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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an am agus an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt anseo inniu. I am honoured to be in the House to bring the Education (Leaving Certificate Examinations) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021 forward on Second Stage and to open this debate. As Members will be aware, the Bill has already passed through Seanad Éireann. On Second Stage in that House, many contributions were made that demonstrated the importance Senators attach to education. I am sure that will also be a feature of this afternoon's debate in this House.

When I was appointed as Minister for Education on 27 June last year, I had three immediate priorities. The first was the implementation of a summer programme, which was ultimately shown to be very successful and upon which we built the 2021 summer programme. The latter was announced on Tuesday, with a doubling of available funding. The second priority was to prepare for the reopening of schools last autumn and to recognise how it was vital to support leaving certificate students because, even under normal circumstances, completing the leaving certificate and transitioning to the next phase of life can be a challenging time for all students and their families. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this challenge has been heightened for students. The students have missed out on important rites of passage and have sacrificed time with their friends, playing sport, working in part-time jobs, and so much more in order to protect their loved ones and, indeed, broader society. For many of these students, the continued operation of school has been an important source of routine and stability. I commend school leaders and communities on the work they continue to do to maintain and sustain our schools and keep them open. From the successful reopening of schools in late August and early September last year, students were able to attend school each day, which provided an important social outlet for them, ensured they received the academic support they needed and, in some cases, provided respite from challenging personal circumstances.

Regrettably, in January, amid very high levels of Covid-19 and the increased challenges associated with new variants of concern, our schools were required to close for another period to support the broader minimisation of movement within Irish society. This period of school closure, similar to last year's, inhibited many students' learning and heightened a sense of anxiety and isolation at a time when students are in particular need of academic and holistic supports. Amid this considerable uncertainty and in the context of the loss of in-person learning, the Government took the decision to provide leaving certificate students with a choice between accredited grades and sitting examinations in a safe manner or availing of a combination of both.

Last year, the decision on calculated grades was made at a time when legislation to empower the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to operate the process could not be brought forward. As a result, the calculated grades system was operated by the Department of Education, with the support of staff seconded from the SEC. The SEC's powers are as set out in the establishment order of 2003. Those powers relate solely to the operation of examinations as defined in the Education Act 1998. All this and, most acutely, the need to support the leaving certificate class of 2021 have led the Government to bring forward the Bill before the House.

In 2020, the approach taken to calculated grades was debated in this House on many occasions, and there are lessons to learn and to be applied from the 2020 experience. The approach the Government is taking to leaving certificate 2021 seeks to apply those lessons. The Government has listened to the views and reflections of the advisory group on the State examinations, which was established in 2020 and reconvened in recent months. Many have paid tribute to the role played by students in that group. I add my voice in acknowledging the role played by the issue representatives and, indeed, all the partners in education who contributed to the process.

It is important to set out the difference between accredited grades in 2021 and the calculated grates process in 2020. First, subject to the enactment of this Bill, the system will be operated by the SEC. Second, and perhaps most important, and subject to public health advice and considerations, written leaving certificate examinations will proceed according to the normal timetable this summer, with the main schedule of examinations commencing on 9 June. This is designed to ensure that the choice afforded to students is real.

A clear process has been put in place to facilitate students who are studying outside school settings, either entirely or in individual subjects, to obtain accredited grades. I have been very clear that the school historical data, which some refer to as school profiles and which were ultimately excluded from the 2020 system, will also be excluded from the accredited grades system in 2021. A point of concern for some teachers in 2020 related to student rank order data being released. This year, teachers are not being asked to generate class rankings.

The Department of Education has engaged Educational Testing Service, ETS, as the contractor to develop and deliver the standardisation process on school-generated estimated marks. We also expect to appoint a second quality assurance contractor shortly to provide an added layer of confidence that the process of standardisation operates as expected.

While Deputies have had the opportunity to consider the Bill, I will now summarise its principal provisions. Section 1 sets out the definitions to be used in the Bill. The definition of "Leaving Certificate 2021" comprehends the conventional examinations and the accredited grades process, and also confirms that this legislation applies only to the 2021 leaving certificate examinations. Section 2 sets out the main elements of the system of accredited grades, in respect of which I will make a formal determination, having taken the advice of the SEC, once the Bill is enacted. Section 3 provides for the indemnity, previously approved by the Government, that is written comprehensively to include any person who performs a function in relation to the provision of estimated marks. This puts the 2020 position on a statutory footing for 2021.

Section 4 deals with canvassing of those providing estimated marks and stipulates that, where such canvassing occurs, the SEC may withhold results from a candidate. Detailed procedures in regard will be provided for in regulations which are being prepared.

Section 5 provides for an ability for the SEC to withhold results if false or misleading information is provided for the purpose of the award of an estimated mark. Section 6 provides a non-exhaustive list of the functions that are to be conferred upon the SEC and should be read in conjunction with section 2. Section 7 provides a regulation giving power to the Minister to give effect to various procedural aspects provided in other sections, principally in regard to the withholding of results and the operation and conduct of appeals.

Section 8 contains a power to designate people to be tutors in addition to those already defined in the Bill. This is intended as a safety net in case somebody or a class of tutors has been inadvertently omitted from the definition as currently drafted. Section 9 provides the SEC with the power to provide a leaving certificate in respect of 2020 to students and ensures that the leaving certificate of 2020 will have the same look and feel as it would have in any other year.

Section 10 provides a statutory basis on which the personal data of leaving certificate 2021 candidates can be processed for the purposes of the operation of the accredited grades system. This section has been the subject of consultation with the Data Protection Commission. Sections 11 to 13, inclusive, are standard in nature and relate to the laying of orders before the Oireachtas, expenses and how the Bill, once enacted, may be cited.

In outlining the details of the various sections, I indicated that regulations will be required in some instances and their drafting will proceed in parallel with the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas. The administrative planning for and early steps in the accredited grades process are under way, being led in the first instance by my Department pending the enactment of the Bill. This work is done in close co-operation with the State Examinations Commission, which will assume the lead role when the appropriate legislative powers are conferred upon it.

A variety of guidance documents have issued to students, schools and those studying outside of school settings in recent weeks. The candidate self-service portal allows candidates to make choices in each of their subjects about whether to sit written exams, receive accredited grades, or both, for the 2021 leaving certificate. The SEC is continuing its engagement with schools and candidates that have not yet registered or, having registered, have not confirmed their options.

The various strands of preparatory works for the leaving certificate are well under way, with the oral and practical examinations for the vast majority of students having taken place, while last Saturday, leaving certificate vocational programme students sat link modules and those seeking accredited grades in non-curricular languages undertook proficiency assessments. From tomorrow, 14 May, teachers may proceed to generate estimated marks in the period until 28 May, with the school alignment phase and submission of data following immediately after that. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.

We are debating this legislation primarily because of the campaigning voice of leaving certificate students. They have been through a difficult two years, having lost out on months of in-school learning, with profound uncertainty and stress about what was going to happen. It appeared until earlier this spring that they were facing a system telling them that a traditional leaving certificate was necessary despite the fact that what they had experienced was anything but traditional or the conventional leaving certificate cycle. They identified the alternative, the sensible approach to take, which was to have choice. Some people favoured abolishing examinations altogether. Students took the approach of having choice, whereby some could choose an alternative means of assessment because they were concerned they had lost too much time and it would not be possible to cover the course, while those who wanted to sit the examination would have the option to do so.

Students identified and pushed for that approach, and they delivered it. I am glad the Minister and her Department listened, and I give her credit for that. Students showed great dignity, determination and professionalism in many respects, especially the Irish Second–Level Students' Union. I commend its outgoing and incoming leadership on bringing us to this point because it would not have happened without them. Sinn Féin and other political parties and organisations supported them but it was their initiative first and foremost.

This Bill is important. It is important that we pass it and ensure this process of having leaving certificate examinations and accredited grades can proceed. Having said that, I have a number of concerns that I hope the Minister can address. The first relates to canvassing. I welcome that there are protections for teachers, which is important. I hope students will acknowledge that teachers and school staff are also under pressure in this regard. They are being asked to do a lot in the accredited grades process and have been working hard since the decision to have a choice was provided. Teachers are also members of our communities and they should be entitled to go to their GAA clubs or to the shops and be able to walk around without fear of being approached, lobbied or anything like that. It is important that we protect them and the supportive and close relationship between school staff, teachers and students.

