Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Eileen Flynn and Senator Fiona O'Loughlin, who is being substituted by Senator Malcolm Byrne.

I remind members to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment of the House even when on silent mode.

The minutes of the meeting of 28 September 2021 have been circulated among members. Are the minutes agreed to? Agreed.

I ask people to remain on mute until I call on them to speak.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Eamon Dennehy, president, the Association of Secondary School Teachers Ireland, ASTI; Mr. Frank Jones, general secretary, the Irish Federation of University Teachers, and representing the education sector group of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair, assistant general secretary, Irish National Teachers Organisation; Ms Emer Neville, uachtarán, Irish Second Level Students Union; Mr. Michael Gillespie, general secretary, the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI; and Ms Clare Austick, president, the Union of Students in Ireland.

The witnesses are here for a round-table discussion on the leaving certificate reform, with reference to the assessment options, key subject areas and digital learning, access, equality and well-being supports, and the Irish language and Irish-medium education. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Dennehy to make an opening statement, followed by Mr. Jones, Ms Ní Chéileachair, Ms Neville, Mr. Gillespie and, finally, Ms Austick. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has an eight-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond, and I will be strict on the eight minutes as we have normally had six-minute slots. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish their opening statements on its website following this meeting.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. The witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside the parliamentary precincts and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. They have already been advised of this matter. They are reminded also of the long-standing parliamentary practice that witnesses should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. If they do so and their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, I will direct them to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction from the Chair.

I now call on Mr. Dennehy to make his opening statement, followed by the other witnesses, as I outlined a few minutes ago. I will not call on each individual witness. I will let them follow on one from the other. Mr. Dennehy has four minutes. Is Mr. Dennehy there? Mr. Dennehy is not there. Mr. Frank Jones, can you hear me? Ms Ní Chéileachair, can you hear me? None of the witnesses can hear me. We will suspend the sitting.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.38 a.m.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Eamon Dennehy, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI; Mr. Frank Jones, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, and member of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, education sector group; Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair, assistant general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO; Ms Emer Neville, uachtarán of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU; Mr. Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI; and Ms Clare Austick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. I will ask each of the witnesses to make their opening statements and they will have four minutes to do so. I will then call members of the committee, who will have eight minutes for their questions and responses. I will be strict on the time limits.

I invite Mr. Dennehy to make his opening statement.

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I will first consider some of the systemic issues that negatively impact on the curriculum reform projects. The first such issue is investment in education. The OECD Education at a Glace 2020 report once again ranked Ireland at the bottom of 36 countries in investment in second-level education as a percentage of GDP.

This leads to poorly resourced and overcrowded schools that are unsuitable and hinder the delivery of a broad and flexible curriculum.

The second point relates to teacher supply. A key issue is the high costs of initial teacher training. Currently, the two-year postgraduate masters in education programme costs between €11,000 and €14,000. The high costs of initial teacher education constitute one of the reasons for a lack of diversity in the teaching profession. The third point involves the attractiveness of teaching as a profession. Unequal pay is having a corrosive impact on the profession. Negative media commentary and ill-founded expectations of the work of teachers and schools damage morale.

There are four areas the committee wants us to examine. Regarding assessment options, the NCCA’s review of senior cycle has identified three major problems. They are the timing of the assessment, the range of assessment types and the balance of marks awarded to written and practical components. What is not identified as problematic is the externally assessed nature of the examination. The strengths of the leaving certificate include a high level of public trust, its capacity to serve as a valid and objective statement of students' academic achievement and its fairness, impartiality and transparency. The core problem is the fact that the leaving certificate examination is the sole pathway for school leavers to higher education.

The second point involves key subject areas and digital learning. The shift to remote teaching during the past 20 months has demonstrated both the potential and limitations of digital learning. Digital literacy is more than knowing how to use digital technology for learning. It encompasses social and cultural skills, critical thinking and understanding bias to enable young people to participate fully and ethically in a digitalised social world. The key challenges are ensuring equal access to broadband and digital devices, teacher professional learning, whole-school policies and dedicated leadership posts.

The third point involves access, equality and well-being supports. The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 ensures equal access but does not address the ongoing problems in the capacity of schools. The NCSE and the Department must engage with schools to ensure schools have an adequate teaching and SNA allocation and suitable accommodation and specialist facilities. The well-being policy statement and framework for practice is largely aspirational, as it is not supported by counselling and psychological services. Students with emotional and behavioural disorders represent the majority of students with special educational needs.

The fourth point concerns Irish language and Irish medium education. The hugely positive impact of the Gaeltacht experience on attitudes to the language should be harnessed. Grants must be made available to educationally disadvantaged students to attend Gaeltacht summer courses. Student teachers should also receive grants to meet the cost of their mandatory Gaeltacht placement. Serving teachers should be assisted to attend Gaeltacht courses to upskill. Is í aidhm Polasaí don Oideachas Gaeltachta 2017–2022 ná tacú le pobal Gaeltachta in úsáid na Gaeilge mar theanga chumarsáide. Tá an polasaí agus an plean sin ag obair go maith sna háiteanna seo go dtí seo. Tugann an ASTI lán-tacaíocht do na scéimeanna agus tá fonn orainn go scaipfear an tosú seo sa Ghaeltacht chomh maith.

Mar fhocal scoir ansin, to conclude, achieving educational change that is deep and lasting takes time. Teachers will engage with change when they are convinced of its necessity and rationale and when they believe it will enhance students' learning and achievement. Insufficient attention is paid to systemic issues impacting on teaching and learning. Underinvestment impacts on teachers' working conditions and workload.

