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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 6

Leaving Certificate: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— Leaving Certificate students faced significant disruption to their learning when school buildings were closed between January and March 2021, particularly those without access to electronic devices or a stable internet connection;

— many Leaving Certificate students have had lengthy periods of self-isolation, as they unfortunately contracted Covid-19 over the course of the last year, or were named a close contact of a positive case; and

— many Leaving Certificate subject teachers similarly had to self-isolate, some more than once;

further notes that:

— high levels of absence amongst students and teachers, through no fault of their own, has had a significant impact on the ability of Leaving Certificate students to prepare thoroughly for their State examinations; and

— many classes, due to student and staff absences, have not had the opportunity to cover the entire Leaving Certificate curriculum;

recognises that:

— the lack of clarity on what Leaving Certificate 2022 will look like is causing significant stress and anxiety for students and their families;

— in a survey of over 40,000 students carried out by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, 68 per cent of Leaving Certificate students stated their preference for a Leaving Certificate model based on a choice between calculated grades and written examinations;

— Junior Certificate students have also endured significant disruption, and the Minister for Education needs to provide clarity on whether changes will be made to their exams to take into account any disruption they have experienced;

— the Leaving Certificate generally is in urgent need of reform, which has been highlighted further by the Covid-19 pandemic; and

— the varying levels of disruption encountered by students cannot be resolved through additional changes to the written examinations alone; and

calls on the Government to:

— place the voice of students at the centre of the debate on Leaving Certificate 2022;

— secure a choice for Leaving Certificate 2022 students, between calculated grades and written examinations; and

— take decisive and urgent action to bring clarity and peace of mind to the Leaving Certificate class of 2022.

In any year, the leaving certificate examinations are challenging and stressful. We have all heard the stories of people having nightmares about the examinations many years later and that reflects the urgent need to reform the leaving certificate examinations. The pandemic has highlighted this urgent need. It is not a fair and equitable way of evaluating students. It is not without its merits entirely, but it is a form of evaluation that places too much pressure in the context of relying on a final terminal examination. I refer as well to the pressure that comes from the leaving certificate not evaluating all skills and not having the flexibility we should have for modern students. It is vitally important to bear that aspect in mind as we discuss what we will do in this pandemic year to respond to the challenges that students face.

I say that because some of the arguments made against the hybrid model neglect to consider several things. They neglect the extent of the disruption and absences. They also neglect the extent to which those facets have impacted on education, and I will return to this point later. The other thing neglected, and Dr. Gerry McNamara of Dublin City University, DCU, made this point in The Irish Times at the weekend, is that some of those criticisms imply or forget that the leaving certificate was never truly equitable in any event. To some extent, it reflected existing inequalities and injustices in Irish society. There are, undoubtedly, ways in which people can gain an advantage through the current leaving certificate examination system.

When I speak to leaving certificate students and their families, and many teachers as well, they tell me that the anxiety, stress and uncertainty are becoming unbearable. Therefore, the first thing they need is clarity and an early decision on this year's leaving certificate examinations. It must be made as early as possible. The students need and deserve to know what kind of leaving certificate examinations they will be facing. They deserve to know what it is they are preparing for.

I am also tabling this motion because the students need a choice. I am certain that this is entirely warranted and that it is the fairest manner of evaluating these students in these circumstances. I am hearing the same story from many students, families and teachers across the State. Let us consider that school buildings were closed for more than two months and that when students did return to school, they were not the highest priority at the time. Since then, a great deal of time has also been lost because of the self-isolation of students and staff. There were also many other disruptions. Many students are caregivers and have other responsibilities. They are struggling to cover the course. This is about the stress and pressure involved, but it is not just about that. It is also about how much time has been lost and how difficult it is proving to cover the course. Many students are telling me that their teachers have decided not to organise mock examinations or pre-examinations in a subject because they are not far enough advanced in the course. I note, in particular, that the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, has called for a hybrid model to be used again this year. The Minister listened to the students last year and I welcomed that. I urge her to do the same thing again. She valued the voices of students on that occasion, and I ask her to do so again.

Given that we need to listen to the voices of students, I will quote from some of the comments I have received from students. One said, "It’s just so tiring [...] waiting for a decision to be taken". Another said:

I am dreading this year’s exams. I am not sleeping recently. I usually do really [well] in school but I’m not prepared to sit the LC this year. We have so much of the course still to cover, as well as [struggling] to catch up on work because I was a close contact. I just want the stress to end.

Yet another said that, "As a Leaving Cert student my anxiety levels are sky high and we still have no clarity", while another put it like this:

Many students struggled to cope with the pressure of a lockdown, myself included [....] On top of the pressure and stress of school work and the pandemic, it was a tough year to say the very least [...] we came back to school after the lockdown many teachers were out sick and there were not enough substitute teachers for classes which meant that we didn’t get all of the work done.

Since the weekend people all over the country are celebrating the lifting of restrictions and there is a sense of relief as the country can start to get back to some kind of normality.

It is upsetting that most leaving certificate students cannot enjoy this in the same way as everyone else because unfortunately they still feel like they cannot breathe. One sixth year student said that the Minister should have a phone call with all the leaving certificate students so she can hear their stories; I agree. Students' voices need to be at the heart of this.

According to the Irish Second–Level Students Union, ISSU, since the Christmas break 49.5% of students have missed one to three classes on average a day. Some 9% of students have missed four to five classes a day. Of those who missed classes, 54% only had substitutes for some classes. Disruption is absolutely enormous. They are struggling to cover the course. It may not be the same as last year but it is not a normal year. It is a pandemic year. It is absolutely required to have that hybrid model and choice for students this year.

It is not too late for the Minister to do the right thing. Over the past two years, more than 6,000 people have died with Covid in the State and 9,159 on the island. In excess of 1 million have contracted the virus. Millions more have been close contacts. Leaving certificate students and their families are not immune. They are not different. They are part of society and what society had to endure. I do not think anyone would argue the fact that the high levels of absence among students and teachers, through no fault of their own, have had a significant impact on the ability of leaving certificate students to prepare thoroughly in the way they need to for what is probably the most important exam in their lives.

Leaving certificate students faced significant disruption to their learning when school buildings were closed between January and March 2021, particularly those without access to electronic devices or a stable Internet connection. I deal with issues every day in County Mayo and there is not a single home yet that has been connected under the national broadband plan. One mother wrote to me saying her daughter has been a consistent hard worker throughout her school life but the distractions of the past two years have knocked her confidence and she is struggling to get by from day to day. They live in a rural area of Mayo with an extremely unreliable Internet connection and, therefore, online learning presented its own challenges. Whenever the connection failed, there was a process of trying to catch up with other students. The constant loss of class time due to teacher and pupil absences, the freezing conditions in the classroom and the constant uncertainty have all wreaked havoc. She goes on to say that words cannot express how much it would mean to have an option of a hybrid model leaving certificate giving students the choice they are rightly entitled to, given the trauma that they have suffered.

A student wrote to me saying they had recently contracted the coronavirus and were extremely ill for a number of days. While the school was extremely supportive, the student did miss out. The student wrote to me as they are sure they are not the only leaving certificate student who has been in this situation. The student did not contract the virus through carelessness but through a parent who was a front-line worker. Many of the students I have heard from are sons and daughters of front-line workers who have been going through extreme pressure for the past two years as well. I ask the Minister to take that into consideration. There are many more emails and calls and I know every Deputy has received them as well. The accounts are far more convincing than the Government's justification for not offering the hybrid leaving certificate.

I fundamentally reject the idea that a hybrid model is to blame for grade inflation. Grade inflation can be a problem or it can be managed properly in any examination system. I believe it can be managed properly. The fact that grade inflation has been allowed to balloon two years in a row has created real damage to the system and caused stress and hardship for many students. This does not mean giving students the option of a hybrid model last year was wrong. It was exactly the right thing to do and was something I, Deputy Ó Laoghaire and other colleagues in Sinn Féin called for and supported. Grade inflation can, and must, be managed better to ensure we do not have a repeat of the past two years.

Government constantly pats itself on the back for increasing the number of college places but without proper funding to underpin it, it just means the third-level sector is bursting at the seams. Funding and resources need to be targeted, particularly for high-demand courses. The small numbers in medicine go nowhere near addressing the shortage of doctors, nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists and all of the healthcare disciplines.

This year's cohort of leaving certificate students should not be punished due to the mistakes in the management of the hybrid system last year. We should learn from that experience to ensure it is executed better this time around. Being decisive and making an early decision will help. It will give staff, the Department and all stakeholders who have been through an extremely challenging time more time to prepare.

I speak as a mother of a leaving certificate student. I am fortunate because we can get extra grinds or help if we need it. Inequalities are being created within the system by not giving a choice and this has led to stress and mental health problems. I am talking about really resilient youngsters who have gone through a terrible time in the past two years. I am asking the Minister to take that into consideration. We have time over the next couple of years to bring back the system to the way it should be through the reform of the leaving certificate as well. I ask her not to make this cohort of leaving certificate students carry the can for everything.

Leaving certificate students have faced huge disruption in their lives over the past two years. Their leaving certificate cycle has been repeatedly interrupted with many teachers struggling to cover the course because of the significant disruptions. Teachers and students have had to self-isolate with some having to isolate multiple times. There are cases of students not having access to the Internet due to many parts of the State still lacking basic broadband infrastructure. For a lot of young people these are seen as the most important exams they will do in their lives. The reality of the past two years has to be acknowledged. It would be completely unfair to expect these students to sit a normal leaving certificate exam.

I am sure there are some students who have managed the past two years well and feel prepared; that is great if they do. On the other hand, I know there are many students who have had the opposite experience. We need a system that treats people fairly and is mindful of how hard the past two years have been for our students. The survey of students that was conducted by ISSU shows that students want a choice. Just under 70% of the 40,000 that responded said they would favour a hybrid model. Their voices should not be ignored.

