,000 – though this figure would include external applicants. The HEA reports 39,000 or so undergraduates in 2018/2019. In 2018 a little over 14,000 offers were made but not accepted. And just over 4,095 were eligible for places but did not receive an offer. A little over 9,000 were not eligible for places.
There’s some discrepancies in the figures but roughly we can say that out of approximately 61,000 students in the LC 2020 cohort, approximately 40,000 would ordinarily be looking forward to accepting an offer of some sort from the CAO. The remainder would either not accept an offer, not get an offer despite having the points, or not get sufficient points to recieve an offer.
When Leo Varadkar said that the Leaving Certificate was going to happen by hook or by crook he was looking to reassure students that their exams would go ahead despite the disruption to school. What Leo perhaps didn’t anticipate was that some people, a rare few perhaps, were hoping that the LC exams would be cancelled by hook or by crook.
This is not to say whether or not it is right to cancel the leaving certificate – I’ll get to that point in a minute – but it should be clear that would be ridiculous to cancel the LC exams simply because a loud and vocal minority have decided that they would prefer not to sit them (nor their parents want them to sit them in August). I am excluding the ISSU’s recent and flawed survey from this analysis. It is their role to speak up for the students they represent and this is a perfectly good and reasonable thing. Though even there, with the key question poorly constructed in an open access online survey, still only about 30% of the LC 2020 cohort* voted for cancellation.
(*I have updated this figure from 20% – an error I made. Just to note, cohort refers to the total number of student which for 2020 is approximately 61000. Some people have asked me why this is an issue – surely a majority of those who voted is important, not whether x% didn’t vote. This may be true in elections. But a decision to treat all students in this context fairly is not a decision that can be decided by a majority at the expense of a minority who may have had particular reasons why they could not vote. Simply put, rights – and in this case the right to be treated fairly – exist independently of the majority).
The point of the preceding paragraph is really to highlight a two very important points.
- Merely wanting something does not make it good nor fair
- Anyone can speak their mind but no one should think that their less informed, and by extension, narrower view, is equal to the views of the experts, such as those in the Department of Education.
This of course does not lessen their right to speak their mind on issues that affect them. But no parent is going to listen to Johnny demand that jar of skittles on the shelf and say that because the issue of access to skittles affects Johnny he should therefore have a say in whether or not he should get them, and then in the end decide that because he is *more* affected by the decision, he should therefore get the jar. We all know the mess that would ensue and who would have to clean up. I don’t like using analogies but I think this one works.
In addition, none of this is to take away from those people who have very genuine concerns nor take from them the right to express that concern in relation to sitting the LC exams in August, if it is to be held while the virus is still a real and present danger. In such a scenario, the exams simply cannot be held in August.
The above is simply to say that whatever actions are taken – whether it is some form of estimated grades (boo, hiss!), sitting the exam at some point, or something else – it should be based on a reasoned consideration of as many as possible of the relevant factors.
So we should have some basic principles to underpin the consideration of these factors. I don’t know if I have all of them here (no order of importance implied) but if I am missing any, please use the comment box below.
- Disruptions to the whole education system must be minimised. We need to ensure that any actions we take with regard to determining LC 2020 students’ admission to college does not impact on other aspects of the education system. For example, it would not be desirable, nor practical, nor reasonable for the system to back up to such an extent that this year’s LC cohort is in competition with next year’s cohort for scarce first year university places. Equally we don’t want to create a gap in the intake at third level. It is not in the interests of the universities to miss out on, all things considered, some sort of appropriate start in first year for this year’s LC cohort. The consequence of this is that this year’s LC cohort must be able to access college places within the next academic year and preferably as early as possible.
- If grades of some description were to be used and assigned as the basis for CAO points, the way they are determined must be fair, consistent and uniform for all students. However, as I pointed out in Part 2, some types of grade – “predicted grades” and “estimated grades” aren’t really a whole-cohort option. Sure, we could make up grades and we could convince ourselves that we tried our best to come up with something that’s as fair as could be but nothing would escape the fact that retrospective grades would not satisfy all students (say the 40 000 or so that did not vote in th eISSU survey), that that was at least as high a grade they would have got had they sat the LC exam. This makes an absolute cancellation of the exam deeply problematic and effectively impossible.
- We cannot allow LC exams to take place in a context where the virus is still active to such an extent that there is the merest possibility of students becoming infected. This may be unrealistic for some. But for those who are immuno-compromised and who could potentially contract the infection from a student who sat in an exam hall, it is very realistic indeed.
- Related to 3 – no action should be taken in holding the LC exams that in any way puts at risk the physical health of students.
- Students who are not going on to third level need to be provided with an opportunity to sit an exam that will give them a recognised, standardised qualification which they can use for employment or future access to third level.
- If the exams could be held safely in August, then they should be. I don’t think it will be safe. But this principle is consistent with 1 above.
I’m not going to restate here my views on the mental health issue. This is a complex issue and I do not think it is as homogeneous for all students as is, for example, the physical health issue. There are issues there for sure, and there should be measures taken to deal with this including coordination with schools to ensure vulnerable students are supported. I know that this is happening in many schools anyway.