I invite Mr. Jones to make his opening statement.

Mr. Frank Jones

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to address them and contribute to the wider debate on the leaving certificate. This is fundamental to the health and efficacy of our education system.

This is fundamental to the health and efficacy of our education system. In that respect, proposed changes or reform of the leaving certificate have implications across all levels and for all who work in that system. I am here today as a member and a representative of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions education sector group, which comprises a number of affiliate unions with membership across primary, second and third level, further education and lifelong learning, some of which are represented today.

The congress education sector group is focused on working to ensure the education system as a whole is suitably purposed, structured and resourced to deliver high-quality learning for students at all levels and high-quality standards of employment for all staff, and to play a key role in the achievement of greater equality, opportunity and social progress. My own union, the Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, represents staff across the university sector, and that perspective informs my views on the matter. However, IFUT has not made a submission to the committee in its own right on this occasion.

It is clear that what happens at higher level and the level of the leaving certificate is of direct import to those who work in that area. In addition, I stress that the congress education sector group obviously shares the concerns voiced by our colleague unions here today, including what has been expressed by the student unions today. From that perspective, there are some observations we can contribute to the debate on the matter.

An essential starting point for any such process is that we have or develop an agreed vision on the values and ethos that should underpin our education system and, by extension, on the role, purpose and core function of the leaving certificate within the context of the wider education system. Any proposed changes should occur only with full consultation and dialogue and such changes should be clearly evidence-based. A fundamental prerequisite of any review or process of change must be that the systematic underfunding in the education sector as a whole be finally addressed, as evidenced repeatedly by the OECD and as referred to by my ASTI colleague.

We acknowledge that, relative to a range of alternatives, the current leaving certificate system has an inherent fairness and the model of external assessment has helped establish a strong degree of public trust. I stress that any mooted changes to assessment structures must not simply result in extra pressure and stress being placed on students and staff alike. It is also clear the leaving certificate must be sufficiently robust and responsive to reflect changes in wider society and to cater to the evolving learning needs of students. In this respect, we must aim to ensure the development of critical thinking, and this can only evolve where there is sufficient subject knowledge. As such, the leaving certificate must be capable of ensuring the full range of a student's learning can be substantiated and validated. Finally and crucially, we must also work to ensure all educational pathways are equally regarded and esteemed.

Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoiste as ucht na deise teacht ina láthair inniu agus labhairt ar son Chumann Múinteoirí Éireann. The INTO is the oldest and largest teachers' trade union in Ireland and represents almost 50,000 teachers at both primary and post-primary level across 32 counties. Today we wish to address access, equality and well-being supports, particularly those relating to the education of pupils in special schools. We will also comment briefly on the Irish language and Irish medium education.

There are in excess of 3,300 primary schools on the Department of Education database and, of these, 133 are special schools. Special schools have been designated traditionally as primary schools by the Department, and the INTO represents most teachers teaching in these special schools. Many special schools enrol pupils from age four up to the age of 18, teach both the primary and post-primary curricula, and provide access to State examinations at both junior and senior cycle for their pupils where appropriate and possible.

In making this submission, the INTO is calling for continuity of curriculum experience in as far as is possible for all pupils as they navigate their way through our school system. We support the holistic development of the child, as is evidenced in the current and upcoming primary school curriculum and as promoted at junior cycle in post-primary schools. The approaches to curriculum, assessment and pedagogy in the early years, primary level and at junior cycle level reflect the societal aim of facilitating every child to reach his or her full potential.

We also recognise national and international trends towards the development of skills and competencies rather than more traditional content-based curricula.

It is widely acknowledged that a skills and competencies based curriculum would better prepare the pupil of today for living, working and engaging with the social and employment opportunities of tomorrow.

We recognise that all pupils with special educational needs should be enabled to access education in settings appropriate to their needs. The INTO acknowledges the support provided by National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in developing the well-being supports that are available on the Department's website. However, it is also important that students should have access to therapeutic, socio-emotional and counselling support in the school setting. These supports are required from early years right up to senior cycle.

We also hold the position that all pupils, including those with special educational needs, should be entitled to access national certification for their educational achievements. We commend the development by the NCCA of level 1, L1, and level 2, L2, learning programmes at junior cycle level. As part of the process of senior cycle and leaving certificate reform, we are calling for the development of age-appropriate curricula and learning programmes at senior cycle level that would allow the pupils catered for by L1 and L2 learning programmes at junior cycle to access certification to acknowledge their educational achievements. Therefore, additional courses at level 1 and level 2 will be required.

We acknowledge that this will require a wider variety of assessment methodologies, which are more compatible with the needs and abilities of this cohort of pupils than the current terminal examination which can exclude many students with special needs attending special schools or classes in our education system. This certification should take account of the fact that not all students may wish to access third level education and will take different paths into the post-school world of work and other activities.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focail a rá faoi nGaeilge agus an teanga. We are aware that the question of the Irish language at leaving certificate and Irish medium education is topical and complex. We believe that in an inclusive education system, Irish at senior cycle should be inclusive of the diversity of needs, including those with special needs, those whose mother tongue is Irish and those receiving education trí mheán na Gaeilge. These students require access to assessment and certification which reflects their needs and abilities. We recommend that pupils of all abilities and levels of competence should be entitled to the development of their mother tongue, whichever language this may be. We believe that this reflects the Government's policies on languages - Languages Connect: Ireland's Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017-2026. Mar fhocail scoir: any reform of the senior cycle must reflect the diversity of pupils, their needs, abilities and learning styles. The singular focus of senior cycle must not be access to third level education only, but must focus on a variety of pathways to lifelong learning.