Further safeguards are needed to protect students given the serious repercussions an accusation of canvassing would have in particular circumstances. It is not difficult to imagine circumstances where a person, be it a parent or someone else, would lobby a teacher on behalf of a student without the student knowing about it. The penalty for that is the withholding of the results to the student. It is the student who pays the penalty regardless of whether he or she knew or had any active hand, act or part in it. That approach is wrong and I do not believe it would stand up in court. We need to adopt an alternative approach to ensure that students who are involved in canvassing or breaking the rules face sanction, while students who are not involved in canvassing continue to be entitled to have their leaving certificate awarded. The parent or other person who is lobbying, not the student, should be subject to a sanction either by means through a fine or by another means. Sinn Féin tabled amendments to this effect in the Seanad. I urge the Minister again to reconsider the proposed approach. It would not only be unfair but it would be questionable as to whether it would stand up in court.

Sinn Féin also has concerns about the algorithm. It is important that we get the standardisation right. We all remember the significant distress that students faced last September due to errors in the algorithm. First, the Bill refers to the use of junior certificate results in the standardisation process. The Minister should clarify that the collective junior certificate results of the entire cohort rather than one individual's results will be taken into account. Many people will approach the junior certificate in a different way. The algorithm needs to be published in advance of results day. We sought this last year. The Minister's officials confirmed to us that the details of the algorithm would be published before results day but the Minister told my colleagues in the Seanad last week that she would not commit to that.

Students deserve transparency. They need to see how the standardisation process will be applied to them and they need confidence that this will be fair. If the algorithm had been published earlier last year, the errors may have been identified and considerable stress would have been avoided. Publishing the details of the algorithm is a self-evident and perfectly logical thing to do in the interests of transparency and to try to avoid what happened last year. They should be published earlier. Quality assurance is important. I note the company involved in the error last year is also involved this year. The second external contractor will, therefore, be important. I hope it is vigilant and capable but the publication of the algorithm will be important for transparency.

I have raised the contingency plan before and I do not understand why the Department is not moving on this. A student who is self-isolating and unable, for that reason, to take the written examination on the date for which he or she has opted and worked towards will not have the opportunity to sit the exam, even though the accredited grade is on offer. What is more, according to answers to parliamentary questions I received from the Minister, however unlikely it seems now, if there was a localised lockdown in Longford, Laois, Cork, or wherever, it seems that students in those areas would be denied an opportunity to sit a written exam.

An individual deemed to be a close contact who has to isolate on the day of the exam will be in the same position. Such individuals may be perfectly healthy and able, although deemed a close contact, or they may not be feeling well. Whatever the circumstances, they do not have a real choice if they are not able to take the exam. What really mystifies me about this is that it is a standard and conventional part of the leaving certificate that a B paper and a C paper are prepared. Why can we not just prepare another paper and provide it to those students who are self-isolating and who have chosen to opt into the exam? The Minister will tell me that they can receive an accredited grade but they chose to sit the exam because they felt it was their best opportunity and that it would help them get the maximum number of points and because they wanted to take it. They will have studied and they may have done their oral or practical examinations. They have decided they want to do this exam and they should get that chance. It is not a lot of work for the Department. The Minister should do it.

I hope we can avoid publishing the leaving certificate results too late this year. I hope the Minister can ensure that is not the case. Delays in issuing results had an effect on students studying in the North, in Britain and internationally. Some were able to organise it but others were not. Some missed out on places and others missed out on accommodation. We need to ensure that we keep to the time.

I will raise the case of those students who sat the leaving certificate in previous years. This issue does not just fall to the Minister, it falls to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, as well. These students will have applied to the Central Applications Office, CAO, with a view to receiving a third level offer in August 2021 or will apply this year. As a result of the inflation last year, inflation that occurred for reasons obvious to us, many students who would otherwise have qualified lost out and this may well happen again. In my view, there are a number of approaches that could be taken to ensure they get fair treatment. This may involve ring-fencing a number of places, adjusting the points these students received in the year of their exam according to the inflation that has occurred or allowing them into a course on the basis of the points required in the relevant year. No more than the leaving certificate students of this year or last year, these students could not possibly have anticipated what was going to happen with regard to the pandemic. They deserve fair treatment to ensure that they are not disadvantaged. I firmly believe that if work is put in on this issue and if both Ministers involved adopt the right attitude, we can resolve it.

To sum up, I welcome the Bill. I hope the Minister can address my concerns. We want to see this get through. We want to see those students get the opportunity and choice they deserve. In that context, we need to progress the Bill as quickly as we can but we must also take care to resolve the outstanding issues, which are significant enough.

The Minister is very welcome. I thank her for producing legislation to underpin this process. It is timely and important. We worked together to waive the necessity for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which was a good sign that we would work on this together.

Respectfully I have to disagree with my Sinn Féin colleague on the issue of canvassing. The Labour Party is quite comfortable with these elements of the Bill. The message must be sent out to the entire education community that one cannot talk to a teacher about a particular student's accredited grade for the leaving certificate. That is just a no-go area on every level. If one does this, one may potentially impact negatively on a young person's future. That is strong message which should not be diluted. We know that people will find loopholes and mechanisms to-----

May I raise a point of order?

We will hear Deputy Ó Ríordáin, without interruption.

It is important that my position is not misrepresented.

This is quite unusual.

Hold on now, Deputies.

I simply want to clarify that I am not, in any way, tolerant of canvassing, in the event that it is being implied that is the case. I am simply suggesting an alternative means of sanction.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire has made his point. The floor is Deputy Ó Ríordáin's.

It is quite unusual for a contribution to be interrupted in that manner but, obviously, ordinary rules do not apply in certain circumstances. I hope my time can be replenished. My point is that, regardless of the very unusual circumstances, we have to send out a message that strictly no canvassing can take place on any level whether the student is aware of such canvassing. If we dilute this element of the Bill or dilute the sanction, people will find loopholes, as they always do in Irish society. We have seen that time and time again. While this measure is strict and tough, and potentially very difficult for students, this Bill must be clear that absolutely no canvassing on any level will be tolerated. We should proceed on that basis. It is a very important message, albeit a difficult one for young people to have to consider. There needs to be a sacred space for teachers to do their work without interference from anybody, whether this interference is known to the student or otherwise.

The Minister made reference to school profiling, which is not part of this Bill or the accredited grades system. That is to be welcomed. I reiterate that it was the Minister who took out the school profiling last year following a campaign. She listened to people who had difficulties with it and she is to be commended on that. Again, as has already been stated, it was the advocacy and the campaigning zeal of young people and their ability to stay around the table with the Minister and her officials that got us to this point, at which young people have a choice. If young people are ever wondering about their power or potential to affect change, they should look at what happened throughout this entire process. It is there that the fruits of this power or potential can be seen.

While we are supporting the Bill, I feel we have not yet learned the lessons of the 2020 leaving certificate. We are still awaiting an independent review of what happened last year. If that review had been completed, many of those lessons could have been learned and it would have impacted on the Bill. That is a shame. We certainly want to work with the Minister in the future to try to find a form of leaving certificate that adequately reflects the capabilities and potential of all students. Many people are particularly critical of the leaving certificate. While it is transparent and while people have a great level of faith in it and believe that it is fair, to a degree, there is also a sense that the leaving certificate makes one good at doing the leaving certificate rather than allowing young people to maximise their potential. There is a sense that many young people are losing out on their chances in life because they have to jump over the hurdle of the leaving certificate in the first instance.

In general, the Labour Party is supportive of the Bill. We do not take lightly the canvassing element within the Bill. We feel that, while it is a tough measure, it is necessary. I can understand where the Minister is coming from with it and I will support her on it. We feel strongly about the review of last year's leaving certificate. I made points about the school profiling.

I know that the Minister agrees with me on my last point and that the Tánaiste has made similar points. It is an important point to make in respect of the pandemic and what we have gone through over the last year. This year has done damage to young people and it has left scars. A year of their school lives has been stolen, along with the socialisation and interaction they would have had. Teachers and special needs assistants were working all the while but remote working can never replace the school experience. While the Minister has made an announcement about summer programmes which may hope to repair some of that damage, the last year cannot be replaced or repaired over the course of a summer. We strongly suggest that we have potentially lost a generation of young people because, as we constantly say, people over 16 years of age are not required to be in school and many young people were lost to the system. Young people who are due to sit the leaving certificate next year are clinging on by their fingertips.

School teachers and principals are trying hard to keep young people engaged in school and school learning. It has been challenging.