Students need clarity and they should not have to wait any longer for it. After all the disruption the last thing that is needed is further confusion. I hope the Minister takes this on board and does the right thing for our students. They deserve it.

B'fhéidir gur gá dúinn an sean-nath cainte, "Is aoibhinn beatha an scoláire" a athrú nó "seachas le linn paindéime" a chur leis mar ní aoibhinn beatha an scoláire le bhlianta anuas. As mic léinn dara leibhéal an Stáit, is iad daltaí ardteistiméireachta na bliana seo is mó a bhí buailte ag an bpaindéim Covid-19 ó thuirling sí orainn i bhFeabhra 2019. Nílim ag rá nach raibh droch-éifeacht ar chúrsaí oideachais scoláirí i ranganna eile ach, i gcás daltaí ardteiste na bliana seo, tá trí bliana scoile i gceist san iomlán.

In ainneoin iarrachtaí den scoth ó mhúinteoirí, ó phríomhoidí agus ó na daltaí féin ach go háirithe chun an seó a choimeád faoi lán seoil, tá trí bliana caite ag na daltaí seo ar chúrsa scrúdaithe a bhí curtha as riocht ina hiomláine. Tá a fhios agam go ndéanann roinnt daoine beag den, agus neamhaird ar an, idirbhliain ach is trua é sin mar tá sé lárnach agus na daltaí sin ag fás iontu féin. Tá cúrsaí oideachais san áireamh leis sin. Le teacht Covid-19, tháinig deireadh le cuid mhaith den obair a bhí leagtha amach dóibh do dheireadh na hidirbhliana.

Agus breis is 60,000 dalta ardteiste ag tosú an cúigiú bliain agus ag díriú isteach ar an obair i dtreo scrúduithe na bliana seo, ní raibh a fhios acu an mbeidh na scrúduithe sin ag dul ar aghaidh. Ní raibh a fhios acu an mbeidh na scrúduithe scríofa ar líne, an ndéanfar iad ó bhéal nó an mbeidh gráid chreidiúnaithe nó gráid bunaithe ar algartam i gceist. Fós féin, níl a fhios acu cad a bheidh i gceist.

Fós féin, rinne siad iarracht tabhairt faoin staidéar agus faoi na ceachtanna, d'ainneoin na srianta, go minic, lena n-áirítear na maisc, a bheith scartha amach sna ranganna le fuinneoga oscailte agus iad préachta nó ró-the ag brath ar an áit a raibh siad suite. Bhí iad ag stánadh ar scáileán beag 12 orlach nuair a bhí siad sa bhaile ar feadh 12 uair an chloig go minic, idir ranganna agus staidéar, nó fiú amháin é seo déanta ar a bhfón póca. Ní féidir linn leanúint ar aghaidh ag ligean orainn nach raibh tionchar beag nó drochthionchar ar scolaíocht nó oideachas na ndaltaí seo, m'iníon féin agus a cairde, dar ndóigh, san áireamh. Ar nós a lán díobh, bhí cur chuige díograiseach acu agus bhí siad solúbtha ó thaobh céard a caitheadh ina dtreo ach, fós féin, ní fheicim ón Aire nó ón Roinn fós aon fhreagra ceart a thugann cothrom na Féinne do dhaltaí na hardteistiméireachta 2022.

During these uncertain times, some things remain certain. One of these certainties is that pupils will be sitting their leaving certificate this year in one form or another. The Minister has had more than enough time to get her house in order and prepare for the situation in which leaving certificate students now find themselves. The students want a clear message from the Government that they will be able to sit a hybrid leaving certificate this year the same as the class of 2021. The message from leaving certificate students could not be any clearer: they need a choice between written exams and calculated grading in recognition of the significant disruption that they have experienced in their learning over the past two years due to Covid-19. The findings of a poll this week by ISSU, the largest representative body for second level students on the island of Ireland, show that more than two thirds of leaving certificate students want a hybrid exam. These voices must be listened to. The Minister's proposal of traditional exams simply must not go ahead. Leaving certificate students, particularly those without access to devices or a stable Internet connection, faced significant disruption to their learning when school buildings were closed between January and March 2021. My Sinn Féin colleagues and I are calling on the Government to give students a choice this year. It is not too much to ask.

Covid-19 has shone a bright light on the failings in our educational system and the years of chronic underinvestment by successive Governments. My phone has not stopped ringing since last year with calls from parents concerned about getting secondary school places for their children. I have raised this matter with the Minister previously. Parents from Clondalkin and Lucan are seeing their children being placed on waiting lists for secondary schools with little assurance that they will get any. The youth population of Dublin Mid-West has increased over the years but Governments have failed to plan for this in terms of school provision. The Department of Education only recently decided not to build a school in Kilcarbery despite the council allocating land and the fact that there will be a further 1,000 houses in the area. The people and pupils of Dublin Mid-West are feeling ignored.

Anxiety is rising all over north Kildare on account of the leaving certificate. I am being contacted by parents from Celbridge, Maynooth, Leixlip and all the way down to Naas who are worried about their children because of the patchiness of the past two school years with so many of their excellent teachers out sick or isolating because they were close contacts. Students have been affected in the same way. They have had a disruptive two years and are now facing into more uncertainty around the exams.

The students who have contacted me are an absolute credit to their parents, families and schools. Not only are they so articulate about the academic and points issues they are facing, but they have also shown an incredible maturity as well as insight into themselves in their concern for one another and their mental well-being. When it comes to the leaving certificate, they want and need choice. This has not been life and study as usual, so when it comes to exams, there can be no business as usual this year. They are worried about doing their mocks and not having the course work covered. They are worried about the gaps in teaching and learning, about their points, about their health and about their futures.

At the stroke of a pen, the Minister could remove that worry and give the students and their families not just the peace they want and need, but the choice they want and need, namely, the choice of calculated grades and exams. That should not be done at the last minute, but right now so that the students can take a breath, steady their nerves and plan ahead. They have been isolated by infection and quarantine. Now, the Government should be insulating them against future anxiety and future shock. Choice is not rocket science; it is common sense.

Our young people have been putting their lives on hold for their families and communities for the past two years. They have gone above and beyond. It is now up to us to show our appreciation by giving them back their head space and giving them choice. The Department must listen to the students. They are telling the Minister what they need and want. After the past couple of years, this is the least they deserve.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “That Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

"notes that:

— students, including those preparing for Junior Cycle and Senior Cycle examinations, have faced challenges in their learning as a result of disruptions caused by Covid-19;

— students are naturally eager to have certainty about the approach to be taken in respect of this year's State examinations; and

— school communities have made extraordinary and unstinting efforts to support the continuity of learning for their students during a very challenging and sustained period of time;

further notes that:

— through the Advisory Group on Planning for State Examinations 2022, the Minister for Education is in very proactive and positive engagement with all key education stakeholders; and

— this engagement is ongoing, with the advisory group having met most recently in plenary session on 20th January, 2022, and bilateral meetings with stakeholder groups taking place since that meeting, including over the weekend and into this week;

recognises:

— the importance in hearing and understanding all voices and perspectives in respect of the most appropriate approach for the 2022 State examinations; and

— the need to bring clarity to the position for students as soon as possible in order to empower them to focus on their preparations for Leaving Certificate 2022; and

agrees that:

— the Government will continue to engage with stakeholders with a view to reaching an appropriate solution; and

— a decision in relation to these matters will be made as soon as reasonably practicable and that the decision will be announced immediately thereafter."

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire and his colleagues for tabling this motion for debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the House on the important matter of the State examinations.

I understand the sentiments and concerns underlying the motion and I appreciate that examination year students have faced significant challenges in their learning as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19. I also acknowledge that these students are eager to have certainty about the approach to be taken to this year's State examinations. The Department of Education and I are currently involved in a process of engagement with education stakeholders regarding the 2022 State examinations. It is important that this process be allowed to conclude to inform the decision that will be taken. Consequently, the Government is tabling an amendment to allow this process to conclude. I welcome the opportunity to update Deputies on the progress of the engagements to date. I also want to advise of measures that have to date been put in place by my Department and by the SEC to help address the disruption to teaching and learning caused to leaving certificate students as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I am keen to lean on the wisdom of all in the education sector in helping to provide certainty to our examination students as soon as possible and to allow them to focus on their preparations for the 2022 leaving certificate. It is important to hear and understand all voices and perspectives in respect of the most appropriate approach to the 2022 State examinations. Most important is the need for clarity for students. In this regard, I welcome the opportunity this evening to hear the views of Deputies on these important issues.

My Department and the SEC have been progressing planning for the 2022 junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations. This has been done in close consultation with the advisory group on planning for the State examinations and, of course, with public health. The advisory group includes representatives of students, parents, teachers and school leaders as well as representatives from the SEC, NCCA, higher education and my Department. I acknowledge the significant contributions made by all members of the advisory group to the work on planning for the examinations.

I pay tribute to the extraordinary and unstinting efforts being made every day by school communities up and down the country to support the continuity of learning for students during what has been a challenging time. I am aware that the leaving certificate experience for the class of 2022 has been disruptive. The SEC, working with the Department of Education, has sought through a range of measures to take account of the disruption to learning experienced by these students. Adjustments have been made to the assessment arrangements that were announced in August 2021 for the 2022 state examinations. These adjustments were designed to take account of the disruption to learning experienced by students in the early part of 2021 as well as provide for some possible further disruption in the 2021-22 school year. They are considered proportionate to the students' experience and loss of learning and are educationally appropriate. They also ensure that the overall structure of the examinations remains intact but will allow for greater choice for students.