Ms Emer Neville

As the national representative body for the second level students of Ireland, one of the core elements of our work is ensuring that students remain as core stakeholders in the decisions that affect them. We strive to represent, uplift and defend the student voice. When given the opportunity to present on an issue, we are always willing to work to find the solution. It is in this spirit that I present before the committee today.

The leaving certificate is a national affair. The examination makes front page news on an annual basis. All major national media outlets cover stories about the top achievers, emerging trends, the numbers of students seeking university admission. However, it should not be so controversial. The leaving certificate should merely be a mechanism for recognising students' learning outcomes in a fair manner at the end of second level education. So, one could ask why it attracts so much attention. No matter who you speak to about the leaving certificate examination, there is an almost perfect consensus that the system is in need of reform and that it has been for quite some time. The leaving certificate is almost a century old, yet those who sat the first examination would struggle to see a difference today. Some 51.6% of senior cycle students felt the leaving certificate did not accurately reflect their work over fifth and sixth year as per the ISSU's senior cycle report. We at the ISSU believe that the voices and experiences of students must be at the heart of the reform. After two years of not carrying out the traditional leaving certificate examination, students' voices are clear - change is needed now.

This morning, I would like to make three submissions to the committee from the perspective of the second level students of Ireland. The first is that assessment methods need to change in order to accommodate more diverse skills of students, and with an aim to alleviate the stress that is created by a high-pressure examination schedule at the end of two years of education.

We need to space out exams and even have separate examination periods in order to reduce undue pressure on students’ health and well-being. We need to promote more diverse examination and assessment methods, other than terminal exams which test fact regurgitation and the ability to write under time pressure. Additionally on this point, we note the current structure of senior cycle examinations particularly favours students with access to private tutoring services over students who do not. We need to implement assessments throughout the leaving certificate cycle that capture and reward students’ diverse learning abilities, and not just their memory.

Second, access routes to higher education must be addressed in an holistic way alongside discussion of examination reform and more investment to promote equality. The ISSU notes that Ireland ranks 38th out of the 38 OECD member countries on educational spending. We need to overhaul the points system, alongside an overhaul of the assessment methods, to allow students to gain points through a variety of assessment opportunities. We need to allow students to gain points and other forms of recognition through extracurricular achievements when applying to further and higher education programmes. We need to greatly increase the number of university admission places through access routes and normalise post-leaving certificate courses, apprenticeship programmes and other forms of further and higher education.

On the subject of an Ghaeilge agus oideachas trí Ghaeilge, further curricular reform is necessary in order to increase emphasis on oral Irish. The ISSU believes curricular reform that promotes the use of Irish as a living language would be beneficial and welcomed by students. From our consultations, students have expressed a strong preference for oral Irish, and learning to use the language in daily life, rather than an over-emphasis on poetry and more complex literature. Additionally, students noted that where young people exemplify a strong interest in Irish or, specifically, for students attending Gaelcholáistí, novels, prose and poetry studies, these should be offered as optional additional subjects. However, daily use and ability to speak Irish with confidence should remain at the forefront of learning outcomes for senior cycle Irish education.

In conclusion, based on feedback, consultations and a recent leaving certificate reform report carried out by the ISSU, it is clear to us that students do not want a return to a traditional leaving certificate. We can no longer continue to put plasters on a completely broken system. The solution is clear and it lies in the complete overhaul of the leaving certificate.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, TUI, has engaged extensively in the senior cycle review process with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the State Examinations Commission, the OECD and our members - all 20,000 of them. The review of senior cycle is an opportunity for the political system to respond positively to the TUI’s call for an adequately funded and high-quality public education system that caters for the needs of a very diverse student body.

The TUI’s position is clear and unambiguous: State certification enjoys public trust. TUI members are fundamentally opposed to assessing their own students for State certification. External assessment by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, must be retained. Changes to assessment models must be based on sound educational principles rather than the unreliable weathervane of populist commentary. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis TUI members have been engaging with emergency assessment processes on a strictly without-precedent basis so that final year students could progress to the next stage of their lives.

Continuous assessment, CA, is sought by some commentators. Our schools already use such assessment. Formative assessment, by its nature, is continuous and enhances teaching and learning. Moving to a CA model for State certification purposes, however, would be counterproductive. It would increase - not reduce - stress for students and teachers, inevitably lead to over-assessment, compromise objective standards and undermine public trust. Furthermore, it would fundamentally and negatively change the pupil-teacher relationship, possibly removing the emphasis on the supportive aspect of the relationship.

The excessive focus on CAO points is not a product of the leaving certificate. The CAO runs a separate process that allots places in higher education that is superimposed on the leaving certificate. The CAO points race is a reflection of a media obsession with progression to third level and with high-points courses. The points race leads to invalid and unfair comparisons. Changing leaving certificate assessment modes to tackle the CAO points race would be to base change on a misdiagnosis of the real problem.

Senior cycle subjects are continually evolving. Most already have additional components of assessment, involving project, oral and practical work, that is set, administered and examined by the SEC. The TUI has called for continuous assessment every year, thereby reducing the pressure in sixth year.

Every subject and programme has intrinsic value. Senior cycle should continue to be broad based as this best prepares learners for life and active citizenship and best anticipates an ever-changing society where complex challenges, global and personal, abound.