In order to ensure that we do not lose a third generation, as it were, or year or cohort of young people to disengagement and choices that they may regret in later life, we must invest properly in a catch-up fund for young people akin to what has been done in the UK. Its fund is £1 billion. While its population is obviously larger than ours, something comparable would be of benefit in Ireland. Instead of trying to tackle the issue over the course of the summer, a fund would allow us to consider class sizes and investigate the damage that has been done and how we can repair the scarring, trauma and heightened anxiety of the past year. I do not just mean academic work, but other issues as well. This would be important. As the Minister knows, if there was a proposal for a road costing €150 million, any number of Government and Opposition Deputies would be jumping up and down saying that we could not but spend that €150 million on the road. When it comes to young people and children, however, the suggestion that €150 million would go a long way towards repairing the damage caused by a pandemic, people would scratch their heads and chins and say that that would be expensive and it could surely be spent on something else. This is the one chance that these young people will get, though. Unfortunately, they will have to tell their children and grandchildren for the rest of their lives how, when they were in school, there was a pandemic, as a result of which they lost out on in-class teaching. We will have a chance next year to try to repair that damage. The one mechanism we can use to do that is to invest in the expertise of our teachers and special needs assistants and listen to what they and school communities have to say. Repairing the damage may not be possible. For example, it may not be possible for infants to recover what they have lost. It will take a long time, but we have to try at least.

We support the Bill, accept what the Minister is saying about canvassing and understand the necessity for a legislative underpinning of what she is doing. We have worked with her so as to forgo pre-legislative scrutiny, even though that is not something that should happen too often. We are still waiting on the review of what happened in 2020. Let us learn the lessons of 2020 and 2021 and ensure that if students of the leaving certificate class of 2022 are going to be in class all the time, which is our hope, proper resources are made available not just for them, but for every school group, school year, class group and class year at primary and secondary levels so that the scarring and difficulties they have experienced are recognised by the State and, at the very least, we can cling on to some of the young people who have been disconnected and discommoded and who are wondering whether they will return in September. That is a choice that young people are making right now. If there are 17-year-olds who are considering not going back to school in September, it poses a difficulty that they may regret for the rest of their lives. This is the one chance we have and we should grasp it collectively. On that basis, we support the legislation.

Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama ach ní chím an Teachta eile sa Teach faoi láthair.

In common with Deputies who have already spoken and probably those who will speak afterwards, I acknowledge the difficulty gone through by this year's leaving certificate cohort as well as the impact that the pandemic has had on young people's lives, not just in terms of their education, but also their wider lives - matches, part-time jobs, relationships and everything else that goes with that time of life.

The leaving certificate has been acknowledged as a rite of passage, although I am not entirely sure that is a positive thing when people in their mid-40s refer to waking up in a sweat thinking that they had the leaving certificate the next morning. Maybe that goes to the issue of leaving certificate reform, which I will revert to shortly.

As to the specific aspects of the Bill, I welcome the choice element. This was something that was voiced consistently by young people. I met young people across my constituency and I join in commending the students union, which was excellent and put its point across well. That 87% of students opted to take an exam as well as accredited grades explodes the myth that this year's leaving certificate students were looking for some sort of easy way out.

I welcome the role of the SEC. Whatever else about the leaving certificate, it is impartial and transparent, and the SEC's role is important in that regard. I also welcome the protections offered for teachers, principals and boards of management. It is essential that teachers be free to make these decisions and educational assessments free from any sort of lobbying. This is an important provision in the Bill. I welcome that school historical data are excluded. This is also an important provision. I was going to ask for more details. The Minister has indicated that a detailed procedures paper is in train as regards a formal process to report canvassing. That will be important.

I wish to build on a point that Deputy Ó Laoghaire raised and to which Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred somewhat. The issue of grades inflation does not just apply retrospectively. I worry about the leaving certificate cohort of 2022. If those students sit a more traditional leaving certificate, I wonder about how their grades will hold up against this year's and whether there will be a long-term impact in terms of competition. I would like the Minister to consider that matter.

We have a moment here to examine the idea of the leaving certificate. Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to this matter. I worry that it is an exam that rewards people who are very good at doing the leaving certificate. I am not sure it is an exam that does well in terms of rewarding creativity or critical thinking, and neither can slow, deliberative thinking skills expect to be rewarded in the three-hour pressure cooker of an exam situation. The 87% cohort of students who have opted to do both represent a large and valuable data set. We should not squander the opportunity to use that data set to evaluate critically the leaving certificate system, how good a job it does and how well it rewards the students who go through it. We should do this with an eye towards including in the longer term an increased component of continuous assessment and everything that goes with that.

In light of the leaving certificate reform agenda and the commitment in the programme for Government to hold a citizens' assembly on the future of education, the student's voice has never been more critical. I hope that the Minister finds a space to include it in the deliberations on leaving certificate reform.

While I support the Bill, I am concerned about a couple of issues. For example, if a parent, guardian or grandparent approaches a teacher or member of a school's personnel to try to influence grades but does so without the knowledge or consent of the pupil, the pupil should not be held responsible or accountable. A fine should be imposed on the person making the approach instead of the student being denied a result. I will point out to Deputy Ó Ríordáin that Labour voted in favour of the Sinn Féin amendment on this issue in Seanad Éireann and that we in Sinn Féin are not condoning canvassing in any shape or form. We just believe that it would be unfair to punish a student who had no hand, act or part in canvassing.

I have concerns about the exact form of standardisation that will be used. I fear that certain schools may feel discriminated against, as happened last year. Everyone wants the system to be fair and transparent for all concerned.

I recognise the significant contribution that teachers and students made to education last year and in the first three months of this year. Online teaching and learning proved difficult, but I commend all involved on their major effort to make it work. Many I have spoken to acknowledge that they would much rather be in the classroom. As such, the day that technology replaces humans as teachers is, thankfully, unforeseeable.

Going with a combination of examinations and accredited grades was the right option. It was the option most favoured by the students. It allows many of those who wish to sit the exams to do so while also catering for those who find it difficult to learn at home where circumstances might not be conducive to doing so for various reasons, for example, access to technology or decent broadband. The isolation of learning at home without the support of classmates proved to be the greatest challenge. I hope that we do not have to resort to that again in future.

I thank the Minister for speaking on the arrangements in the legislation required for the leaving certificate model of 2021. However, a large part of what I wish to speak about relates to the failing of the leaving certificate examination prior to the pandemic and the ambition that both sides of the Chamber should have to change it for the benefit of our younger people.

There is an opportunity for change at this time. The pandemic forced us to cross the Rubicon in terms of the traditional leaving certificate examination. An immovable and archaic institution was forced to evolve and adapt in mere months. The first examinations took place in 1924 and, prior to 2020, the format remained heavily similar, year after year, to the original model and method.

I am not arguing that we should necessarily retain the models used for the leaving certificate examinations in 2020 or 2021. We certainly should not do so without a fierce interrogation of them. Nor am I arguing that they are perfect systems. Far from it. I am saying that the pandemic forced our hand and we should continue to progress towards a better leaving certificate assessment model. It should be one that provides for greater flexibility, reduces the enormous degree of pressure placed on all students and levels the playing field for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. There should be a form of assessment that rewards learning, curiosity and application of knowledge, rather than the exercise in memorisation that has been shown to be a large proportion of what the leaving certificate examination in its current form offers. That was confirmed in research by Dr. Denise Burns and her colleagues in 2018.

It is no secret that I have no great love for the traditional leaving certificate examination. I have raised the issue at every opportunity I had, including in this Chamber in the course of this year and last. I am not alone in this view. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concerns before the pandemic regarding the levels of stress caused to our young people by the examinations every year and charged the State with initiating reform to reduce that stress burden. No one could have predicted the pandemic and its disruption of teaching and learning. However, we already knew, prior to the school building closures in March 2020, that the leaving certificate examination causes extreme stress and anxiety to all students, rewards lower order skills and is an effective sorting machine for separating students who have from those who have not. An analysis by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, of all 2017 and 2018 higher education enrolments illustrates the stark differences between the points obtained by students in the leaving certificate examination based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. Data from 97,000 students show that those from affluent areas achieved 446 points on average, compared with 368 points for students from what were described as disadvantaged areas. It is important not to designate the students themselves as disadvantaged. Rather, the circumstances in which they are asked to do their schooling is what disadvantages them.

A total of 37% of students from disadvantaged areas achieved 400 points or more, compared with 72%, or almost double the number, of students from affluent areas. In 2015, the HEA found that, in County Dublin, Dublin 6 had the highest progression rate to college, with 99% of leaving certificate students there going on to third level. The Dublin postcode with the lowest progression rate saw only 15% of students going to third level. That is a stark difference. In pointing out these statistics, I am not trying to alienate any students who may be listening. I want to show that the argument I am making is not merely based on a personal belief or vendetta. It is not that students from areas like my constituency are less capable or intelligent than their peers. My point is that the leaving certificate system locks in and rewards privilege year after year. We do not have annual data from the Department encapsulating these facts, but the feeder school list produced every year by The Irish Times demonstrates very clearly who gets to go to university and who does not.