Just before Christmas, I made an announcement regarding the arrangements for leaving certificate oral examinations in Irish and modern foreign languages and the practical performance tests in leaving certificate music. These examinations will take place outside of school time over the first week of the Easter holidays with the examinations running in schools during the six-day period from Saturday, 9 April to Thursday, 14 April, inclusive. Holding these examinations over Easter and outside of school time will minimise disruption for schools and students. Timeframes for certain assessment elements of the leaving certificate applied examinations have been pushed out. There has also been a reduction in the amount of preparatory time required for some practical exams in order to give more time for tuition. Schools have been reminded of the available flexibility in terms of the dates for the completion and authentication of leaving certificate course work. I also announced that an alternative set of leaving certificate examinations would be run in 2022 shortly after the conclusion of the main set of examinations. This will be for students who are unable to sit the main set of exams for specific reasons.

In addition to those measures focused on exam year students, I have announced a series of broader measures to enhance teaching and learning in our schools. With a view to increasing the supply of substitute post-primary teachers to cover teachers absent from school for Covid-related or other reasons, I have introduced a range of emergency measures to provide increased numbers of substitute teachers. These include the release of student teachers from their college programmes to enable them to support schools; the cancellation of all teacher continuing professional development that gives rise to substitution needs; the deployment of teachers currently serving with the school support services to work in schools; requests to retired teachers to return to teaching duties; the ending of the abatement of salary payments to retired teachers for substitution work for this school term; a relaxation of career break and job-sharing restrictions for substitution purposes; and permission for post-primary teachers to work more than 22 hours per week, working extra hours to provide substitution cover, up to a total of 35 hours. The capacity of the school system to provide for remote tuition has improved significantly in recent times. While schools were closed as a result of Covid-19 from January 2021, all students, including students who are due to sit the 2022 leaving certificate examinations, engaged in a programme of remote learning with their schools from 11 January 2021 until their return to in-person tuition. Fifth year students were also prioritised for a return to school following the return of sixth year students in spring of 2021.

I have introduced measures to address the greater impact on the education of some students and the learning loss suffered by them. These include the opportunity provided to primary and post-primary schools to offer summer provision, at a cost of up to €40 million, in addition to the €10 million allocated to a supplementary education programme, aimed at students with complex educational needs. In addition to this, provision of up to €52 million in extra teaching hours was made by the Department for the Covid learning and support scheme, under which a block of additional teaching hours is provided to each recognised school, from which schools can provide additional teaching support for students who have experienced difficulties in settling back into school and engaging with learning. Information has also been provided on well-being supports for leaving certificate students. This includes a series of supports on managing well-being, coping with uncertainty and managing stress and anxiety, developed by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in the Department, to support students. My Department has worked with the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure that the most appropriate services and resources are clearly signposted for students.

As I have outlined previously, I continue to engage with all the partners in education on all matters relating to the leaving certificate 2022 examinations. At the most recent meeting of the State examinations advisory group a number of updates were received from group members, including reports of emerging and final results from surveys of their members which were conducted by some bodies. The meeting was positive and collaborative, with all parties committed to continued engagement in the short period ahead to provide clarity on the State examinations in 2022. It was agreed that the members of the group would reflect on the contributions made at the meeting and that engagement would continue between me and the various stakeholders on a bilateral and intensive basis. This bilateral engagement has continued since last week, over the weekend and into this week, with a view to reaching an appropriate solution that responds to the concerns and issues that have been raised by students and other stakeholders. A further meeting of the advisory group will be held and I am working towards a decision on the State examinations in 2022 being made as soon as is reasonably practicable. I am mindful that, under Standing Order 59, I am permitted to speak only once to the motion. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will close the debate on behalf of the Government.

I commend once again all those working in schools to support students. The work of those who support students - teachers, school leaders, SNAs, bus escorts, secretaries, caretakers - has never been more important or more challenging. Those in examination years face added challenge beyond what is faced in normal years. My Government colleagues and I appreciate the need to bring clarity to the position for these students as soon as possible in order that they can focus on their preparations for the upcoming exams. I will continue to engage with stakeholders with the aim of reaching an appropriate solution as quickly as possible. I commend the Government amendment to the House.

I have been contacted by many students and by parents who are very concerned about the leaving certificate this year and how best to proceed to ensure that it is fair to all students. The students currently in sixth year missed out on three months of schooling this time last year. I acknowledge that online teaching was provided and commend all the teaching staff who went to great lengths to ensure that teaching was provided. Many teachers to whom I have spoken would have much preferred to be in the classroom setting to trying to teach online, which was very difficult to do. We have to be realistic, however. Not all students engaged in the learning process, and there were reasons for that, many to do with poor broadband, some to do with difficult family circumstances and others to do with the type of learner. Not every student is capable of engaging remotely.

Then the students returned to school. Since September in particular, however, students themselves have been absent due to contracting Covid or being a close contact and having to isolate. Teachers have been absent for the same reason. Students inform me that teachers were often absent for weeks at a time and occasionally longer. Substitute teachers were like hen's teeth. One parent told me that her daughter attended school and attended six periods without a teacher in one day. In some instances the class was not even supervised. This is not a level playing field for students this year. As for teacher absences alone, some schools suffered more than others, but also some classes within a school received different levels of teaching due to some teachers being absent and others not.

The overwhelming number of students want to see a hybrid leaving certificate similar to last year's. I believe the SEC is saying that this may not be possible as many students did not sit a junior certificate exam. If I recall correctly, however, and if I am incorrect the Minister can correct me, in 2020, teachers were told not to judge students on their junior certificate results. I also believe that teachers know their students well enough to be able to judge them. Last year, many teachers told me that the accredited grades and the results their students got in the written exam, if they chose to sit it, were very similar, while the grade allocated by the SEC was below that which the teacher gave. Students have had to contend with freezing cold schools and wearing masks all day, which is not easy. They are stressed enough. We can help them by ensuring there is a hybrid leaving certificate. Covid restrictions have impacted significantly our young people and we could arrange for one less thing for them to worry about.

I commend the teachers and the other school staff. I know how hard they work and have been working over recent years in extremely difficult circumstances. As a parent of a leaving certificate student, I can tell the Minister that this is a very stressful period for both the students and the parents of many of those students. She can take it as a fact that I have been getting a large number of emails from students who say time and time again that what they have experienced over the past year has been extremely difficult and they are very concerned about own leaving certificate results and how they will then progress into college. The Covid pandemic was an uncertain time for us all. As adults, we had to navigate it and its uncertainty when it came to our employment and our mental and physical health. These students have lost out on a huge chunk of their social life. I refer to junior certificate students and those who have lost out on a lot of the milestones they would have otherwise had. They now have to cope with all these things alongside the leaving certificate and the exams.

I will give the Minister an example. My son's maths curriculum will not finish until March. It should have been finished before Christmas in order that the students could revise properly. They cannot revise something they have not learned. There are, therefore, huge difficulties because, as was explained earlier, there are teachers who have not been in because of Covid. One Irish teacher, because of long Covid, was not in for six weeks. There are other teachers getting Covid; there are students who had Covid. They are sitting in classrooms in the freezing cold. They are wearing jackets, hats and scarves. It is not an environment for children to try to learn in. Let us imagine us sitting in this room with all the windows open, in the freezing cold. We would not be happy with that experience. We would not be happy to sit an exam in those conditions.

I ask the Minister to consider a hybrid model and to listen to the students. Tomorrow I will meet students in Coláiste Pobail Setanta, Ongar, Dublin 15. They have asked us to come out there to listen to them. If the Minister has time tomorrow, I urge her to come out to the school to listen to those students, to listen to their experiences and to take them on board.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all. Our students and our teachers have to be creative in their learning. They faced massive disruption throughout the senior cycle, from remote learning to long school absences due to Covid or being identified as a close contact. It has been an incredibly disruptive senior cycle, I am sure the Minister will agree, for our current batch of leaving certificate students. Some have been unfortunate enough to have to isolate more than once; others not at all.

The learning experience has varied from student to student, often dramatically. I am particularly concerned about the impact it is had on DEIS schools. When all were in remote learning environments between January 2021 and March 2021, the difference in the learning experience was compounded by such issues as Internet access and the ability - or inability - of parents to support their children. I say that not to assign blame but rather so that we can appreciate that not every household has a stable Internet connection or an abundance of devices to enable workers and students to work and attend classes, respectively. Unfortunately, some parents were unable to cope with homeschooling themselves.

These students want clarity. They deserve choice. I am sure my constituency office is not unique in having been contacted by numerous local sixth year students and parents who are seeking a hybrid leaving certificate examination model this year. These students have had the time to outline their legitimate concerns regarding the June examination. Their desire is to have a hybrid examination to reflect the hybrid learning experience they have had over recent years. These students have made the argument as strongly as any of us in this Chamber can.

I would like to quote from an email I received from one of the many students who have contacted me. It states:

We are not taught when we are absent from school, as none of the teachers stream classes online. We are just told to try and catch up on work we missed and we get the notes from other students. I was absent from school for a week. Thankfully, my PCR test was negative, but I was quite sick so I was unable to keep up with my school work and study plan for that week. My teachers messaged me what was covered in class, but I was not taught any of the material that was covered. I have tried my best to teach it to myself, but it is not as good as being taught by a teacher.

A recent survey undertaken by the ISSU was clear: students want the choice between the calculated grade and a written exam. These young students have faced huge disruption over the past two years, and alterations to the leaving certificate are not good enough. The issues need to be resolved pressingly, so I ask the Minister to support the motion.