From time to time, certain disciplines may be considered especially important, by governments or employers. However such perceived hierarchies are often transient in nature. Reform of the senior cycle must be inclusive and must cater for all students and their varied talents. Therefore, the ring-fencing of leaving certificate applied, LCA, must be removed so that students can undertake a mix of subjects that would enable them to move directly into apprenticeships. Equally, the vocational subject groupings associated with the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, need to be amended or abolished.

Given the relentless developments in technology, ongoing review of the Government’s strategy is critical to facilitating the appropriate integration of new technologies as supports for teaching and learning for 21st century competencies. Significant investment is urgently needed.

Schools rely on support agencies, especially when working with students experiencing crisis. However, schools often find it difficult to access support because those agencies are under pressure. Most schools make every effort to create an inclusive environment for all learners, regardless of their backgrounds or aptitudes. Targeted investment, especially more teachers to reduce class sizes, would greatly assist this effort. The depletion of middle management posts since 2009 has resulted in a damaging reduction in support for students. The extra teachers provided to schools during the Covid-19 crisis should be retained tin order o enable schools to provide subject and programme choice at appropriate levels and to ensure well-being.

Meaningful curricular provision must be made for students with special and additional educational needs who took L1 and L2 learning programmes for junior cycle and who wish to proceed to senior cycle education.

In the context of leaving certificate Irish, the TUI believes: that foundation level must be retained; that the oral and aural components should retain their existing proportion of marks; that the draft learning outcomes require significant development; and if a T1-T2 approach is to be introduced and especially if bonus points are contemplated, that every school must be assisted to provide T1 because, otherwise, a new layer of disadvantage will be created.

I thank members for listening to the views of the profession. In its full submission to the committee, the TUI has set out its position in regard to senior cycle reform more extensively and has included a set of recommendations for consideration.

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the Chairperson and members of the joint committee for this opportunity. My name is Clare Austick and I am president of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI.

It must be noted that USI’s core mission has always been to protect the access to education, ensure equal opportunities for all and remove any barriers that prevent the pursuing of a third level degree. Unfortunately, the leaving certificate in its current form has prevented far too many students from entering their preferred course due to the unjust points system which acts as an entry examination into college. The current assessment criteria are very restrictive and do not allow the student to excel and meaningfully demonstrate his or her knowledge on a particular topic. The leaving certificate is often based on a single written examination which essentially tests the student’s memory and ability to retain information on one particular day. This results in enormous pressure and stress placed on a student to perform. Many students fall ill, have personal circumstances arise, have family bereavements or bad days remembering course material. We all have good and bad days, yet the leaving certificate, which is such a significant milestone in a person’s life, does not take this into consideration.

Students should be supported to illustrate their knowledge through a mechanism which enhances and showcases their strengths in the subject matter at hand rather than confirming the student’s ability to retain and convey material learnt off by heart. Assessment options must be more flexible and supportive, and capable of accommodating the diverse skills of the student. This should in our view be around continuous assessment options, presentations, group work, practical work, class discussions, multiple choice questions and asking the student how they would like to display their knowledge.

An essential part of this discussion is around the multiplicity of methods of teaching in the modern classroom. The teaching and learning environment must adopt a universal design for learning approach to ensure every student can fully and meaningfully participate and engage in class.

Covid-19 has certainly brought many advantages in the area of digital learning and making education more accessible and flexible. The move to digital learning for accessibility purposes is welcomed but we must bridge the digital divide to ensure all students have equal opportunities and access to learning materials. Not every student has a laptop, a strong Wi-Fi connection or the technology and software needed to engage in an online hybrid model. We need State funding to support students from deprived backgrounds and low-income households to ensure that no one is put at a disadvantage.

Every person regardless of their age, personal circumstances, financial background and journey should be able to enter into third level education if it is their desire to do so. Alternative education pathways need to be supported and developed. Not every leaving certificate student wants to go to college. A post-leaving certificate, PLC, course, apprenticeship, entry into the workforce and taking a year out for self-development can each be equally valuable. However, the alternative options to third level education are often deprecated and seen as a lesser back-up plan for students who "fail" to earn the points necessary to secure a place on their chosen course.

Each person has different interests, skills and ambitions in their life. A hierarchy of approved pathways through lifelong learning benefits no one. Furthermore, investment into DEIS schools is crucially important. Outreach initiatives and programmes should be developed and encouraged to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds continue on their educational journey.

The mental health and well-being of students must always inform every important decision taken. The leaving certificate places undue stress and pressure on students and impacts on their mental health throughout the year. Awareness of this stress and anxiety on students needs to be included to support students throughout the leaving certificate process.

In conclusion I would like all present to take a moment to reflect on their experience with the leaving certificate examinations. Members should think about how many students have not been able to excel and reach their full potential under this flawed system. How many could not access their preferred course because they did not get the points, or how many did not even consider college in the first place? How many went into the exams fearful and thinking that possible failure was the end of a journey rather than the opening of a new chapter in their lives? I ask members to look to the future to think about how many more students will be left behind with the leaving certificate if it remains the same as it is now?

The people on this committee can change that. They can ensure that each learner can participate fully in their class, is freed to showcase their strengths and can take the decision to access third level education if they want to. This conversation today is the beginning and the opening of an opportunity to shape our educational landscape for years to come. I thank the committee.

I thank Ms Austick very much for that presentation which was the final presentation from our witnesses. I call the first member of our committee to contribute now, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and he has eight minutes, and will be followed by Deputy Alan Farrell.

I thank the Chairman very much. Like last week, Chairman, I can confirm that I am in Leinster House.