It is a myth that the leaving certificate examination is some great meritocratic system. The many teachers, principals, students and parents with whom I engage, both as a public representative and in my previous role working in access, know it is a myth. I am sure many of the Deputies in the Chamber today know it is a myth. If not, it may be that they cannot see it because they have benefited so immensely from the existing process. Our failure to address the inequality in the system before the Covid crisis only exacerbated the stress caused to sixth-year students in 2020 and 2021 when, at the eleventh hour and in the midst of a global pandemic, it became obvious that our terminal-style examinations could not take place.

I want to speak briefly about compassion. Proponents of the leaving certificate examination champion the fact it does not take account of circumstances. They point out that every student sits down at the same time, on the same day and answers the same questions, regardless of what is going on in their personal lives or what has happened to them up to that point in their lives. It was only after Rhona Butler shared her personal experience of losing her mother during her leaving certificate examinations in 2018, and having no alternative but to sit the remainder, that the lack of compassion in the system was addressed. I argue strongly that a system designed to be bluntly fair cannot be devoid of compassion. Following on from Rhona's story, a pilot bereavement scheme was introduced in 2019, but it does not go far enough. I am also conscious that it does not apply this year. The scheme allows students who suffer the bereavement of the loss of a close relative during the examination period to be absent from further examinations for a three-day period. The Department's information on the scheme states: "[It] is intended to allow... time free from the Leaving Certificate examinations to prepare for and attend the funeral..." Students who have to take the three days are required to sit the missed examinations mere weeks later. This is the leaving certificate model that is championed and obsessed over every year. The scheme of three days of bereavement leave piloted in 2019 represents the most compassion that has ever been shown within the examinations system.

I have tabled an amendment to the Bill that would require the Department to look into the use of accredited grades for students who experience exceptional circumstances at any point during their sixth year. It would also oblige the Department to use the learning from the pandemic to inform and create change to the leaving certificate examination and level the playing field for all students. My amendment makes the case that if students who are unable to take a traditional examination this year because of the pandemic can be catered for, we might apply the same rationale in the years to come when a student has to step aside either because of illness, the illness of a family member or a bereavement. It would be logical to enshrine that provision in law in order to keep fairness in the system.

I want to query the Minister on the data that will be used by the State Examinations Commission in the standardisation process for accredited grades in 2021. The legislation provides that the commission will "take account of such data, including but not limited to data relating to Junior Certificate Examinations and Leaving Certificate Examinations in preceding years..." I am not sure why we cannot, for the avoidance of doubt, have more specific details on which data will and will not be taken into account. Based on the previous issues with the data used for the ranking order and the back and forth on using historical school data, it would be beneficial to have an exhaustive list of the data the SEC will be using for the standardisation process.

We cannot go back to the fairy tale that the leaving certificate examinations are just. I urge the Minister to use the lessons of the pandemic to create true reform. There are a couple of groups I would like to highlight that will not be catered for in this legislation. I fully appreciate that it cannot be entirely exhaustive but there are groups that have been left behind. I spoke yesterday to leaving certificate applied students from a number of schools across Dublin who were celebrating an awards day online as part of the Trinity College access programme. The leaving certificate applied examination is a model that rewards curiosity and engagement. However, in the decades since its introduction, it has too often been the case that these students who simply learn differently from what is catered for in the traditional leaving certificate examination have been held in a holding shop, with traditional pathways to university and other forms of higher education cut off for them. The leaving certificate applied model is, in fact, a little more applicable than the traditional model to the real world and the real-life way that people learn, not only in school but in terms of acquiring the types of skills that are needed as students progress to university.

There is also an issue with students who, this year and last, have been unable to return to school because a family member has a serious underlying health condition. Students in that situation are terrified of catching Covid-19 and bringing it home to their loved one. Between January and March this year and for a time last year, they had a similar experience to their peers because everyone was learning from home. Now, however, their peers are back in the classroom and their own continued absence is detrimental to them. We should have catered for those students long ago. Despite protestations from their family members, such as Jan and Michael Rynne, whose case has been highlighted in this Chamber and in the media, no action was taken. Instead, the Department saw fit to suggest that such students would be better off in school. There was no acknowledgement that they are terrified of bringing the virus home. That is lamentable. Even at this late hour, I ask that those students be catered for in any way it can be done.

Deputy O'Connor is down to speak next but he does not seem to be in the Chamber. In that case, I will move on to Deputy Cronin of Sinn Féin. I see now that Deputy Farrell is indicating.

I suspect that the Ceann Comhairle's list may be out of date.

I was told I would be after Deputy Gannon.

You are listed here but a little further down. Since you are here now, on you go. You are taking a Government slot and then I will come back to Deputy Cronin.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I appreciate that very much.

As a member of the committee on education, I was pleased, alongside my colleagues, to be able to waive pre-legislative scrutiny on this Bill. It is important we play our part in getting the Bill through the Houses. I thank the Minister for the manner in which it was brought before us through committee in respect of the discussions we had previously with her officials. I take this opportunity to thank the students for the significant advocacy they brought to bear on this process. The class of 2021, as fifth years, played a significant role, certainly in my constituency, coming to me to talk about the implications it would have on their education. The class of 2021 did not lose one year of normal education but two. It is important that this certainty is placed on the Statute Book to provide them with one less thing to worry about in the context of Covid-19 and the potential for them to contract Covid-19 prior to the leaving certificate if they have chosen to sit it, as 88% of students have done. It is important we provide them with the option to use the accredited grades system or the written exams or both.

The leaving certificate is very stressful at the best of times, never mind in the middle of a pandemic. I am conscious of the comments of a colleague, who mentioned that the leaving certificate is excellent at teaching leaving certificate students to sit the leaving certificate. However, in the long term - and I think the Minister is open to this conversation - we need significant reforms, as has been highlighted by a number of Deputies who have made contributions thus far in this debate. This is an opportune time for us to have that evaluation and to look at the outcomes. The leaving certificate exam - a terminal basis, as I think Deputy Gannon called it - as a measure of one's education, is not necessarily the most appropriate way to do things. Things have changed dramatically, and I believe there are opportunities for us to recognise that there are other ways to further and higher education. Sometimes the leaving certificate is not necessarily an appropriate measure to capture the intelligence or ability of a student to recall and drag out issues they have learned about in the preceding years.

I am encouraged by the section of the Bill which covers canvassing. It is appropriate that this be dealt with in black-or-white, right-or-wrong terms. It is that simple. It is important that we rectify the issues relating to the algorithms and the use of data that were experienced last year and that there is, as I think the Minister alluded to, a system in place to support the checking of the manner in which the system is operated by the SEC. Quality assurance, as I think the Minister referred to it. That is very appropriate.

I have mentioned the expansion of the debate on what the leaving certificate should look like and the fresh approach we should take. In the context of further and higher education, I welcome the fact that we are broadening our apprenticeship schemes, which are an extremely important part of the State's education offering.

I look forward to the Bill's progression through the House and its return to committee at some point in the near future.

We move now to Deputy Cronin. I apologise for the confusion earlier.

I wish to go back to the issue of the algorithm, in respect of which, I believe, the necessary detail is distinctly lacking. I wrote to the Minister about this last year as well. While the algorithm is a central aspect of the exam, it appears in the Bill as only a passing reference in the context of the standardisation process. This does not make any sense. This year we need absolute transparency. The passing reference to the algorithm does not in any way absolve the Minister from her responsibility to publish details of it in advance. Indeed, if the algorithm to be used had been published before the results last year, the errors could have been discovered in time, thereby preventing the stress and trauma to many students, their families and their teachers, as I saw in my constituency, Kildare North. We just cannot have a repeat of that this year. I therefore ask the Minister to publish the algorithm in advance, with detailed examination invited and scrutiny welcomed. I urge her to commit to that and to the necessary transparency. Transparency itself needs to be standardised across all Departments. I ask the Minister to take that on board.

As we are discussing education, it would be appropriate to begin my remarks by paying tribute to Seamus Deane, one of Ireland's great academics and intellectuals, who has just passed away. I was privileged enough when I was studying English literature in UCD, having entered there in 1987, that Seamus Deane was already an intellectual legend teaching in UCD. I remember reading his wonderful book, Celtic Revivals, which was a tour de force of an introduction to and critical essays on some of the great Irish literary figures. He was fearless in de-sanitising some of the Irish literary canon and showing its radical and often political content. He played a big role in the Field Day project, another radical intellectual project in this country. His loss is a great loss, I am sure most importantly to his family but also to intellectual life and academic life in this country, so it is important to make that tribute in the Dáil.