I wish to start by acknowledging the campaigns and work done to date by all students throughout the State, especially in my own county of Wexford. From emails to petitions and student councils, I have been inspired by the passion and organisation displayed by Wexford pupils to ensure their voices and those of their peers are heard on this topic. I am glad to add my voice to that today. I also thank my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire for all his work on bringing this motion before us today.

The uncertainty of the past two years has been incredibly difficult for both teachers and students. The leaving certificate is a most stressful time in any young person's life without the added pressures and strains of a pandemic which has seen unprecedented pupil and teacher absences, delays, disruptions and stresses. I wonder, and indeed I have submitted a parliamentary question on the issue, if there has been any central logging and collecting of data on teacher absences due to Covid-19 over the past two years. Between illnesses and close contact restriction rules, we know students have had their curricular continuity broken and have faced disruption to class rotas and modular activities. Surely, the Minister agrees the 2022 leaving certificate students are going through the same difficulties as the students of 2020 and 2021. Despite this, the students of 2020 and 2021 were offered the choice of taking written exams or calculated grades. I put it to the Minister that a precedent has been set. Over two thirds of students this year want to be treated in the same manner as their predecessors before them.

There is also an economic downturn aspect to this issue, too. When schools were closed, some rural pupils faced the reality of having no Internet, tech devices and no place they could access them. These students may very well be our future doctors, teachers, nurses and innovators. They deserve to have a leaving certificate that takes into account the reality of trying to keep their studies up while struggling with a pandemic that disrupted every facet of their normal lives for almost two and a half years. This is why it is only right and fair students this year are given the choice and a definite decision is made between calculated grades and written exams. It is what students want. They have made their voices abundantly clear in respectful, passionate and inspiring ways. I urge all Deputies to support their calls by supporting this motion today.

I have been calling for a hybrid leaving certificate for this year's cohort of sixth year students since last July, when I raised the issue with the Minister in the Chamber and in the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, on the basis of what these students missed in fifth year. However, I must say I do not believe the Minister is the problem. In fact, I believe the Minister has always acted correctly when it comes to the leaving certificate. In 2020, when the Minister inherited the assessed grades system from her predecessor, the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, we in the Labour Party encouraged her to delete the school profiling element of leaving certificate 2020. The Minister did so, and did it for the right reasons. Quite a number of students got a fairer leaving certificate as a result. Last year, we appealed to the Minister to listen to the students because of what was happening 12 months ago. Again, the Minister did the right thing. When others were walking away from the table, the Minister was encouraged by the advocacy of the students who were at the heart of that campaign for a hybrid leaving certificate, found the solution and delivered it. I was the first to congratulate her on that occasion.

Now, the Minister has the opportunity to stand up in the face of those who sound like Shirley Valentine's husband, Joe, who said they always had steak on Thursday, when it comes to the leaving certificate. I do not understand why so many voices in education are so wedded and married to the traditional leaving certificate. What is so glorious about it? As the Minister is aware, we in the joint committee are listening to testimony after testimony about the leaving certificate as it currently stands, why it needs to be radically overhauled and reformed, how it is completely out of date, how it has not really changed since I did it or from the 1980s, when people older than me did it. We have heard how it is effectively the same, how it is far too much of a burden on young people at the end of their senior cycle and how it does not really reflect the abilities of young people as they go into the next stage of their lives. We have heard what they are asked to be assessed on and how they are assessed is completely out of date. All of these things are effectively being accepted by anybody who has an objective look at the leaving certificate. It is brutal and cruel. It may be transparent and fair, but it is very unfair for anybody who has ever had to go through it. I am quite sure that if you ask any Irish person whether they still have nightmares about their leaving certificate, they will say yes, and they will know that subject gave them nightmares. For me, it was biology.

Even now, with this national education conversation happening about the leaving certificate being unfair, I ask the Minister to imagine what it is like for students going through this unbelievably unfair and brutal process this senior cycle. Add into the mix the fact they are doing it in a pandemic, they missed a load of months in fifth year, they have effectively since October been facing issues with teachers and students being out because they are sick, and there is no guarantee that is going to change anywhere between now and June.

Others have mentioned the advocacy of the ISSU. I think the ISSU has been central to the change in the way education is being talked about. As the Minister knows, far too often in education, we have heard from everybody else except the students, young people or the children. We have heard from all these other people. We have heard those who have made these "we always have steak on Thursday" type remarks. They are married and wedded to the system they cannot move away from. They are rigid. They are the voices that rejected or were resistant to change in the junior certificate a number of years ago. They are the voices that are still resistant to change in the leaving certificate.

I must say, in this Chamber as a Labour Party politician, I am disappointed by the response of the teacher unions to this debate. I think they could be more imaginative and responsive to the needs of their students. They advocated for schools not to open a number of weeks ago because they asserted the teacher personnel would not be available to keep the schools open. They must realise that if the teacher personnel was not there to keep schools open, then surely the teacher personnel cannot be there to properly empower, instruct and teach the students between now and June.

I know of all the arguments that have been put forward about the lack of data from the junior certificate, even though the majority of students actually have done a junior certificate. I know all these arguments about grade inflation. I understand the pressures the third level institutions are highlighting. However, if we are genuinely trying to put the student at the heart of the discussion, then we can always find solutions to these issues and stop problematising all the time. We can find solutions, as we did last year and in 2020. How many debates do we have in these Houses, in committee rooms, in this Chamber and in the Seanad, and in Irish society about the mental health of young people? We have exhaustive debates on the mental health of young people, the stresses on young people and the heavy burdens of living in modern society that are placed young people's shoulders.

Despite this, when it comes to the leaving certificate, which is probably the most stressful thing they will do in their young lives, they are doing it in the middle of a pandemic when they are worried about their relations, older people and possibly themselves and the effects on their health that Covid could have. They have gone through all of this and missed out on in-school learning. They have had to do remote learning. If they are in a disadvantaged situation, it is doubly compounded. They now face a situation where they are unsure about their teachers being in. They have all this uncertainty about the leaving certificate. We will say in our response with regard to mental health that we have to go back to the traditional leaving certificate. It is like saying we always have steak on Thursdays. What I say to the voices in education is that they should try to broaden their perspective on what we are trying to achieve. This is not a quick fix. It is not necessarily an easy thing to do.

I am quite sure the Minister has her view on this but she wants to make a comprehensive announcement. There is not really any point in the Minister saying she believes in a hybrid model and then for all the questions to be asked of her and for the answers not to be readily available. I absolutely accept this. She needs to have the teacher unions on board if she is going to pursue a hybrid model. She needs to be able to answer questions on grade inflation. She needs to be able to answer questions on places in further education and third level education. I absolutely accept this.

We had an online petition and between students, teachers and parents we received almost 10,000 names. The Minister knows exactly what the ISSU has done. It has taken the time to survey its members and 68% of those due to sit the leaving certificate advocate for a hybrid model. The Minister knows what the Ombudsman for Children has said. The job of the Ombudsman for Children is to assess situations even-handedly and independently to see what is best for young people. Many leaving certificate students are technically still children. In this pandemic and time of national crisis it is his perspective that the best thing for students and for the system is a hybrid model. This is also the perspective of the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals. With all of this I accept it is not a quick and easy decision. I suggest it probably should have been made before now. If we had had this decision in November, and perhaps if the Minister had listened to me in July, we could be well along the way.

I repeat what I said at the beginning. The Minister has always made the right decision. Whatever criticisms I or the Opposition have of the Department or the Minister, and we have had robust exchanges in the House, I have to say I will be steadfast in my view that the Minister has always done the right thing by leaving certificate students and junior certificate students. She inherited an unfair mess in 2020 and justifiably changed it. She changed lives in the way she approached it. Last year, when others were walking away from the table the Minister listened to those who were still there advocating for the student voice and she made the right change. She has the exact same opportunity this year to listen to those putting students at the heart of the discussion, who want what is best for them in this most anxious and uncertain time and who want to deliver to them what they need, which is a hybrid leaving certificate examination. I believe this is the decision the Minister wants to make. If she makes that decision, the Labour Party and other parties in the House will work with her as closely as we can to make it a success. We urge the Minister to conclude her deliberations as soon as she possibly can and make an announcement, if possible this week, that the leaving certificate students who have been advocating so brilliantly in writing emails to their local representatives will get what they have campaigned for, which is the fairest result of a hybrid leaving certificate in 2022.

I welcome the motion and the opportunity to debate an incredibly important subject relevant to the lives of students throughout the country. I have absolutely no issue with the substance of the motion and will fully support it. It has already been referenced by Deputy Ó Laoghaire in his contribution that a further debate we could be having on this is on the model of assessment that would be fair not only for 2022 but beyond it. A large part of my contribution will discuss this. To speak on the motion as it is, this year's students simply cannot sit a traditional form of leaving certificate. Even if, as is the hope, we will have returned to some degree of normality by late May and June, the opportunity for a normal leaving certificate experience has already passed this cohort of students. Therefore, we need to be adaptable and compassionate and, potentially, to be innovative. There is still time for us to do this.

It has already been said by every speaker, because every speaker has had the same level of engagement with leaving certificate students, that this year's students have missed a huge swathe of time because they or their teachers have been out of school. In some cases, and my sympathy really lies with them and it is an issue I have been raising since the very start of the pandemic, students have an underlying health condition or have a family member at home with an underlying health issue and simply have not been able to engage a constructive form of education and simply have not been catered for. There are a variety of reasons this year's cohort have been impacted and cannot have a traditional leaving certificate experience.

There have been obvious complications, not least the fact a percentage of this year's cohort did not sit a traditional junior certificate examination. There is a lack of data that will skew the hybrid model that was used last year. It means we might have to resort to historical records, which none of us want. All of this is a very real and relevant issue. It is certainly not insurmountable. It is absolutely not the fault of the leaving certificate students who were not able to experience a traditional junior certificate. They certainly should not be doubly punished as a consequence. Rather, the very fact the students did not sit a traditional junior certificate examination is further reason they should not sit a traditional leaving certificate examination.