I thank all of our witnesses very much for their presentations which I found very interesting. I will make a number of points and perhaps our witnesses can respond to them.

On teacher training, we do not have a very diverse teaching profession. I do not know how many teachers we have from ethnic backgrounds, from disadvantaged areas, or from the Traveller community but teaching is one of these professions which is ground-breaking and life-changing. The role model of being a teacher in a classroom is particularly powerful. I am wondering, and I have spoken to many different agencies about this, including the Teaching Council, as to how we can facilitate a mechanism of getting more teachers from diverse backgrounds into the teaching profession. I suggest that we should be as imaginative as possible.

If one is a primary school teacher, the Irish language is a particular requirement and that is completely understandable and justifiable. It would probably make more sense, however, to have the ability to teach Irish as something that one would train for in training college rather than being the pre-eminent barrier or requirement in order to become a primary school teacher. If one is not Irish or comes from an area that does not provide higher-level Irish in one's secondary school, that is an issue and it is therefore a barrier. I spent some time as a substitute teacher in a particular second level school in a disadvantaged area and higher-level Irish was not offered.

How can those children become primary school teachers? It is therefore a barrier.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Act was referred to earlier. Next month, we will have a review of the provision in the Act allowing schools to reserve 25% of places for the children or grandchildren of past pupils. I assume all the witnesses consider that provision to be regressive and unequal, and needs to be removed.

I agree with what has been said on educational funding. Far too many conversations take place in education about money. It dominates many relationships. Parents associations are basically asked to be fundraising committees. Parents here are asked to pay for books, which they are not asked to do in Northern Ireland. I take issue with voluntary contributions. Schools believe they have to ask for them because if they do not, they cannot put the lights on. We need to move to a situation in which parents, teachers and principals do not feel compelled to have conversations around money all the time. Students certainly should not be asked for money. What are the views of the witnesses, particularly those representing the second level unions, on the banning of voluntary contributions?

On the leaving certificate, do we not all believe that if we do not grab this opportunity now, it will not come up again? It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change this system. I do not know about anyone else's experience, but I am haunted by the leaving certificate I did in 1994, and I am 45 years of age. Sometimes the sentiment of people in Ireland is that they went through it, so there. In many of today's presentations, we heard that the leaving certificate is trusted, transparent and so on but it is damaging many young people. Some 85% of young people who go to disadvantaged schools make it to the leaving certificate and 15% do not. It is in no way reflective of the person. It is a brutal, savage system that puts far too much pressure on young people.

We have lost the connection to Deputy Ó Ríordáin. We will suspend briefly.

Sitting suspended at 12.13 p.m. and resumed at 12.17 p.m.

The Deputy is okay to proceed. The connection is working.

Can we sort out the sound issues because some of the important points have been lost? Do we think they have been sorted out?

The connection is working again.

The Chair is happy for me to proceed. Do I have time to continue with the rest of the witnesses?

We will give the Deputy another three or four minutes because I am unsure at what point he was cut off. I will allow him to continue.

I ask the witnesses to respond to my questions.

Who would like to respond to Deputy Ó Ríordáin?

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

I will respond to the Deputy's comments on diversity. One key inhibitor of diversity in our second level education system is the high cost of becoming a teacher, and the length of time it takes. While there are other methods, the normal process now is to do a BA or BSc, which takes four years, and it takes a further two years to obtain a professional master of education, PME, qualification. All that, of course, costs an extraordinary amount of money. It requires the length of time it takes to complete a normal four year degree in addition to half that length in order to become a teacher. There is no doubt this is a huge barrier to diverse people becoming teachers in the education system. On the other side of that, in regard to the system and those who work in schools, a recent OECD report showed the fantastic work they do in spite of the poor conditions they often work in. One area it highlighted in the Irish education system was that it gives better opportunities to those who might be considered disadvantaged compared to the average in OECD countries. As a representative of second level teachers, I am proud of that fact.

I refer to different modes of assessment. I am a metal work teacher and my background is in engineering and the technical subjects, etc.

There are three modes. There is a one-day practical examination in which the students get to prepare at their ease in the workshop. They undertake a project over a prescribed period of three months, or ten to 15 weeks, I am not sure of the exact period off the top of my head, and then they have a written examination. Most of the questions in that written examination are couched in a form that is situational. They are not framed such that they are a test of a student's memory. They are framed in the form of what would the student do if, etc. If students are able to answer those, they must know what they are talking about. I do not want to take up all the time as other people want to contribute. I will leave it at responding to those two items. The advice I would give students the night before an examination, as I have done on radio, is not to cram all information from their notes but to get a good night’s sleep. Students need to have sharp wits to do well in examinations. They do not need the ability to recall so much. There is not so much of that required any more. If students want to get good marks in their leaving certificate, they must understand what they are doing.

I am conscious of the time and I know Mr. Jones and Mr. Gillespie want to respond.

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

My apologies. I appreciate other people want to respond.

Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Jones want to respond.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

I thank the Chairman. There appears to be a terrible feedback on the system.

I ask Mr. Dennehy to mute his microphone.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Is that okay?

Will we ask Mr. Jones to proceed?

Yes. Mr. Jones, please proceed.

Mr. Frank Jones

I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for his questions. Specifically on the issue of funding, I would approach it from two perspectives. One is the perspective of diversity. Our pupil-teacher ratio is wrong. We are still way behind the OECD average. In higher and further education our ratio is 20 students per teacher or lecturer whereas the OECD average is 15:1. There is a significant cost to that. It requires a significant investment in higher and further education, which will assist in improving the diversity among teachers and will assist teacher training. It should address that issue.