The revolt of the school students against the leaving certificate in the midst of the Covid pandemic was not just about the unfairness of forcing them to sit the exam given all the difficulties of Covid - the restrictions, the unfairnesses it would have imposed on certain students, who may have had difficulty accessing online education, and the public health threat itself - but was also a long-overdue revolt against a thoroughly archaic system of education, if one could even say the leaving certificate has anything to do with education. I would argue it has very little to do with education. That is not in any way a critique of our wonderful teachers, who have to deal with all the difficulties of giving the students the choice they have asked for in this year's and last year's leaving certificate. It is a critique, however, of the failure of imagination of successive Governments and politicians in general to re-envision education, how we do education and how we allow young people and people of all ages to fulfil their educational potential.

As an English student, let me point out the ridiculousness of some aspects of our education system. You study Shakespeare from the page and you do a written exam on, in my case, Othello or Julius Caesar. What on earth has reading Shakespeare from the page got to do with Shakespeare if it is not about acting it out, having the teaching resources and bringing the actors and directors into our schools to bring Shakespeare to life? This is an indication of the way in which our education system sanitises and, to use that horrible word, standardises education. If anything, Covid and the revolt of the school students should have led us, and even now should still lead us, to a radical, revolutionary change in the way we do education, and that is just one example. It is all about the words "standardisation", "bell curves", "testing" and "assessment", is it not? What have they to do with the human imagination, the human intellect and fulfilling human potential?

Sometimes people should remember the origins of these things.

Where did the examination system originate? It came from imperial China in 605 under the Sui dynasty and was later expanded by the Song dynasty as a way of selecting people largely from elites - first, military elites and then bureaucratic elites - to serve in the imperial civil service and military. It was imported into Europe in the 1500s by the Jesuits and was first pioneered on a mass scale by the British Empire in India to select people for the imperial civil service. It was later established for the same purpose in England. In other words, it was testing a particular type of intelligence for particular reasons. In its origins, it was very much about perpetuating elites.

Let us apply that to the situation today. Whatever rationale there was for rationing access to any level of education, and I do not believe there was much, what possible rationale is there for rationing access to higher and further education or, indeed, postgraduate education in the modern world? It is, by definition, perpetuating hierarchies and elites. We should be thinking that now is the opportunity to revolutionise education, to bring meaning to the expression that education is a right, not a privilege, and to give everybody access by removing the leaving certificate barrier to full educational fulfilment and potential, instead of a system that stresses, alienates and degrades the real meaning of education.

I mainly wish to discuss open access to third level education. Before doing so, however, I welcome the fact that school profiling is not part of this proposal. That is very important. I also welcome that there are sanctions against the lobbying of teachers, which is also important. That took place in some areas last summer and it was completely unfair to the teachers. It is good to have the measures indicated in the Bill. The removal of the situation whereby teachers gave numerical rankings to their students last year is also positive.

The point I wish to focus on is the fact that 84,000 people have applied for third level education through the CAO this year. How many places are available for them? It is fewer than 60,000. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the exact number. The result is that there are people who are winners and get into third level and people who are losers and do not get in. That is wrong. One of the key roles of the leaving certificate examination in the Irish education system is to act as a filter. It filters those who get in and those who do not get in. The accredited grades system does the same. We need an alternative to both. That alternative is open access. In the same way as barriers were removed and students were allowed to attend second level education, and the students flooded in and the educational level in the country rose, we must remove these barriers so all who wish to go to third level education can do so. On that basis we can have the abolition of the leaving certificate examination, an outdated and extremely stressful examination and, as I said, a filter to decide who gets into third level and who is kept out.

In order to achieve that, it will be necessary to have an extra 25,000 places at third level over the next couple of years. In the short term, there could be more blended learning, the digitisation of libraries and laptops for every student. However, it is necessary to get moving now with investment in building and providing the space for the extra 25,000 places. It is a big job, but it is not impossible. It would also be necessary to hire an extra 10,000 to 15,000 staff. That would not be so difficult. There are already 1,200 short-term, part-time people on insecure contracts who teaching at third level. They are mainly women and mainly low paid. They should be taken on full-time as part of an open access system. Some 4,000 extra places are being provided by the Government this year. That falls well short of what is required.

This type of approach is not unheard of in other countries. In the Netherlands, it is illegal to allow access to education through competitive examinations. Mature students do not have to do competitive examinations. There could be an omnibus entry system, which I will explain further on another day. Students can be facilitated in studying abroad. Just because there is no leaving certificate examination does not mean one cannot have a leaving certificate to show that one has gone through the system and has the qualifications, and one can use that abroad.

Last, but not least, how can that be funded? It will cost billions. A Covid wealth tax would be required. Big corporations have profited massively from the pandemic, while ordinary people have struggled. It would be necessary to go after them with a Covid wealth tax and put some of those resources into open access to all, an idea whose time has come.

First, I wish to recall that in 2016 we set the target of having the best education and training system in Europe by 2026. I am very heartened by the progress that has been made. I believe passionately that it can be achieved. We have an excellent basis to do so. However, I will point out to the Minister that it is about more reform, not about more resources in the main. It is about the quality of leadership and the quality of teaching, not about the input-output ratios that tend to be the conversation in our education system. Most of all, one of the things that will stop us from achieving this is if we fail to reform the leaving certificate examination and do not take on a radical agenda of change now.

To date, we have taken an extremely cautious approach. We started with the junior cycle, but even in that there was no proper evaluation of the projects. Only 10% of marks went to a student's written assessment, not to the project itself. That sold people short. Some 90% of the junior cycle is still memory based. I accept that there has been much innovative thinking about the curriculum and there is a huge improvement. The portfolio of achievements is really welcome. However, we have not succeeded in radically changing the teaching-to-the-test approach.

Society has changed dramatically and if we do not change the leaving certificate examination, we will not catch up with it. The OECD recently warned us that we are creating an education system that will turn out second-class students if we do not undertake change. The system is cast from the industrial production line of trying to put everyone through the same system, memory-based retention and trapping teaching and learning in a very tight straitjacket that is simply not creating adaptability and innovation, the type of things people need to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. There have been innovations that I welcome. The physical education programme, for example, is a much more interesting way of presentation and assessment. Digital schools and the re-emergence of apprenticeships are very welcome. However, we have not seized the opportunity to change to a more positive, student-led system of education. It is still handing down the tablets of stone, and that is not the way. We need to value a much wider range of intelligence, as many have said in this debate.

Covid-19 exposed the weaknesses of the system, but it also showed our capacity for innovation. The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention has been proven in our education system. We have seized alternative assessment methods and delivered them fairly and successfully. We have shown that we can do this. This legislation is welcome, but it is far too narrow. We should have a legislative framework for ambitious changes of the type that have long been sought. The reform of the leaving certificate examination started in 2016, but it has proceeded at a snail's pace. Five years later, and nothing has happened. The Minister should seize the moment. She should engage with students, primarily, and ask them if we should cut back memory retention to less than 50% of the marks. Should we have open-book examinations? Should we have a proper evaluation framework for projects, not this make-up thing of students writing up their experience? Should we have stronger recognition of portfolios of experience?

I believe we must force the pace of change. It is not an industrial relations issue. It is about the future for our children. That change should also force change at third level and in the apprenticeship system. We should make second-chance education the norm, not the very rare exception it is now.

I am conscious of having very limited time so I will touch briefly on a number of items in the Bill.

We cannot have a situation which we saw last year on grades and the disappointment for many students where it was too late for them to attend courses. We need grades to be provided in a more timely manner. Students also need more clarity on the standardisation process. Consideration also needs to be given in cases such as where one has opted for a written examination, for example, and then has to self-isolate or is struck down by Covid-19, as to what exactly happens in that situation. Clarity is needed in all of those situations.

Like many Members who have focused here today on the change from the current model leaving certificate, I wish to focus in my last minute on that issue also. Like many people, I remember the leaving certificate. I hated school, the leaving certificate and that whole process. I can still remember things that we actually nearly sung off. That is how we learned things, clapping along in a little rhyme. To this day we can probably say those things, no problem, but we still probably do not really know why we did that.

We have to move away from this model of drilling things into children's heads for an examination where one comes out completely traumatised and stressed. One has to ask what education or life lessons one has learned from that. I say very little. Education needs to more about other aspects and it cannot all be about examinations, points, scores and who is getting an "A". It needs to be about what people are learning. We need a lot more life skills, resilience-building and coping mechanisms for children together with practical knowledge, such as how to do one's taxes or change the wheel of a car. These sort of things are never taught in schools and these are the practical things that one needs in life. We need to start moving away from the traditional leaving certificate model system and to look at and examine our education system.