I will say it again, and repeat the statement made by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals: we may need to get around the table to find solutions to this. No one is coming in here to say exactly how the model would work. I do not expect the Minister to do so during this debate. I do expect stakeholders to be around the table and to be innovative and solution oriented.

I have said time and again, and I believe it to be so to the very essence of my being, the leaving certificate fails students every year. I want to make this very clear. There has been a creeping narrative in recent years, and I have particularly noticed it in recent months, that the leaving certificate examinations, the CAO system and the points race are pristine. We are told the leaving certificate is transparent and an upholder of equality and that students will be robbed of this system of equality if other methods of assessment are considered. I reject this completely.

Not to nitpick in any way, I refer to a contribution of the Minister from May 2020 prior to her becoming Minister for Education. The issue being discussed was what form of leaving certificate the first cohort of Covid students would have. She stated she profoundly regretted the plan B option of hosting the traditional leaving certificate did not come to pass. She stated that although it is flawed in a few respects, there is an essential fairness and equity at the core of the leaving certificate that is unmatched in any other type of exam. She stated it is independent and anonymous. This is the narrative we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves the leaving certificate rewards hard work and not privilege. This trickles down into individual narratives of success and failure and they become internalised. It is an everyday form of history being written by the victors. It is very important that those of us who have benefited from a traditional leaving certificate and those of us who have not hold up a mirror to ourselves to see why we value the system.

I often think of students who receive high points who never recognise the privileges that aided them in obtaining those results. These include the grinds they received, the fact they have parents who went to college and understand the system and the time and physical space they dedicate to doing well. I certainly do not begrudge anybody this. Likewise, there are students who face significant barriers, such as those whose parents left school early and never went to college, those who work part-time to try to help the household and those who do not have their own bedrooms or a quiet place to study. If these students fail to get the points they require they may think it is a personal failure and not a systemic failure. It is often easier to disguise privilege then to face oppression. The leaving certificate replicates privilege every year. Either the world opens up or it closes in for a student after the leaving certificate.

I believe the evidence year on year backs up that the leaving certificate is a postcode lottery. I will point to several Dublin postcodes. Dublin 6 is a wealthy part of the country. It has a 99% progression rate to university and college. In Dublin 17 the progression rate is 15%. I accept these figures are from 2014 but I guarantee the figure for Dublin 6 is exactly the same, with that for Dublin 17 increasing by a couple of percentage points, if even. Higher Education Authority data from 2017 found that students from affluent areas achieve an average of 446 leaving certificate points compared to an average of 368 leaving certificate points achieved by students in disadvantaged areas.

That is based on the Pobal HP deprivation index. It also showed that 72% of students from affluent areas achieved over 400 points and 29% achieved over 500 points. In comparison, 37% of students from disadvantaged areas achieved over 400 points and 9% achieved over 500 points.

I was very lucky in my own educational experience and in many ways my politicisation came when I was afforded the opportunity to enter the Trinity access programmes which exist to bring students from underrepresented areas into universities into colleges. One of the questions Dr. Cliona Hannon, the director of those programmes, asked me during the session was whether it was simply the case that we keep the very intelligent people in Dublin 6, where 99% of people get to go to college, and the non-intelligent people in the community I grew up in, Dublin 1, where a mere 21% of people go on to college. It is simply not the case that we do so.

The leaving certificate is flawed or else it purposely replicates privilege. That is borne out every single year. One only has to look at The Irish Times feeder school list to see which schools get the best places in college. This happens by design.

We also know that the leaving certificate causes an enormous amount of stress. In 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that Ireland reform the leaving certificate as the terminal exam was found to be imposing a disproportionate level of mental stress on young people. How did this committee find this out? It simply listened to the students and was compassionate in what it heard.

I also want to acknowledge that there is an alternative to the traditional leaving certificate that happens every year, which is the leaving certificate applied programme, which despite its benefits, including increased positive relationships between teachers and students and autonomy for students, is often ignored to the point that there is no pathway from the leaving certificate applied directly into our universities at the moment.

I had the privilege of teaching in those classes and I found students who were questioning, engaging and were very collaborative in their learning. It is not valued, despite the fact that they learn in a different way and it is no less important.

I have also heard a creeping narrative coming in that students who have not been afforded the opportunity to do the leaving certificate in the traditional form over the past year may be somehow less resilient because they did not have to take the hardship that is the almost “The Hunger Games”-like scenario of our leaving certificate. Let us be very clear. Every one of us who has been engaged by students over the past three years has encountered a cohort of students who are not only resilient but are holding themselves as accountable as Deputies and Ministers and in a way that I do not believe has happened previously. That has been a learning experience in and of its own, and one which we should not underestimate.

We are also told that not every student should go to college. The conversation then turns to stating that apprenticeships are equally valuable. I fully agree that is the case but it should not be the case that it is predominantly people from working-class areas who are expected to take up these apprenticeships. I fully believe that 99% of students in Dublin 6 going to college is too much. Perhaps we need more doctors from DEIS areas and more plumbers from more wealthy and affluent parts. If we are talking about more apprenticeships and saying that not everyone needs to go to college, let us also acknowledge that there are areas and communities where people have not had the same opportunities that people in other areas have had.

While I welcome the opportunity to speak on the leaving certificate today, and I fully support what this motion is trying to achieve, I also feel that it is important to look beyond it. I want to conclude by acknowledging that we need more than one type of educational model. Alternative forms of education are something that I raised with the Taoiseach earlier today. Very specifically, there is a report in the Minister’s Department on alternative education that started in 2018 and we need that work to be concluded and published because the leaving certificate is not the be-all and end-all.

I support the motion and thank Sinn Féin and Deputy Ó Laoghaire for bringing it forward. If the leaving certificate in its current form is proven to be unfit for purpose, I believe it will be unfit for purpose long into the future. It does not set up our students for progression on to university, does not develop them emotionally to deal with the stresses that come with being a young person and does not provide pathways into work. We place importance on it because, culturally, we have always placed importance on it. Many people in positions of power and influence have benefited from it and those who have not, simply, have not had a voice at the table in order to call it out for what it is.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is sharing with Deputy Barry.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire and Sinn Féin for introducing this motion on the leaving certificate. People Before Profit is happy to support it.

The very least we can insist upon in the particular situation of Covid-19 is that the voices of leaving certificate school students, as clearly expressed by them and their representative organisations, should be heard. They want a choice with a hybrid exam. They have been through enough and they need that clarity soon. They want the Minister to listen to their voice. We are happy to support that. As the Minister is aware, we wish to go further. We brought a motion to that effect to the Dáil last March, but the Government opposed it. I am going to repeat the argument a year on, as it is even more relevant now. We have tabled a short amendment which does not delete anything from the Sinn Féin motion but adds that we should have open access to higher and further education and apprenticeships, and that we should scrap the leaving certificate. We should get rid of it because it is a way of limiting access to higher and further education and it is irrational and unfair to do that. It forces people into a rat race for points which is extremely detrimental to the well-being of our young people. It is completely pointless. It is damaging and reinforces social inequality, is long past its sell-by date and should go. We are very clear about this.

School students who have led the way, by the way, on climate - we should bear that in mind - say that they want system change, not climate change but system change. System change is what we need in education and we need it now, not some time in the future with little bits here and there of tinkering around with the existing failed and unfair system. The unfairness of this has been magnified in the context of Covid-19 but it was always an unfair system.

Deputy Gannon has already referred to something that was in our motion last March. It is shocking that the Government can maintain that the leaving certificate is fair. It is ridiculous to say that unless one is not looking at the context of the leaving certificate. Some 99% of people from Ranelagh - I have nothing against the people of Ranelagh - go to university but 15% or 16% of people from working-class areas do so. Is that fair? It is grossly unfair and something has to be done about it. If one does not start by recognising that there is a problem, quite frankly one is defending the indefensible. I am delighted that the ASTI has now endorsed the view that open access is needed. We should listen to it, even though I do not agree with everything the teachers' unions have said on this issue, because it is absolutely right in saying that we need open access. That is about responding to the pandemic. We have gone on and on about where there is going to be a new normal. That is the expression. We are going to learn from Covid-19 but what we are actually trying to do is to drag ourselves back to the stuff before Covid-19 and to return to the status quo. We do not need that status quo when it comes to the leaving certificate; we need a revolution in education. We need the imagination to remember that once upon a time people thought it was fair and reasonable to limit access to second level education. We think that would be utterly preposterous now, but once upon a time that is the way it was looked at. Once upon a time significant numbers of people did not imagine that they would ever get past primary education. Now, equally, we think that is preposterous.

Why on earth would we ration and have a gatekeeping exercise for access to further and higher education? When we brought this motion forward last year, the Tánaiste said it was a nice idea but was totally impractical and asked where we would get the buildings. If one walks down Aungier Street, one will see a third level institution that has been sitting empty for the past two to three years. It is outrageous. If one goes along by the Merrion Gates, one can look at the Seamark Building in which a college could be fitted. It has been sitting empty for ten years. There are multiple buildings like that around the country. There is no problem with the physical infrastructure if we are serious about this.

The other comment I love is that everyone will want to be a doctor. This is the sort of nonsense that is wheeled out. We are defending a situation whereby in order to do the thing one would like to do, one has to be subjected to a regime of studying many things that one does not want to do, in order to get to the thing that one does want to do.