The Chairman might advise if my allotted time is up.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Can I try to come in again?

Can people put their microphones on mute when they finish speaking? I call Mr. Gillespie.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Can the Chairman hear me clearly?

No. Has Mr. Gillespie got these committee proceedings live on another screen in the background or anything like that? He might try to come in again.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Is it working now?

No. My apologies. Mr. Gillespie might put his microphone on mute. I call Deputy Farrell.

That is frustrating for Mr. Gillespie.

I apologise for interrupting the Deputy but I wish to advise everybody that this is the last meeting we will have remotely. The system has worked during the past 12 to 18 months without any problem. I am not sure if problem arose when somebody was trying to come in.

We have been unlucky today. This conversation as a roundtable discussion is appropriately named. That is appropriate in the context of all of the ideas that have been suggested. All of this is predicated on Covid and the experience the profession and students of Ireland had during that time. I am not trying to kiss up to the teachers but it is fair to say that they went above and beyond what was expected of them. The effect all of this had on the student body has been extraordinary. As was said by others, it highlighted that what we are doing currently is not what I would describe as fit for purpose but it could be improved. Everybody here would accept that.

Having a final examination and taking account of all the issues mentioned by others, both here and in other fora, with respect to being ill, experiencing a bereavement and so on can set students back.

Like Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I still have nightmares about my leaving certificate. I am only slightly younger than the Deputy. I am 43 years and I still recall the leaving certificate without fond memories. There are elements we can learn from the assessments completed during Covid. They were not perfect but they were the best we could do in the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Points inflation was an unintended side effect of that approach. That is not in any way, shape or form a negative comment in the context of what the profession was trying to do. There are elements of this approach from which we can learn. I would like to hear what the contributors have to offer in response.

I will focus on two issues. The first one, a general comment that I raised at our previous meeting, relates to the psychological and mental health supports available to students. These are of critical importance. The committee produced a report making the same suggestion the INTO representative made, namely, that we need to provide access to the necessary services in schools, either on an individual or a group basis, to ensure that when students need supports they are available to them. It is particularly appropriate to have those available in senior cycle.

The target of education is to educate. It is not necessarily to enable students to proceed to a university degree. There must be other pathways. I took a circuitous route to my profession. Higher and further education are essential. That is why I was pleased to hear apprenticeships and other forms of further education mentioned. No one will disagree that we need broader psychological and mental health supports.

In the context of access to other pathways to education, the Central Applications Office points race is important but it is not the be-all and end-all for students. For many students, particularly those aged 17, 18 or 19 years, it is a seminal moment in their lives that can leave a mark. We do not necessarily want to leave a mark on a student's life in that sense. We want to leave an enjoyment of education, reading and further and higher education and what they can achieve for themselves. I ask any of the witnesses who wants to respond to do so within those parameters.

Mr. Gillespie is having connection difficulties. Mr. Jones will respond first.

Mr. Frank Jones

I agree with Deputy Farrell. It appears to be very difficult for many people to draw a distinction between the leaving certificate and the CAO points system. That is a problem. I have read it has been that way for more than 50 years. I recognise the problem. In addition to the point that was made by the USI representative, there is a sense that students who achieve high points are wasting an opportunity if they do not go to university, even if they might be better served by taking a different route to higher education or taking a fresh approach. I recognise the challenge highlighted by the Deputy but I do not have a solution for it.

There needs to be a way of separating the usefulness of the leaving certificate and it being linked purely with the number of points one achieves.

I will come to Mr. Dennehy. Mr. Gillespie has rejoined the meeting and his connection is perfect this time. Does Ms Austick wish to respond?

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the Chairman. It comes down to the attitude and mindset we have in respect of education. We have to move towards a culture shift in terms of how we view education and different opportunities for students and people of all ages to engage in life-long learning. It is particularly important that when guidance counselling sessions are offered to leaving certificate students, different options are presented to them. Post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses, apprenticeships, taking a year out for personal development or entrance into the workforce should all be seen as valid and equal options, rather than just an add-on or a default if the student does not get into the course he or she wants. It has to start with attitude change and a culture shift that it is to be hoped we can perpetrate. Many students do not wish to go immediately or at all into college after the leaving certificate but there is often a societal pressure placed on them by family members and peers to enter college. It is about trying to make education accessible at all stages of life. If a person wishes to go into the workforce for ten years and then go to third level education, or take a year out and then do an apprenticeship, that should be recognised as being valid and okay. It is about recognising that everyone has different strengths, interests and ambitions in life. It comes down to the options presented to people during guidance counselling sessions at leaving certificate level but also that we as a society see them all as equal, recognise they all have a place in our society and that one is not better than another. We need to ensure there is not a hierarchy in terms of educational pathways.

Ms Emer Neville

As progression to university is emphasised as a top achievement throughout education, access to further education and other post-secondary school options are perceived as being less valuable and less of an achievement. However, as all present are aware, the reality is that university education is not the only tool for achieving success in one's life and future career. That said, as the points system is the only mechanism for measuring the achievements of students, it is clear why some students who achieve lower points, miss out on a university place by a small margin or choose to progress to other forms of further education feel like they have failed their second-level education. As Ms Austick stated, we must normalise and remove the stigma in respect of PLC courses, apprenticeship programmes and other forms of further and higher education. The ISSU believes the goal should be to support students when selecting these options and to provide more supports to the likes of apprenticeship programmes, further education and training programmes and PLC programmes in order to remove the hierarchy that exists within the education system.

Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair

I cannot argue with what my colleagues, Ms Austick and Ms Neville, have stated, to the effect that we should provide several options. Given the youth of the Deputies, they may not be aware that at one time, certification was issued at the end of primary school. There was a primary certificate once upon a time. I am sure that when it was removed, the system went into a shock similar to the one that may ensue if we ever remove the leaving certificate. However, it happened and the sky did not fall down. We continued to educate children at primary school age to into second-level schools, which then became free to access thanks to the great Donogh O'Malley. We need to consider other options. The leaving certificate serves a purpose but it should not serve the whole purpose. We need to be more creative and to engage in blue-sky thinking on this issue. We made our submission based on the needs of children in special schools who have profound special needs and for whom alternatives must be found, but there are other children and students outside that sector for whom alternatives must also be found. As a society, we should be able to embrace that challenge and do that.

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

There are currently frameworks such as FETAC and so on that cater for people with skills that are not encompassed within being what might be referred to as an academic bent or way of looking at the world. Those pathways should be more available because being academically very bright does not define a person. That is true of students in schools. There are other traits, which are very difficult to measure, however, which is the other aspect that must be considered.

There should be more pathways. That is one of the things that can be done to take some of the pressure off the points system. Possibly one of the worst things about the points system is that a student can now define himself or herself as 437 points. Previously, one had to go to the trouble of saying one got three Bs and 4 Cs or whatever it was. One had to at least go to the trouble of explaining the marks one received and one might be asked in what subject one received the marks. Now it is all about just getting the Holy Grail of 625 points, which did not even work this year. There is something wrong with the points system.

I completely agree that there is something wrong with making schools be totally about access to third level. There need to be other paths available. It is not just at the end of second level education that change should happen. It may be the case that change should also happen at the start of third level to make it more accessible and generic. It may be the case that if first-year university examinations were more generic, such that students would get another half term or even a year to study generally before specialising in second year, it would make third level more accessible. All the doors should not be closed to students until they go into second year.

I thank Mr. Dennehy. The next speaker-----

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

The same thing has happened-----

The next speaker is Deputy Ó Laoghaire, to be followed by Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan.

I thank the Chairman. It has become clear not just in the past two years, but through several years, that the leaving certificate is in need of radical transformation. I know the arguments that are made in respect of State certification. That is an issue to which we can return. However, it is true that too much rides on the terminal examination and that one day. It has too many ramifications for students and their lives thereafter. It can go wrong for a student who has done all the work. Although there have been changes in many subjects in recent years - the leaving certificate I did is not the same as the one currently on offer - there are still too many subjects where it is all on the examination, or too much of it is.

In the context of transformation of the leaving certificate, it is important to state that this is not just about the structures and the examination. We need to transform radically the culture of and the way we talk about the leaving certificate. I appeal to the media not to make such an event of the leaving certificate and the results each year. Many schools do not send enough students to third level because of disadvantage and structural obstacles, but there are other schools that probably send too many students to third level. Such schools may have many students whose skills would be better suited to apprenticeships of various kinds. Any discussion of the leaving certificate needs to take account of the need to transform radically how we deal with apprenticeships and other forms of vocational education.

In the context of how we talk about this, it is important that we approach it with an open mind. We need to discuss all the options. There are options that, in my view, could make things worse. I would be very hesitant with regard to personal statements or things that could give additional advantages to students from a privileged background but while we are in this process we need to be open-minded and discuss all the options.

I have several questions. As the most important voice is that of students, I will start with Ms Neville of the ISSU. The observations on Irish are well made and I certainly have a lot of sympathy in that regard. In other jurisdictions, one can accumulate the points, credits or whatever one needs to complete one's final examination over more than one year. In the North, for example, in one's final year, one is building on the previous year. Does Ms Austick believe we should be considering a system in which students' results build up gradually year on year?

The point made by the INTO about qualifications for students in special schools in the senior cycle cannot be lost as we progress through this process. It is not something I have considered in detail, to tell the truth, but it is very important it remains part of our discussions.

I am glad to see Mr. Gillespie from the TUI has rejoined the meeting. The TUI has made a very clear statement and I agree with its views on the leaving certificate applied, LCA, and the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and the need to make them more dynamic. I also agree there is a need to retain foundation level in Irish. The TUI is hesitant about continuous assessment. Some of that hesitancy is related to overassessment but some of it relates to concerns about teachers marking their own students. There are parts of our education system involving non-State exams that are marked externally, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, scores at primary level. I am not asking the witnesses to commit to anything because this is a discussion and consultation but would the TUI be open minded regarding the potential for continuous assessments that are marked externally and in accordance with high standards? That would protect the important position of teachers in the Irish education system as advocates for students, as well as their position as teachers.

I invite Ms Neville to respond, followed by Mr. Gillespie.

Ms Emer Neville

The ISSU recommends that we take note of examples from other education systems, including the UK's A level system which uses the accumulation of credits and the USA's grade point average, GPA system, to devise a form of continuous assessment over the course of fifth and sixth year to alleviate unnecessary stress and pressure on students due to the great number of leaving certificate students relying solely on a final year examination. In addition, we believe there is a strong demand from students for an opportunity to assess their knowledge and skills through second component assessments such as projects, presentations, oral exams and practical work. Notably, this option received 63.9% support when it was put to students in our leaving certificate reform consultation. Second component assessments as well as continuous assessments throughout fifth and sixth year could form the basis of student's final grades in the leaving certificate and would remove the undue pressure and stress on students and allow them to focus on learning and getting an holistic education rather than focusing on deadlines and three weeks of examinations at the end of sixth year.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Education is our greatest equalising and unifying endeavour. It is fantastic in what it can achieve. Education for education's sake should always be our primary goal. The CAO system is nothing more than a supply and demand system that is often based on demographics and it should not govern the leaving certificate. Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to continuous assessment, but last year, when it was announced we were going to be using accredited grades, we had students coming to us and arguing every week over a couple of percentage points in homework assignments because they thought it was going to count towards their leaving certificate. That is just continuous pressure and is not solving the problem.