I thank the Deputy and we move now to Deputy Canney sharing with Deputy Verona Murphy.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and I am sharing with my good colleague, Deputy Verona Murphy. I welcome the opportunity to be able to speak on this Bill this evening. We have had a sea change. I was reflecting on what Deputy Bruton was saying, on what has happened in the past two years in education and how the whole system was forced to change because of the pandemic. Our students, teachers, parents and boards of management were all thrown into a new way of doing things. It is very difficult but it was something that was forced on us all. It has been a very traumatic experience and the reality is that there was a great deal of uncertainty.

This Bill is giving some certainty for the leaving certificate class of this year as to what they are doing. The decision to provide the system of accredited grades is to be welcomed but we also need to look at this right across education and what we are doing in it. As a former lecturer in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, continuous assessment is one of the key components of a student's development and it should be brought in at first year in secondary school and, in fact, at national school level.

One of the things I always refer to in respect of education is that I learned Irish for 13 years and I still cannot speak it. There is something wrong that despite my best efforts, I cannot speak it after all that time. We did not do much practice; we simply memorised everything. We got it right for the examination and it went out of our heads again then straight away.

There are a number of suggestions that the Minister should look at with the Department. A review should be initiated of the whole pathway to the leaving certificate as to what is going to happen to the students who will be sitting their leaving certificate examination in 2022, as they have also been affected by this pandemic. We should put what we have learned in the past year to 18 months to best use for next year and further on than that.

We also need to look at our own performance within the Department for special needs education and how we can adapt and be more flexible with that.

We need to do a review of school buildings and how we build them so that we are better prepared into the future so that the modern school can adapt in a better way.

A further review is needed in respect of technology, distance and remote learning and how that can be blended into working in school to give a full experience, while at the same time giving people good experience on how to work from home as well, at particular times and on certain projects.

Other aspects of the review I would like to see happening would be on the continuous professional development of teachers and how we train them on doing things differently from how they were done in the past, so that we have more continuous assessment, less testing and more development of the student skills on an incremental basis right throughout the five years of secondary school, rather than having a cliff-edge exam at the end of it.

I agree that everybody should have access to third level education. We have the opportunity to do that now. We should look at that because the time has come for change but this change has to happen in a very progressive way.

Right through this experience in education, one of the things that came to the fore is that young people truly value their education. They want to have certainty in what they are doing and they also need a framework set out for them so that they know before the start of the year what is in front of them, be that continuous assessment, some examinations or blended learning. I hope that this opportunity we have, with its potential for change for the better in education will stand our young people, our country, our economy and our society very well into the future. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can make change when we are forced to do so. When we are in that focus of change, we need to grasp the opportunity to change our education system to ensure that the student gets the best in life and that we produce students who will be exemplars in our society. I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic as the Bill is presented today. Months ago, when it became obvious that the leaving certificate would not be able to proceed in its usual format in 2021 and there was much debate on what should be done, I called for a choice to be given to the students between estimated grades and sitting the examinations. I am pleased that the Government is proposing such a system and is taking the steps as part of the implementation process.

The reason I called for the choice is that Covid-19 will affect different students in different ways. We must remember that the current group of sixth year students are a great deal more disadvantaged by Covid-19 because for them, both fifth year and sixth year have been disrupted. I am aware that that message has resounded here in the Dáil today. Some students will have adapted well to the challenges of online teaching and learning. The feedback that I have received supports the view that teachers, students and parents went to great efforts to make the online learning process as successful as possible. All did a tremendous job in difficult circumstances.

Schools made extra supports available by lending ICT equipment, by posting it out to people where necessary and by providing constant support. We must, however, take account of those students who were significantly inconvenienced by the closure of schools and the move to online learning. We perhaps take for granted the importance of the school routine and the structure of the day. For some students, school provides a refuge from difficulties at home and an outlet for peer relationships and support. The in-person interactions in the classroom on a daily basis are almost impossible to replicate in a virtual setting. Some students rely heavily upon being able to ask questions and on having something personally explained if they are having difficulties. Others with special educational needs get wonderful support in school. I am aware that schools have gone to great lengths to support these students during school closures but, as I said, nothing can replicate the school environment for that type of educational support.

Lack of reliable Internet connections may also have made the online learning experience quite difficult for some. It was with all of these concerns in mind that I called for students to be given the choice.

Another area of the Bill I wish to touch on concerns the appeals process. Every year, we read or hear stories about a student or students who have been discommoded by the appeals process. This usually involves a student taking an appeal and winning it, but being unable to get a place on his or her desired course as a result of the length of time the appeals process has taken. The Bill refers to an appeals process but it does not give a timeline as to how long that process will take or whether it will be ensured that the process is completed prior to CAO offers being made. The Minister and the officials involved should design the appeals process to ensure that those who successfully appeal a grade will be able to get a place on the course they would have been offered had it not been for the mistakes relating to the initial grades.

Estimated grades have the potential to cause grade inflation. The last leaving certificate completed in the usual way was in 2019. Some CAO applicants sat their leaving certificate examinations in 2019 and are looking for CAO places in 2021. They will have to compete with the grade inflation and may find that accredited grades have caused the points for their chosen course to rise. I ask the Minister and her colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to work together to ensure that specific places are made available for deferred applicants from 2019 or earlier who could, in normal circumstances, have reached the required points level.

On a personal level, I did not get my leaving certificate in the usual way. For all the anxiety Covid has caused, there is hope. Being able to do or pass one's leaving certificate examinations or whatever it entails is not the be all and end all. I was 35 when I did my leaving certificate examinations, but I went on and completed a degree, finishing it at the age of 40, so there is always hope. If I can achieve election to be one of 160 Deputies, anybody can get there.

I thank the Minister for her proactive approach in the Department. She has worked very hard and has fit into the role very well. This Bill is the measure of what we have learned from Covid.

I thank Deputy Murphy for her encouraging comments. We now move to Deputy James O'Connor.

I thank the Minister for being here to discuss this very important issue. The main purpose of the Bill is to confer on the State Examinations Commission the necessary powers to run a non-examination based form of assessment to inform students' leaving certificate results. Candidates for the leaving certificate in 2021 can now opt to sit the usual written examination in June or apply for grades accredited by the State Examinations Commission to be issued to them, or both.

As the youngest Member of the House, I wish to use my time on this issue to speak about the need to reform the leaving certificate system and how continuous assessment may be a step in the right direction to such reform. I recognise the difficult time it has been for leaving certificate students over the past two years. They have been dealt a very difficult hand and we, as policymakers, should do all we can to ensure the system will put in place the mechanisms to ensure that all the work those students have done throughout their education will be recognised in terms of the best possible outcomes for them.

It is fair to say that we have all faced many challenges since Covid-19 arrived in Ireland, but it has been particularly difficult for younger people. I am the Member of the House who most recently completed the leaving certificate and I have to say it is not an easy thing for anyone to do. It is extraordinarily difficult and I feel a great degree of empathy for the students who are going through that process. For them to go through it during the time of Covid-19 has been extraordinarily difficult. The Bill is one of many measures that I hope the Department will be working on to try to alleviate some of the issues currently being encountered by leaving certificate students.

I wish to heavily emphasise the requirement for the Department to work closely with the students who are coming into their examination years, such as those in fifth year, while also being cognisant of the fact that the education of those doing their leaving certificate examination this year was also badly hampered last year by Covid-19.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister. In her portfolio, she has had one of the most difficult tasks of any member of the Cabinet. It is a testament to her, as a newly-elected Member of Dáil Éireann, that she was able to go in and do the job that she has done. She must be commended for that. I note that on the record of the House. I would not wish her job on anyone at the moment because of how difficult it was but her expertise in the area of education was quite helpful. We have to admit that she was an outsider in terms of the Oireachtas. She worked for a local authority for many years. In drastic situations such as Covid-19, it can be helpful to have a breath of fresh air in Departments and be able to shake things up.

To come back to the central message on the area of reform, it would be very much a missed opportunity if we were not to address the many challenges that face secondary education and explore how we can reform it to make it better for students, improve their opportunities in life and improve their education overall. I was struck by the comments of a previous speaker around the issue of the Irish language. He is right in the sense that many people go through primary and secondary education and exit secondary school, after doing up to 16 years of study on the Irish language, without being able to speak it. I am guilty in that regard and I try to improve my Irish every day, but we, as a Government, could definitely do more work on the whole area of foreign languages.