Is it even the thing the student wants to do, given it is just a hierarchy of points to get into particular courses? Surely it is a little more logical to let people do the thing they really want and are enthusiastic to do in third level. Would that not be imaginative? Imagine the type of creative potential that could be unleashed if people were given the opportunity to do the things they are really keen to do. I believe that might produce better graduates. It might contribute better to our society to unleash the creative potential of the many people whom the system at present deters or to whom it denies access to education and the things they want to do.

It is entirely practical. The gap between the number of higher education places and the number of applicants is about 25,000. That gap can be filled. There are many part-time academic staff who would love a full-time job but who are on crappy part-time contracts or are paid by the hour. We have the people who could do the teaching and, believe me, we have buildings in which we could put the students. We just need the imagination of the Government to take this leap, and now is the time to take it.

Last week, 500 school students in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Wexford and Roscommon held a joint protest to demand that there be no traditional leaving certificate examination this year. I understand students are discussing the possibility of protests on a bigger scale. I sincerely hope such protests will not prove necessary. However, if the Minister and the Government choose not to listen to students and decide instead to drive forward with the traditional leaving certificate examination, there is a real possibility of large student protests to bring the Government to its senses. The Taoiseach told the Dáil today that students will have certainty within a week. If the Government fails to meet this deadline, sizeable student protests will also be a possibility.

These students have lost massive amounts of classroom time due to Covid-19. This is not a normal year and there can be no normal leaving certificate examination. Last week, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, issued a public statement calling for plans for a traditional leaving certificate examination to be abandoned. This statement deserved more attention than it received. It is not acceptable for the Minister to go against the wishes of 68% of leaving certificate students and the wishes of the Ombudsman for Children when he is addressing an issue affecting 60,000 young people. I warmly welcome the decision of the ASTI's central executive council last Saturday to pass a resolution stating the ASTI formally proposes open access to third level education as the only fair and equitable alternative to the leaving certificate examination of 2022.

Our society is crying out for more nurses, teachers, doctors and apprentices. Rather than forcing school students to compete against each for limited college places, the State should be creating more such places. Rather than having to throw money at employment agencies to scour the world for workers, the State should be training them here at third level. The State should invest heavily in third level education and provide a college place for all who want one. I would love to see the Teachers' Union of Ireland adopting a pro-open access stance as well, and to see both teachers' unions join forces with the school students' union to fight for college places for all. The leaving certificate represents the past. A college place for all on the basis of open access represents the future.

The leaving certificate year of 2022 did not have a normal two-year preparation for the leaving certificate examination. As a result, it is not fair to ask the students to sit a normal leaving certificate examination. The leaving certificate examination is specifically designed to allow for two years of preparation for it, and this obviously did not happen. Many students have lost at least three months of their face-to-face teaching and many teachers have been absent for significant periods of time during the period when the schools were open as well. Teachers will tell us that much of their core content is delivered in fifth year. Traditionally, very little new content is done in sixth year in the period after Christmas. Truth be told, many classes around the country at present still have new content to deal with in the months ahead.

The last two years have been a very difficult period for students. However, it has been different for different students. Some students have had a far harder experience than others. The technology disadvantage students have in respect of broadband access hurt many students in particular parts of the country. Many students, thankfully, come from backgrounds or households with high educational motivation. Those students are very lucky. When they did not have a teacher in front of them to motivate them, guide them or put pressure on them to do the right thing with regard to keeping up with their studies, they had a parent at home who was able to fulfil that role. Many of these students will do well as a result. However, for the students who do not have a background of high educational motivation, the loss of the teacher in the face-to-face, in-person setting was significant. It is a loss that will not be made up in the intervening time. It is very important to recognise some students will be significantly disadvantaged in the traditional leaving certificate examination setting if we continue with that.

I heard the Government mention that the junior certificate examination has not been sat by about 20% of students. As a result, there is less concrete guidance for teachers in predicting grades for students. However, the truth is students can change dramatically in the period between being a junior certificate student and a leaving certificate student. Many boys, especially, do much of their maturing in the period after the junior certificate examination and have a completely different set of emotional skills, maturity levels and circumstances when doing the leaving certificate. Using the junior certificate to judge the examinations of an individual will not be the right way for many to decide upon a predictive grade. To be honest, it is important to take into consideration that we need to make a decision on a student's ability, attitudes and focus now. In what other walk of life would we make a life-changing decision for a person on the basis of something the person did three years ago?

There is no doubt there are problems. There is significant grade inflation happening within the current system. The number of students achieving six H1 grades in the leaving certificate examination increased almost fivefold between 2019 and 2021. That is an incredible level of grade inflation. Grade inflation does not help anybody. It may well be the case the leaving certificate grades of the past couple of years will be trusted less by future employers because of the grade inflation. It may devalue those results in the eyes of employers. We must ensure the grades in the coming year are not outliers historically in terms of previous years' grades. I have also heard people in the university system say they felt that, due to grade inflation and the lack of examinations and practicals, the intake of first year students was not as well prepared for university last year. That is a problem as well. The lack of practical examinations and serious examinations weakens a student's ability to deal with the challenges of university. In Aontú we believe all practical elements of the courses should be completed. Most courses have a practical element so we must ensure that happens.

Finally, I give credit to the Minister for making sure the education system started in January after Christmas. When a lot of the world was looking for schools to be put on vacation for another two weeks, the Minister kept the schools open from the start of January. Maith thú.

Everyone accepts we cannot have the traditional leaving certificate examination we had in 2019 and in previous years. However, it is also important students quickly get absolute clarity on the format of this year's leaving certificate examination. They acknowledge the provisions that have been made in the form of more choice in the examination papers.

They do not feel it is enough to reflect the additional challenges they face as a result of Covid-19, which they experienced throughout their senior cycle. It is important that this is reflected in an alternative leaving certificate presented to students.

I have received correspondence from St. Cuan's College in Castleblakeney, which points out that over the past two years there has been significant disruption from Covid-19. The students point out they have missed important in-class learning and are continuing to miss valuable class time due to contracting the virus, waiting for PCR tests and having to isolate themselves due to being close contacts. It is not just students but also the teachers who have missed out, which affects in-class interaction. In that particular school, which is a small, rural secondary school in east Galway, there were multiple positive cases last November and the school had to move to teaching the leaving certificate class online as a result. That is over and above some of the experiences in other schools.

Another student who wrote to me points out she is now rushing against the clock to complete projects and portfolios, as well as finishing coursework assigned for sitting this year's leaving certificate. That is as well as trying to prepare for the mock exams.

The Minister knows that last May I raised concerns about the class of 2022 with her on the floor of the House. I pointed out that approximately a fifth of the students had not sat a junior certificate exam and that this should be taken into account with the provisions to be put in place for an alternative leaving certificate this year. In November, I raised the matter again with the Taoiseach on the floor of the House, indicating that leaving certificate students contacted me at that time because they felt they were completely forgotten about by the Department of Education and the true impact of Covid-19 was not being recognised. That was last November, never mind the disruption we saw in December and January. At that point students were saying they were incredibly behind and stressed out as a result of the impact of Covid-19.

Students are now facing into oral, practical and mock exams so they need absolute clarity quickly on this. I accept that last week the Taoiseach indicated here that there may be challenges for the third year in a row if a predicted grades process has an impact on capacity within the third level system. That was reflected at the weekend when Mr. Jim Miley, director of the Irish Universities Association, again flagged issues with the hybrid system. None of us wants to see a position where students must get into college based on a system of random selection.

I accept there are challenges from grade inflation and a fivefold increase in the number of H1s since 2019 highlights problems with the existing system. There is a discrepancy in that if a student is sitting seven exams and is competing with another student sitting three exams and taking predicted grades in the other four subjects because the teacher has indicated the grade that will be achieved, it leaves that student at a distinct disadvantage. I accept we cannot have the leaving certificate we had last year. We need an alternative mechanism, however, and surely we can work with some imagination to provide a fair and balanced system for the students this year.

On behalf of the many students in Kerry who have my phone reddened, I ask that they be given a choice this year. In 2020, I asked the then Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, the very same question and he responded. I believe I was the first to ask that students be given a choice. The Covid-19 virus is not yet finished and teachers and pupils could miss more time. This set of students missed three months last year and they also missed time in the autumn because teachers and pupils were missing.

I ask the Minister to please give these students a choice this year because they have been through a tough time. We should remember that these students did not sit the junior certificate exam. They must be given a choice now to either use a predicted grades system or sit an exam because they have been through such a tough time. They need that chance so the Minister should please give that to them.

I am also pleading with the Minister and her departmental officials on this. I know she has had a tough time and a baptism of fire. I wish her well in the post and I support her. These students, however, had no junior certificate and no proper schooling for the previous two years. They have had an awful time because they could not have fun or enjoy themselves. This is so important and their future careers depend on this.

The predicted grades system operated last year and we beg the Minister to operate it again this year. Those pupils who get high marks must be examined to tidy this up but we need clarity now. The entire school community, from management to parent councils and teachers, needs to be supported and get a clear roadmap of where they are going. Above all, students, parents and families are pleading with the Minister to understand this. She is a múinteoir herself and should understand it. It is not an easy role and although it has never been easy, teachers have had a torrid time throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

We in the Rural Independent Groups are pleading with the Minister because we have been listening to mothers, fathers, guardians and students. We have received emails from sixth year students that are heart-rending but they are so eloquent and well put together. I have great hope for the future. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Please look after them.

We talk about going back to a normal leaving certificate exam this year but what is normal? We can look at the current cohort of leaving certificate pupils but for the past three years there has not been any kind of normal for them. Covid-19 affected three years of their education and now they are expected to go back to "normal". What is normal for them? They have never sat a State exam and they did not get to do their junior certificate exams because of Covid-19. They have been tutored on Zoom if they were lucky enough to have broadband and had the finances to purchase a laptop. If there were two or three children in the house, they may have had to share a laptop. What was going on in their homes? Was it a good learning environment in which to study? How can anybody talk about "normal"?