I’m not an epidemiologist so I’m no use at tracking the spread of diseases. But I can read graphs and compare them. The first graph here compares Covid deaths
per million in five countries – the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Germany and Denmark (right). I’ve chosen the UK because it seems to be the worst-case scenario in Europe. I’ve chosen New Zealand because they seem to be the most successful so far in managing the spread and impact of the virus. The key number is an infection rate of R less than 1 and preferably less than 0.4. New Zealand achieved this and Jacinda Ardern issued plans to gradually “reopen the economy but not society”. For Germany and Denmark you will notice a slight upward blip in deaths following a relaxation of restrictions. The blip in New Zealand is too early to be explained by the easing of economic restrictions.
The second graph (left) shows the total number of confirmed cases, test and deaths in Ireland. You can see that we seem to have reached a plateau. However, we have no idea how long that plateau will be. In China’s case, the number of cases decreased rapidly once authorities gained control of the spread. However, they had a significant upturn in cases and deaths after restrictions were initially lifted.
What is evident in the graphs is that the road to reopening both economy and society safely is going to be long and gradual. If it is at least as long as the incline, it will be at least the middle of July before we are approaching normality. The middle of July should resonate with you.
However, the government plan, and I think a wise one, is to adopt a phased basis to reopening. In part this is because we don’t know the true extent or spread of the virus in the country. We know there are different strains of the virus. There is no certainly that even asymptomatic people will not at some later point become ill. So far it seems reinfection is unlikely but who knows for sure. But all told, a gradual reopening means that we can test the waters without producing a situation that overwhelms the health service.
So there is an interesting contradiction then between the magic two-weeks-back-at-school-from-mid-July and the governments phased plan. On the face of it, would seem that the logically consistent thing to do in the plan would have been to cancel the LC exams. But of course, a decision had already been made, preparations put in train and it must have seemed that if it was at all possible, then the exams should be held. Principle 6 above. And at the time the decision was made, it seemed reasonable that August could work. And if the graphs above are to be believed, it might still. No one was being unfair or inconsiderate of anyone. In fact, holding the exam, if possible, solves many issues that arise by not holding them. And as I said in Part 1 – any solution should not (unnecessarily) create more problems than it solves.
There has been some suggestion from the government and various commentators that it is possible that the start of third level courses in the autumn could be delayed as far as December or January. I think it’s important to point that whatever about a delay of two months to holding the LC exam, a delay to say October would be an impossible ask. So, just considering third level entry only, if the exam cannot be held in August, it must be ruled out of consideration in this year CAO applications.
What is interesting is that the above suggestion – a later start to the academic year – shows that there may bit of give in the system between September and December. For example not all courses have a 9 to 5 timetable. There are reading weeks and mid-term breaks. There are early finishes for end-of-semester exams.
In addition to that not all aspects of every course are held in-person. Increasingly universities have adopted a blended approach – part online and part in-person – in the delivery of their curriculum. This approach has helped students who, for example, have to work to pay for college expenses, including mature students which made up 10% or so of CAO net acceptances.
In 2011 the then Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn outlined some of the reasons for the revised Junior Cycle. He mentioned that employers (he called them “captains of industry”) complained that students quite often didn’t have the skills that they were looking for when they left college. Now, as an argument for the new Junior Cycle this was redundant. But it did point to a certain failure in skills acquisition at third level.
It is clear that there is a set of particular skills that students should have when they leave college among these are presentation skills, domain-specific critical thinking skills, teamwork skills, and communication skills among others. In addition there is a generic set of skills that all university students – need the ability to source appropriate information, to contruct critiques different sources, to synthesise information from a variety of different sources, to write persuasive arguments, to reference appropriately, to use online databases and so on. These all take some time to acquire.
I’ve suggested in Part 2 and above that I cannot see the LC exams held in August. Under such a circumstance I do not think it would be reasonable for universities to say that they would not accept anything except the results of a standardized examination as a condition of entry. I’m not saying that this is what they would say, merely that saying so would be, to me, unreasonable.
Again, I think it’s important to note that I think the whole cohort of 2020 still needs the opportunity to acquire a LC examination qualification. This is because approximately 20 000 students do not get and/or apply for CAO-allocated places. They go to work, seek apprenticeships, decide to go to college maybe several years later and so on. They will still need a qualification comparable to LC cohort of 2021 (more anon). In addition to this, anyone who dropped out of college or who failed in their exams to get past first year will need their LC qualification to fall back on. Consequently, I do not think the LC exams should be held in August, but I do think that they should be held at some point and offered to those from the 2020 cohort who want to take them. Obviously, time would run out on this in June 2021 but we cannot have a situation where 60 000 student this year are competing with the LC cohort of 2021 for scarce college places. This means something obvious.
I think the only possible, fair and uniform solution is that those students who have applied through the CAO for university place would be allocated at university place.