The Minister is well aware of the significant challenges in east Cork, my area, around school capacity and the constraints and difficulties encountered in that regard by many students in the area. I commend them on the work they have been doing while going through those particular issues. Many of them do not have proper school facilities in their communities. We need to address that challenge as well.

I wish the Minister well in her work. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on this issue.

I thank Deputy O'Connor. Fresh air is always most welcome. I call Deputy Patricia Ryan.

I welcome the chance to speak on this issue. The Bill is long overdue. I understand that several amendments were tabled in the Seanad by my party colleagues but were not taken on board. I urge the Minister to take another look at those amendments.

We need to give students the right to be heard in the event of a review. We also need to shift the blame in circumstances where an approach is made to a teacher without the knowledge of the student. These are basic principles of natural justice and should be included in the Bill.

We need to remove the provision of the Bill which narrows the grounds upon which an appeal can be made. As matters stand, an appeal can only consider the technicalities of how estimated marks are transferred from the school to the State Examinations Commission. As the system is relatively new, appeals should have a far wider scope.

Finally, I know the Bill relates to the leaving certificate, but we must not forget junior certificate students. We need clarity on whether junior certificate results will be based on results data from the year group or on the individual students' own results.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an Bille a chuir sí os ár gcomhair inniu. We know that the accredited grades system has caused a significant amount of anxiety for students and parents. We know that in unprecedented times and events, students were discommoded. It was a very difficult time and they were expected to adjust to the whole process.

I commend the high calibre of teachers we have. They do not get enough credit for the fantastic work they do in encouraging and supporting pupils and going well and truly beyond the call of duty most of the time in schools. As one who spent time in the education system and having worked with fantastic teachers and having been inspired by great teachers at national school and secondary school, I know the importance of teachers. That needs to be acknowledged as we are speaking on an education Bill.

The accredited grades system has created a significant amount of concern and anxiety but I note that the Department has indicated that the principles of equity, fairness and objectivity are paramount in the SEC accredited grades system. One would hope that those principles apply at all times and not just in these exceptional times.

I note that the guidance warns teachers to be aware of any real or perceived conflict of interest involved in giving an estimated mark to a particular student, such as a close relative, in the teacher's class.

I think many teachers will take issue with this as it creates the perception that they are not doing their job in a professionally distant and objective manner. I am glad to see, however, that there is an emphasis on guidance for the grading process on reasonable accommodation for students with special educational needs.

I want to raise a point with the Minister in relation to the State Examinations Commission, which is overseeing this process. Recently, I engaged with her Department on behalf of a constituent in the Tullamore area who was correcting for the leaving certificate in 2019 and who was invited by the State Examinations Commission to correct again this year. He accepted this in good faith and duly corrected 104 candidate portfolios. However, up to last week, he was not given an indication as to the rates of pay involved or the date on which the payment would be made. The same applied to all other examiners. I feel communication needs to improve in that regard. As I understand it, the issue was only resolved last Tuesday evening. I urge the Minister, to ensure the smooth operation of the grading process, to intervene with the SEC so that this does not happen this year and that the communication should be much better and clearer. All those involved in the grading process should be treated fairly. That goes for students, teachers and examiners.

The final point I want to make is on an issue which is very close to my heart. I feel that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs are badly in need of more supports in order to prepare adequately for the examinations in a way that does not cause them undue anxiety and stress. I know the concerns of teachers have been raised in relation to disadvantaged students who have disengaged. That is a real worry which must be taken onboard. It must be addressed and acted upon. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that happens. Having been a teacher for 12 years, I have seen first hand that education is the key to breaking a cycle of disadvantage. It offers unique opportunities for students. I hope the need for extra supports will be taken onboard and that the concerns of teachers, who have already sounded the alarm in terms of the disengagement of disadvantaged students, will be acted upon quickly and effectively.

Overall, I am blown away by the positivity towards accredited grades in secondary schools. The system is fair and gives students a choice. Students make the decision themselves as to whether they select accredited grades or sit the leaving certificate examination. It seems to be the consensus this year that leaving certificate students are opting to merge this choice by both sitting examinations and taking accredited grades.

One school of 1,200 students said that the students were putting themselves under pressure but did not mind as it was their own decision. One principal said that the cohort of students and teachers were amazing during Covid and worked so well together. It was a lack of clarity last year that was the most difficult thing. This year, they felt it was like a tick-box process and they were offered clarity, compassion and choice. One principal said that he was grateful for the guidance and great resources provided. When they opened in 2020, they felt everything was against them but this year they are much more confident and happy with the situation. However, I ask that the Minister look at fifth year students in relation to next year's leaving certificate, as they have equally been disadvantaged due to Covid. They will have great challenges with the curriculum for many reasons. There are difficulties with engagement when there is no examination path for them. Having spoken to several principals, they all expressed concerns about the junior cycle in schools and that there are difficulties with the younger age groups in settling down in school after such a long absence. Great tributes were paid to teachers for adapting in a relatively short time to online education. Due to this engagement, students gave great credit to teachers for adapting so fast. I give credit to students for adapting to a life-time change in doing online teaching.

I mentioned the fifth year students a moment ago. There is going to be an aftermath from this cycle for a number of years to come. The sixth class students moving into first year lost roughly six months of teaching because of the basics involved in meeting new students, and the different classrooms. It is only in the last month or so that they are now getting to know each other because they had been in and out prior to this. They will also feel the impact and they will have to make up time throughout the coming years, but they have the time. However, the fifth year students have a massive hill to climb. Fifth year is the year they do all the different curriculums and sixth year is when they do the revision of what they have done. I hope this will be mirrored for our fifth years students next year so we can also work with them.

Experts believe this will lead to grade inflation this year and will likely send CAO points over the top. However, I am sure due diligence has been given to the errors of last year so we will not have a repeat of that this year. I pay tribute to students for their resilience during the pandemic and wish them all the best in their leaving certificate examinations. I believe the Minister has fitted very well into her current role. Going forward in this role, I believe she will work with teachers and students.

I have one last point I want to draw her attention to. The school transport system proved very difficult last year. I hope that with the new system being rolled out this year, things will be in place for September because there are many people who do not have access to transport to school apart from the school bus. I hope it covers all areas including rural areas and that people who are dependent on the school bus will be accommodated in the system and that extra buses will be put on to get them to school.

I wish the Minister well in her position. I wish all the teachers and students the very best for this year. They are a credit to their families and to the whole country for what they have gone through and I wish them all the best in their leaving certificate.

Nobody can deny that this is a big week for the leaving certificate. Tomorrow is the last day for the completion of any assessments associated with the accredited grades process. From there, teachers will begin the task of awarding estimated marks to their students, so I am conscious of the stress on thousands of students right now and on their teachers. However, I think we did the fairest thing we could by giving them a choice. This is what the students, their parents, caregivers and teachers I engaged with wanted.

I wish everyone involved in this year's leaving certificate well. I applaud the students for their dedication in a difficult year and the professionalism of the teachers. I know that a majority of the over 60,000 students have opted to receive accredited grades and to sit written examinations. Everyone has engaged with this process and that is welcome. It raises questions that only 2% of students opted only to sit the examination.

I am glad we are in the process of looking at the leaving certificate as a whole now. While I am conscious this Bill is only focused on the leaving certificate 2021, the Minister has said that no one system will meet the needs of every student and I agree with her on that point. I am interested to know of the plans for the leaving certificate 2022. Is consideration going to be given to making the accredited grades system a part of the leaving certificate for evermore? We can learn what lessons we can from the past; not just look at what Covid has done but what we can learn.

I welcome the senior cycle review. An advisory report is due. I am concerned that the consultation process on the Irish leaving certificate is considering splitting the course between T1 and T2 schools, that is, Gaelscoileanna and Gaeltachtaí and English-speaking schools. The T1 schools would have a more difficult exam and would not have bonus points attached. I have had many emails about this from parents and students. I would appreciate if the Minister came back to me on that.

My concern about the consultation that is under way is that we have not had the full three years of the new junior cycle to see whether that model is beneficial. Covid lockdown and the major difference in learning experience will have changed what otherwise might have come up during this review in normal times. We must learn lessons here. Will we rush through a consultation during two years of disruption? Will we take that disruption into consideration?

I compliment the Minister. This has a difficult period but she has worked with all the different parties and stakeholders. I know from working with Deputies that she has listened to us because we have been listening to the parents, teachers and students. I had several Zoom and Teams meetings with students. I felt the Minister's decision was the best road to take and I know students are happy with it.