We also had absentees resulting from Covid-19 in both the student and teacher cohorts. There was a grave shortage of substitute teachers. How is that normal? This cohort of students have a right to a hybrid model because there has been nothing normal about their past three academic years.

I am the father of a leaving certificate student. I have seen first-hand what this means. He and his student colleagues even go to after-school services until 9 p.m. to try to catch up. He has never sat a State exam. These students are trying day and night to catch up and different teachers do not know what they have already learned. The Government argues that this is normal but it is not normal. The normal course of action would be to give these students the option of a hybrid approach or the choice of either a predicted grade or sitting the exam. It is the right thing to do. For my child, his friends and all the other students around the country, the Minister must be responsible and make this normal for them this year.

It is undeniable that the 2022 leaving certificate exam cohort have faced multiple years of disrupted education. This includes lost tuition time, adverse classroom environments and a burden on their mental health that cannot be accurately measured. The combination of these factors has undoubtedly affected the education and well-being of these students in ways we cannot fathom. Therefore, it may come as little surprise that the Irish leaving certificate students are calling for a change in direction and have pointed to a hybrid model as the new way forward.

The Minister for Education cannot ignore the collective voices of student representative bodies, including the ISSU, and she must act without delay to give all these students the clarity they deserve.

My office is inundated with emails from students, mostly looking for clarity. The education system cannot continue to be in wait-and-see mode. The calls for the delivery of a hybrid leaving certificate must be acted on by the Minister for Education and the Government. Where does the Government stand on this issue? Is the Minister seeking a return to the traditional exams? Will steps be taken to make further adjustments to the exams by having fewer questions, or by placing a greater weight on students' projects, and so on?

The Taoiseach said two weeks ago that the possibility of a hybrid leaving certificate had not yet been ruled out, and that a decision would be made soon by the Government. How long will the wait go on for students, teachers and parents? Many parents and students are not at all happy with the Government for the current situation. It is a wait-and-see game but it is not good enough. There must be action today, and no later than today.

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing this very important motion before the Dáil to allow us to discuss this matter. I thank very much the students in County Kerry. I thank their parents, their teachers, the students' unions and the teachers' unions who, through no fault of their own, have had to endure a horrendous two years.

Following on from the meeting last week, which was all about getting clarity for everybody, I ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, to try to deal with this as a matter of urgency. Our students have had a horrendous time. They have been very disadvantaged during the whole Covid situation, again which was no fault or making of theirs. We are trying to give them an assurance that we will put in place a system that is most beneficial to them, and which would give them the greatest advantage of being the best that they can be, despite the upset in the tutorial programme and despite everything that has happened. These are our young people and we want them to have the best in life that they can have. We want them to achieve the best result they can get. The Minister comes from County Kerry and I know that she has nothing in her heart and soul only to take care of the students, but I ask that the Minister would come out please to clarify it and give us the clarity that we need. The teachers, the parents of the students and students themselves need clarity. They are the most important people of all. Any one of us here tonight does not matter. It is for the students. Their results mean so much to them. We want them to do the best that they can be for themselves.

As others have, I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Foley, to ensure that a flexible approach is adopted for our leaving certificate students who will have been so disadvantaged and disrupted over three years. An approach that involves ongoing assessment, accredited grades and a written exam has a role to play in this process. We must listen to the student voice. We have all received correspondence from the ISSU, which tells us quite clearly, on the basis of a report it carried out, that the student voice is very clear and it is obvious that the students want a hybrid model. The report refers to the stress, anxiety, uncertainty and fear of students. We are hearing the voices of students themselves and we certainly must act on what they are telling us. As a former teacher who worked with disadvantaged pupils quite a bit, I feel that the fairest way forward, to ensure no student is disadvantaged, is to make sure a flexible model is put in place for leaving certificate students. We must bear in mind they will have had three years of disruption. I have received direct reports from students who have told me that they are cold in classrooms in prefabs. This is also having a bearing on their concentration levels and everything else. I feel that we must be fair with them. As the Irish saying goes, "mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí". Listening to the student voice is paramount in this whole debate. I am aware that the Minister is doing her best with this difficult situation but I call on her and appeal to her to do her best and take on board the students' voices. The majority of students, 85%, are telling us in the report carried out by the ISSU that they want a hybrid model.

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion, which allows us to discuss and debate an extremely important issue, which is the format of the 2022 leaving certificate examination. As a former maths teacher at Mercy College Sligo, and as somebody who corrected State exams for more than 15 years, I am not an expert but I do have some insight. We are having this debate for very valid reasons, because of the very significant disruption for all leaving certificate students over the past two years. Some students suffered more than others, and for different reasons such as access to the Internet; the ability of 15- and 16-year-olds to manage self-learning and discipline their study; their space at home; their levels of maturity; and the fact that many of the students and teachers caught Covid or were close contacts who had to isolate for significant periods of school time. There is no uniformity here. One student might have had less disruption, while another would have had very significant disruption to their education and learning. Some students had to limit their time at school because of their underlying conditions, while others might have been living with vulnerable people. Some students might have had to take on certain extra responsibilities in the home that were Covid related. The students may have suffered long Covid. There is a very long list of valid reasons for students seeking a hybrid leaving certificate.

I listened carefully to what the Minister, Deputy Foley, said, and I am happy to accept that the Government significantly supported schools. I fully agree with the Minister's assertion that teachers, principals and boards of management put the education and well-being of their students first, and ensured that the system kept working despite very significant challenges and some very scary days. I listened to what the Minister said, and while I appreciate that various adjustments are being made to the leaving certificate exam for 2022, I am gravely concerned that they will not be enough, and that the adjustments the Minister referred to will, unfortunately, not be sufficient to take account of the different experiences of Covid disruption that different students had. For example, the Minister referred to greater choice. That is not enough. It could easily happen, and will happen for a percentage of students, that they must answer three out of six questions. They may have only covered three of the questions. This gives them no choice. Other students might be lucky enough to have covered five out of the six, which gives them a real choice. The Minister and I both know that this can happen by chance. It can happen that a student was absent in a particular week. It can happen because some parents can afford grinds to cover the gaps in the course. It can happen because some students are capable of self-learning. If it happens, and it will happen again and again, then some students will be disadvantaged and, despite the Minister's very best efforts, they will lose out.

The Minister also spoke about the rearranging the exam timetables, and holding oral exams during holiday time and out of school time. Many students use their Easter break for revision, to catch up, or indeed for a short break. All of that time will be eaten into and students will find their backs against the wall if they must sit oral exams then. In many ways, I believe that holding oral exams out of school time is a retrograde step because it puts students under further pressure, and this is the last thing that I want or that the Minister wants.

The Minister also said that she would increase the supply of teachers and substitutes, and she has. This is good, but we all know that this is a stopgap and that, in general, retaining one's own teacher is what makes the difference.

There will be time for a debate on the future of the leaving certificate when we have evaluated the current system and properly assessed the alternatives. We need to do that and we need to do it quickly but tonight we have an immediate and pressing issue to deal with. As a former teacher, as someone who loved who her job, and as someone who corrected exams, I strongly support maintaining the integrity of the exam system we are operating. We could change the system but while we are using it we must maintain its integrity.

Do not forget a traditional leaving certificate examination has its limitations. It is not always about the grades students receive on their exam papers, because they are often readjusted to conform with results in previous years. We know that the bell curve reigns supreme when it comes to the allocation of grades.

I will not be prescriptive about the type of hybrid leaving certificate we have. While not perfect, it will give greater certainty and clarity to students, and help our students and teachers to do what the Taoiseach asked all of us to do, that is, live with Covid.

I kept an open mind on this because I am no expert. I listened to the students and academics from third level institutions. The more I listened to them, the more I came down on the side of the students. I thank Sinn Féin for bringing this motion forward because it is important that we hear some of the opinions we are hearing.

Tomorrow we will have statements on mental health among the youth. That is significant. Mental Health Reform represents 76 organisations. It has taken the trouble to write to all of us ahead of tomorrow's debate to point out the impact on many areas of society affected by mental health. It has provided about ten bullet points, one of which is the detrimental impact of Covid on the lives of children in Ireland. I do not need to tell the Minister that; she is more than aware of it. It is interesting that we will have that debate tomorrow and we are considering this motion today.

Sinn Féin has been very reasonable. It is a moderate motion. After noting and recognising certain matters, it simply calls on the Minister to place the voice of students at the centre of the debate on the leaving certificate. That is not an unreasonable call by Sinn Féin, and I have no hesitation in supporting the motion in order to secure a choice for leaving certificate students in 2022 between calculated grades and written examinations, and for the Minister to take decisive action. Decisive action is very important, given what young people are facing.

All of the facts have been set out. I will not go through all of them again, but some of them jump out. Some 36,159 students have contracted Covid since schools opened in 2020 and an incalculable number of students have been identified as close contacts. I thank students and the ISSU for their approach. We are always talking about science and basing things on evidence. The ISSU went to the trouble of doing research and finding out people's opinions. Not alone that, it did so under pressure and set out the information for us in a very clear way. The returns on that piece of research are staggering. It showed that 67.81% of senior cycle students preferred a hybrid model.

Students are not just dealing with the stress of the leaving certificate, which every speaker has said. None of us would like to go back and do the leaving certificate, which tells a tale in itself. Outside of Covid, we need a proper debate on the best way to assess students instead of an examination that causes such stress. Students have pointed out that the stress of the leaving certificate while going through a global pandemic has impacted on education, in terms of the toll on their mental health. Students noted the negative impact on their mental health and so on.