How are CAO places allocated normally
The CAO calculates the points for each course (subject to eligibility criteria, for example, some courses require a science or a language) and ranks students according to order of merit from highest points to lowest. Universities tell the CAO how many places they can offer. The CAO allocates those places on the basis of merit until all the places are gone. If you don’t get your first choice, you could get your second, or third etc. If you accept your second, you could still be offered your first. But if you are offered your first, and you don’t accept, you are out of the running. There is a change of mind application procedure that closes on July 1st.
How would your proposal work
I will admit that I do not have enough expertise to provide the finer details. This requires the CAO and the Higher Education Institutions to contribute. They will have procedures and policies in place that would take me too long to research and present here.
/The CAO change of mind application would close immediately. It would no longer be relevant in this plan.
/All students would be allocated a third level place (note, not course) as if they qualified for their first choice. If offered and accepted, this place would be within the faculty (department) of their first choice course for first year.
/The normal CAO procedures would apply – namely, as everyone would be deemed to have qualified for their first place, offers would be by random selection. If this seems a bit like a lottery you are not mistaken but this already exists in the CAO process so there is no change in principle here.
/Anyone who wasn’t offered their first choice, would move down the list but become eligible for their second choice. There are two issues here:
- Some students may not get offers. This already happens so there is no change here.
- It is possible than someone will get a place – 10th choice! – they didn’t really want and merely put down on their form for kicks. There is nothing the adults in the room can do about such a folly. But all is not lost.
/Offers would be made until all available places were filled. In this scenario, it is conceivable and possibly desirable that more than 40000 students will get first year college places. Bear in mind that as international applications are likely to be fewer, there will be relatively more places available for Irish students.
/College would start normally in September and October but initially online. See tech issues below.
/Universities would provide courses, possibly among other things, in the skills and competencies mentioned above. While these may not be related specifically to the chosen course, they are skills which students would be expected to acquire over the duration of their degree. So effectively students will have begun their degree courses.
/There are several possibilities that could arise after that point and wiser minds than mind would have to pick holes in them. Students could continue learning online with a gradual move to a blended approach across the year until possibly January 2021. The mechanics of this would depend on the capacity of the third level institutions. Some institutions which are struggling to get students could get a whole new lease of life.
/In either event, these students would sit end-of-semester continuously-assessed examinations until the end of first year. Those who succeed would remain in the system. Those who do not would leave. This is nothing different to what currently happens. There is always some ‘weeding out’ in first year. This would effectively be their exam to get their college course.
/For those who passed their exams and remain in the system, there are some options, again, wiser minds can help here. Firstly, students who really wanted another course could apply for a transfer through the CAO or their college’s procedures into a course they wanted subject to places being available. Some flexibility would be needed here. For example, in some cases only students who qualified for Level 8 course can transfer to Level 8 courses. This could be relaxed depending on the attainment in assessments.
/Students would have to achieve a specified minimum grade in order to move into their course proper in Year 2. Students would know from end-of-semester exams what they likely chances of succeeding would be. This could inform their decision to transfer or even drop out and do something else. Either way, such transfers would happen during next summer.
/Effectively what this does is start students in college but give them a fair and equal chance to access their course in Year 2 through a standardized examination process albetit a college one rather than the SEC one.
/Universities would have to plan curricula to be offered in the new academic year. There would be some work in this.
At the same time this is happening, plans should be made to hold the LC exam for the 2020 cohort – even if they are in college – but as early as possible.
There is no doubt that doing the exam at that late stage would create many issues. But at least the offer would be there. This is a small consolation. But those who do not attend third level will need the qualification. They could choose to repeat the year, but hypothetically 20 000 LC repeats would itself raise all sorts of issues. So offering the 2020 cohort the option as early as is safe would be useful. It is possible the government and the Department of Education could come up with a funding and organisational model that would facilitate these students in preparing for the even further postponed 2020 LC exams.
I cannot see the universities being back in person at least until October and even then there may be a question mark over that. This would require students to be able to access online learning. As we know this is difficult for students from all social and economic backgrounds. Many households do not have laptops or desktop computers which students can use to access online learning. However, mobile phones are ubiquitous and certainly students who are able to complete online surveys, make TikTok videos, and Snap to their hearts content will be able to access material delivered over the Internet by universities.
Not all regions of the country have stable access to broadband although connections are generally satisfactory for asynchronous downloads if even somewhat frustrating.
There may of course be issues here with the cost of data. In this context I think the government should team up with online service providers and mobile phone companies and come up with a plan that will give students reasonable and affordable data plans, preferably free, preferably unlimited. There is a whole other blog post here of possibilities – another day!
None of this is beyond the normal challenges that students at third level face. Most universities and faculties now only accept assignments submitted online through a system called Turnitin which allows for checking for plagiarism and neatly facilitates online feedback. Many University lecturers have their courses online or provide material online. So students would need to be able to access online learning anyway.
Leaving Certificate Applied
I have a little experience of this qualification but not enough to comment intelligently on it. Certainly as an intermim measure until an appropriate mechanism is found, schools could issue statements of completion which would be certified by the SEC. These are not grades, merely that the student has completed the prescribed course. I am open to suggestions on this.
Thanks for reading. Not earth-shattering stuff but something that is fair and treats everyone equally. I’m sure I will revised this on a another read, but this is my offer for now. Comment below.