I ask the Minister to ensure we have a plan for 2022. This year, all the students and families were informed early. The leaving certificate course is already nearly finished. It is important we work with everyone involved on what will happen next year. Again, I congratulate the Minister. She did an excellent job.

Rachaimid ar aghaidh go dtí an condae beag agus an Teachta Ó Murchú.

Táim an-bhuíoch don Cheann Comhairle as an gcúpla focal sin.

There is a general acceptance that there is a fairness in this legislation as regards leaving certificate students being given choice. We accept that students, parents and teachers across the board had an incredibly difficult time during the pandemic. I hope we have learned lessons from the difficulties we had with algorithms. Fairness is essential. We heard earlier that we almost need an audit of the entire leaving certificate process. While it has changed in recent years with continuous assessment, it is still largely based on old-style rote learning. We have to look at something more fitting.

We also talk about access to third level. We have alternatives in post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses and such but we need to work at an earlier stage on interventions for those families who do not have a history is education and need a greater level of connectivity. We need to look at our entire means of delivering education to ensure it offers everyone the routes they need to take through life.

I commend the Minister on the work she has done as regards the Coláiste Ghlór na Mara satellite that is planned for Dundalk. I hope she continues with that support.

Before and after Christmas, I was contacted by many students, in particular, from the Irish Secondary-Level Students' Union. They were concerned about the plans or lack of plans for the leaving certificate at that point. As a former teacher and a parent, I could fully appreciate their panic because of the ongoing uncertainty. At that time, before any decisions were taken, I suggested a hybrid model, which is basically what we have here today. This approach gives students some choice, flexibility and certainty.

I believe the Minister has brought forward good legislation and that she has learned from the mistakes made last year. That is important. Many of the different viewpoints of students, teachers, principals and parents have been taken on board in the legislation, and that too is positive. The Bill and the changes to the leaving certificate examination system brought about by Covid give us an opportunity to assess the examination system we have in place and to ask ourselves if it meets the needs of all involved in the process of education and, especially, if it gives our students the opportunity to reach their potential.

As a former mathematics teacher, I was always largely in favour of a final examination. For many years, I corrected exam papers and could see at first hand the impartiality and objectivity of the process. Even in the correction of maths papers, there was always room for professional judgment. Many students believe the role of correctors is to take marks away but giving marks is what correcting is all about. If there is nothing on the script, a corrector cannot give marks. However, if a reasonable or partly reasonable attempt has been made, students could easily get three out of ten, which is 30%, and that is just to begin with.

I am deviating from the legislation but I say this because I know many students are under real pressure right now. They are concerned about the time they have missed and parts of the course they may not have fully covered during class time. There are a hundred other individual reasons students may feel pressurised. I want those students to know that those who correct their exams are there to give them marks. Correctors have to be objective and fair but the majority are teachers and fully understand the circumstances that all students face when they sit exams. I say to students that correctors are their allies and if they can, they should give the correctors something to work with.

I come back to the lessons we, including me, can learn from the last two years. I do not believe we can go back to the old leaving certificate format. I know it is a huge extra burden for teachers, schools and principals. I know it will require a certain amount of training and upskilling but I think some form of continuous assessment in all subjects, alongside project work, practical work, oral work and a final examination, would be a better option. It would certainly be an interim option.

An examination largely guarantees an objective result on the day but only on the day. All the learning of two to three years leads up to that day. Nonetheless, a student may not give of his or her best on the day for many reasons. Continuous assessment has many positives but it also has challenges. If we are to go down that road, consultation with teachers and their unions, as well as students and schools will be paramount. Just today, I was speaking to a school principal who said the discussion in the staff room this morning was of the fact that every student is really stressed over every assessment. It is like a mini leaving certificate for them. All of this has to be taken into consideration. There is no magic bullet.

Teachers, year heads and school principals deserve our support and recognition for the work undertaken this year and last year to ensure we had a calculated grades process.

A completely new system was thrust upon them and like some of our front-line staff, they undertook this important work with the seriousness, commitment and objectivity it deserved.

The past 18 months have seen a shift in the tectonic plates of education, with students, teachers, individual schools and parents making a much stronger contribution to putting in place a system that allows students the best possible opportunity to achieve and grow in the current difficult circumstances. There can be no going back to the old ways. Education has become much more participatory and that trend must continue.

As already stated, I am very supportive of the Bill. Prohibited communication, or canvassing as we know it, is dealt with in a transparent and fair way. The sanctions are very tough, but they need to be, so that people will not be tempted to try to influence the situation. We all know the leaving certificate is important. In fact, we make it far too important. It is a milestone on the journey, it is not our destination, but because of the importance we attach to the exam it is crucial that every effort is made to discourage lobbying. If it starts at all, even in limited circumstances, it totally undermines the objectivity of the exam. We must be honest about it, if there is even a hint or a rumour of canvassing and that it might influence the result, it will snowball and create dissent and distrust and do untold damage to the exam system. For that reason, sanctions need to be severe and we all need to be aware of the impact of any effort to influence outcomes.

I am pleased that the standardisation process used last year has been modified, that rankings have been discontinued and that school profiling will not play any part in determining individual results.

One final point is that the Minister needs to look again at contingency measures and be prepared for unexpected situations that may arise, for example, due to public health measures, local lockdowns or an outbreak of Covid in a class or a school. Students may have to self-isolate because they were unwittingly a close contact. I understand there can only be a certain number of safety nets, but if Covid has taught us anything, it has taught us that we need to be flexible and agile and that we need a plan C as well as a plan B. I ask the Minister to look at that again.

In my opening remarks, I set out the objectives and principles underpinning this Bill. Its core function is to help students from the leaving certificate class of 2021 to complete their schooling and to progress to the next chapter of their lives. This progression and transition is one of the recognised milestones in so many students' lives, going back many years. It is one of the traditions for so many students.

This Bill, when enacted, will confer new or additional powers on the SEC, the body which has managed and operated the State examinations for almost 20 years in a very professional way. The SEC enjoys the confidence of all the actors in the education system in that regard but, most importantly, through this legislation, the students of leaving certificate 2021 will be treated in a very similar fashion to their predecessors. The leaving certificate that this year's students will receive will have the same look and feel to it as any other year. This is true too for the class of 2020, whose certificates will issue from the SEC, also by virtue of this Bill. The Bill, in conferring those additional powers on the SEC, allows me as Minister to ensure that we can bring some normality to the lives of students in these most unusual and, on occasion, challenging of times.

Just as the country is now looking forward to reopening and returning to so much that we have had to pause since spring 2020, so too the students of the leaving certificate class of 2021 can look forward. Deputies, through their contributions, showed their concern and interest in the education of this year's sixth-year students. We have a shared objective in wanting the best for all students, even if at times we might differ on how exactly to achieve that. I know there are different views, or perhaps views that seek to place an emphasis on different elements of the various processes which we have put in place. This debate has ensured that the points of concern to Deputies have been heard. I will reflect on all that has been presented here this afternoon, but it is important to indicate that much that was discussed here by Deputies, which I accept was in very good faith, was very much outside the remit of the Bill.

The Bill refers to the accredited grades process for leaving certificate 2021. That is all that it refers to, and not to senior cycle reform and other such matters. On that point - it was a thread through the debate this afternoon, as Deputies are aware - I acknowledge that the senior cycle is under review and the advisory report is due imminently. In fairness, that will be a catalyst to affording us an opportunity to examine the senior cycle programme. It will involve engagement from all of the partners in education and from the widest possible remit of those who have an interest in the education sector. I look forward to the views of Deputies also on how we plan and move forward with the senior cycle.

Everyone concerned with leaving certificate 2021, starting with me, my colleagues in government, the officials in my Department and the SEC, including the partners in education, are committed to ensuring that we deliver for the class of 2021. We committed to delivering a choice. We aimed to improve on the experience of calculated grades in 2020. We will also be considering how we can ensure that next year's leaving certificate class is treated fairly. I believe the Bill will deliver on the choice for students announced by the Government between accredited grades, examinations, or a combination of both. It will deliver a fair reflection of the students' educational attainment at post-primary level and it will deliver their passport to travel to the next stage of their lives.

It has been a very challenging year for the country and its people and, given our focus today, for the leaving certificate class of 2021. Since the first Covid-19 restrictions were introduced in March of last year, we have seen enormous resilience shown right throughout society. We have seen great solidarity being shown and we have seen solutions and supports delivered, particularly for students, through school communities across the country. The leaving certificate class of 2021 deserve our support and this Bill is a part of ensuring that we continue to deliver for the class of 2021. For these reasons and with the support of Members, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.