The report from the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science released in January 2021 refers to the impact of Covid-19 on primary and secondary education and made a number of recommendations. It set out some facts, such as trauma and mood disorders like depression being identified as significant factors leading to early school leaving. Ireland does not provide in-school emotional counselling, therapeutic supports and so on. The report highlighted the deficiencies in the system.

I listened to some third level commentators justify not having a hybrid system this year by stating that certain students would get a mark that they do not deserve and brighter students who should have received higher marks would be disadvantaged. I thought that was a very weak argument and totally ignored how unbalanced and unequal the leaving certificate is in terms of those who can get private tuition, grinds and so on for their children What about that imbalance? Perhaps those students are not able for third level courses without all of the extra backup they have. That was not taken into account by the academics who spoke. Having kept an open mind, at this point I am coming down in favour of the students. I thank Sinn Féin.

On behalf of the Government, I welcome the opportunity to close what has been a very insightful and informative debate on this very important matter. The many contributions made during the debate will feed into the Department's continuing engagement with members of the advisory group on State examinations in planning for these examinations this year. It is important to hear and understand all voices and perspectives in determining the most appropriate approach for the examinations, and an approach that is fair and equitable.

I agree with the view expressed by a number of Deputies that it is important to provide clarity on the position for students as soon as possible in order to enable them to focus on their preparations. I would also like to echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the Minister, Deputy Foley, who applauded the ongoing work of all of those working in schools to support their students during what have been and continue to be very difficult circumstances. I would also like to acknowledge the valuable role played by parents, guardians and families in continuing to support students in preparing for State examinations. I have a son doing the leaving certificate this year and, like all parents, I want to support him as much as I can.

The Minister outlined the various adjustments and arrangements that have been announced since August 2021 regarding State examinations in 2022, in light of the ongoing impact of Covid on the learning experience of students preparing for exams. These arrangements were announced following engagement with the advisory group on planning for State examinations.

More broadly, I particularly welcome the range of other measures put in place to enhance teaching and learning in our schools, including those measures announced to address the greater impacts on the education of some students and the learning loss suffered by them. These include the opportunity provided to primary and post-primary schools to offer summer provision at a cost of €40 million, in addition to the €10 million allocated to a supplementary education programme aimed at students with special educational needs.

I also welcome the provision of up to €52 million in extra teaching hours made by the Department for the Covid-19 learning and support scheme, CLASS. Under the scheme, a block of additional teaching hours is provided to each recognised school from which schools can provide additional teaching support for the pupils and students who have expressed difficulties in settling back into school and engaging with learning.

Students at post-primary level who have additional needs may have special arrangements made for them while sitting State examinations such as the leaving and junior certificate. Candidates with disabilities such as, for example, visual impairments, learning difficulties, motor and mobility impairments and so on can apply, through their schools, for the scheme of reasonable accommodation at certificate examinations, RACE. The purpose of that scheme is to allow candidates who have special educational needs that interfere with their capacity to engage with the standard examination arrangements to demonstrate what they know and can do without compromising the integrity of the assessment. Each school also has the authority to make special provisions for students with special needs during State examinations on the basis of what is best for them and in consultation with the students' families. The supports that have been made available to assist students in managing well-being, coping with uncertainty and managing stress and anxiety developed by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in the Department are also very welcome.

The Minister outlined the considered adjustments and amendments made to date regarding State examinations in 2022. She stated that she, the Government, her Department, the State Examinations Commission and the advisory group on planning for State examinations are working to bring clarity for all students as soon as possible regarding the leaving certificate in 2022.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State for staying for the entirety of the debate. I commend Deputy Ó Laoghaire on bringing the motion to the House and on being a voice for leaving certificate students in the House and beyond over the past number of weeks. One of the key qualities attributed to the leaving certificate by its advocates is the fact that it is a great leveller and there is equity at its heart. Of course, that is not entirely true.

Money plays too much of a role in determining how well some people do in the leaving certificate. Notwithstanding that, there is some merit in having everybody sit the same exam in an anonymous fashion on the same day. However, this year we cannot say with any real authority that there has been equity.

The lockdowns have affected different people differently. Different schools were under restrictions at different times. Different people had different availability to broadband and other resources. Different people had very different home lives for those periods when they could not be at school. In other words, there have been too many different lived realities for us, as a House, not to reflect those different realities in the decisions that are made. Tonight, Sinn Féin is effectively asking the Oireachtas to place the voice of students at the heart of the debate on the future of the leaving certificate this year, to secure a choice for leaving certificate students between calculated grades and written examinations, and particularly to ensure that decisive and urgent action is taken to bring clarity to these matters.

On the other hand, the Minister's amendment before us is essentially saying that this House should not have a voice or an opinion at all and we should just leave it to the Minister to make a decision at some undefined point in the future. That is not good enough. If the House were to support the Minister's amendment, we would be doing a disservice to all those students from across the country who have contacted us pleading for us to recognise that this is not a year like any other. Of course, we need to have a wider debate on the future of the leaving certificate, but right now we need the Minister to provide the certainty and clarity our students have been crying out for. I am asking her to make that call tonight.

There is an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu in this debate. We had these conversations last year and those conversations have taken place repeatedly across households the length and breadth of the country. When we finally got to the hybrid model last year, those who campaigned for it and those who at times pleaded for it were glad that it was put in place. I ask the Minister to do the same again this year. We are now in early 2022 and we are weeks away from mock exams. However, we are still stuck in a similar vortex of confusion and a lack of clarity, as much in this House as those students, teachers, parents and other interested parties outside this House are. There have been several opportunities to reassure and to provide that clarity, but the Government has failed to do so. It is imperative that it is provided as soon as possible.

Earlier the Minister said, " A further meeting of the advisory group will be held and I am working towards a decision on the State examinations in 2022 being made as soon as is reasonably practicable." She does not say when, which is simply not good enough. This decision needs to be made as a matter of urgency. As one student put it to me today, the Minister needs to stop trying to convince them that black is white. We know the senior cycle is a two-year cycle and most pupils have been negatively impacted by Covid. That may have been students, themselves, being unwell or being a close contact and having to restrict their movements and unable to go to school. That was after schools had actually reopened. A considerable amount of in-person teaching time has been missed. It is critical that the Government listens to our students and their representative body which held a poll showing that two out of three of students want a hybrid model again this year. The precedent has been set. The structures are there, but we are hearing excuses. Our leaving certificate students deserve so much better than that.

I agree with the Minister in applauding the extraordinary work of so many school staff, particularly in the challenging period since Christmas. I do not agree with her on the amendment. As Deputy Carthy outlined, it effectively commits this House to nothing at all. Therefore, we will be pressing our motion.

I am not sure if the people who do not have a child in school or are not in regular contact with schools understand the level of disruption that has been caused. Since they came back, almost half of students missed one to three classes on average a day with 9% missing four to five classes a day. Nobody is to blame for teacher absences but it is the reality we are dealing with. Of those who missed a class because of teacher absences, 54% of students only had substitutes for some classes and 17.5% had no substitute cover for any of those classes that they missed. I will give the example of one student and this is far from an isolated incident. One student who spoke to me said that on their third day back to school, of the seven scheduled classes, they had only two classes and there was no cover for the other five classes, just supervision. That is the scale of disruption we are dealing with and shows how hard it is to cover the course.

There is no doubt that there is a challenge with grade inflation. However, if the hybrid model is not put in place, this year's students will be competing with last year's students who deferred. If the points are significantly lower, they will have quite a challenging set of circumstances. We need to look to next year and support them. We need to work on a longer-term strategy on that when we go for the hybrid model if, as I hope, we do this year. We undoubtedly need to plan for that. We create a challenging set of circumstances for this year's students if we do not adopt the hybrid model.

Regarding standardisation, as the Minister will be aware from what we said two years ago, we do not agree with the use of historical school data. Many options are available. Obviously, it needs to be done in consultation with stakeholders to produce a form of standardisation which we all accept is necessary. That could be using averages of a class group, a cohort as a whole or by using additional samples such as in the assessment tool that was used in the North. There are options that can be used to achieve standardisation. We should not be basing it on school historical data, which we know disadvantages pupils in schools which previously had lower results, very often in working-class areas or areas of high disadvantage.

It is important not to forget about the junior certificate students. They are also struggling with uncertainty. It is important that we ease the pressure and stress on them by offering them additional choice within exam papers.

What is needed is obvious. First, we need a decision. It has become very difficult for leaving certificate students to know what they are preparing for. What are they working towards? What will the coming momentous months look like for them? We need a decision as soon as possible. I have become even more certain as I listened to the contributions from various Deputies across the House. It is apparent that the circumstances in which these leaving certificate students are undertaking the senior cycle means that there is a clear requirement for a hybrid model.

It is worth recognising that students are not a bit flippant about this. Last year, some people were calling for the cancellation of the exams. It was necessary the previous year but it was not necessary last year. I did not support that call and students did not support that call because many of them wanted to sit the exam. They wanted the opportunity to test themselves. In every subject, a majority sat the exams. It was up to 70% in the English paper. Students want that opportunity, but they need the fail-safe because while there are some subjects they have fully covered and want to sit the exam, they know they are way behind in other subjects and they are just not able to cover the course. As different teachers cover the course in different ways, additional choice on papers will not quite cut it. The circumstances of each school and each student will be different in that regard.

We know this can be done. It was delivered last year. People last year said it was unrealistic. However, it was realistic. It was delivered. It happened. Credit is due to the Minister, the Department and most of all the teachers, staff and students for that. There is no reason it cannot be done this year and the only question is whether it is warranted. I believe that question is clearly answered. It is absolutely warranted. I urge the Minister to take the same approach and give the students the choice. She should give the students that clarity, put this issue to rest and provide them with reassurance.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 26 January 2022.

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