What has just been said is more akin to what the TUI wants. We want second components of assessment across the subjects, possibly even moved into fifth year, where we are teaching people what to learn and are focusing on the subject. At the moment, 22 subjects have second components of assessment and 12 have more than one second component of assessment. Some of these subjects can give students anything from 30% to 60% of the overall marks so that the nightmares that Deputy Ó Ríordáin was having from 1994 are not an issue anymore because students are continuously doing something and are learning their subject.

When I was a physics and maths teacher I was arguing with myself about teaching students for the leaving certificate while also trying to prepare them for the next phase of life, whether that involved becoming an apprentice electrician or going to college.

I had to teach the subject because if I did not do so, they would not be prepared for the next phase of life. That is why second component assessment, which would be things that cannot be marked on a written paper in June but would be testing a whole range of skills, attributes and different aspects of a subject over a two-year period, is the way to go. Such assessments can be done externally.

We cannot have a revolution here; because the leaving certificate is so important, it will have to be evolution rather than revolution. It will require, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, a lot of consultation and movement. It is too important to get wrong.

The next speaker is Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, to be followed by Senator Mullen.

We used to have four minutes per round of questions and while the Chairman has doubled that, there will never enough time to discuss leaving certificate reform. One of the earlier speakers asked us to reflect on our own experience. I have seen both sides, having been a teacher for 15 years and obviously, a student about 20 years ago. I try to be as unbiased and neutral on this issue as I can but I would rather hear answers from the witnesses than tell them my opinions. I know my own opinions and while I may deviate from them at times, and no doubt the more I hear from others, the more likely that is to happen, at the same time I would like to hear the experiences of the people on the call.

Ms Ní Chéileachair hit the nail on the head when she said that no system is perfect and that this is going to evolve over time. While the current leaving certificate programme is not ideal and is far from perfect, it has served us reasonably well over the years but undoubtedly, it is time for change. That sentiment was echoed by most of the contributors to today's meeting and last week's meeting and I expect it will be echoed at future meetings. We are speaking with one voice insofar as we believe that the day of the end of term exam, with 100% of everything dependent on that, is at an end. There is a greater role for continuous assessment, presentations, oral exams and so forth.

I would like a response to my first question from a student representative and a teacher or educator if possible. Do the contributors believe that the external validation model is the way forward in terms of continually assessing in schools? I would like a response from Ms Ní Chéileachair and one of the student representatives in relation to Irish. I was an Irish teacher and to be honest, when it came to the leaving certificate, if I was correcting at ordinary level I nearly looked forward to paper two because half of it was blank, such was the level of unanswered questions from students on the poetry and prose. There were obviously difficulties there. When I say "looked forward", I mean it in the context of getting the corrections over and done with but obviously, we want to see our students doing well. In that regard, I could see that the Irish course, as currently structured, is not fit for purpose. In my opinion, we should have a basic, predominantly oral-based course possibly supplemented by an advanced, Gaeilge fheidhmeach type course for students at a higher level or students from Gaelscoileanna. Students could do an extra course or perhaps it could be structured so they get bonus points. We need to get down to the nitty-gritty in terms of the Irish course and completely overhaul it. I look forward to hearing the witnesses' opinions on the issues of external validation and Irish.

Ms Clare Austick

I support the comments made by Ms Neville in her opening remarks on behalf of ISSU about making the core curriculum of the Irish language more conversational, rather than preparing students for the final exam. It all comes down to giving students options in being assessed throughout their curriculum. We recognise that many difficulties can arise on one day, whether it is a family bereavement, a personal circumstance that arises or if something goes wrong just because a student is having a bad day. This one day determines the trajectory of the rest of their lives in terms of access to third level education or the profession they go into. It just cannot go on like that any longer.

On Irish language reform, it has to be taught in such a way that students can engage, have fun and interact meaningfully, not just in a way that prepares them for an exam at the end of the day. They should learn a more conversational type of Gaeilge rather than the difficult poetry and harder language and terminology they learn, which is important, but the emphasis has to be on being able to engage in Irish on an everyday basis and to have a conversation with friends, peers or family members. That should be encouraged in addition to seeing the beauty of the Irish language and how it is part of Irish identity. I support the comments, solutions and recommendations made by ISSU.

Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair

I will just come in ar cheist na Gaeilge. I am probably the best and worst person to ask about this because most of my career was spent as a principal of a Gaelscoil in north Kildare. I welcome what I have heard on foundation level Irish. It is necessary. I could not argue in any way with any of the comments made on Gaeilge fheidhmeach, Gaeilge labhartha and that we should see Gaeilge as a functioning and live language. However, we need to address the level we expect from scoláirí Gaeltachta, pupils who are living and having their education in the Gaeltacht, many of whom are speaking Irish at home. We have to address the level of capability of these students in addition to scoláirí i nGaelcholáistí, who now come from a broad base of Gaelscoileanna at primary level and a growing sector of Gaelcholáistí at post-primary level. We also need to look at how we expect these pupils to engage with the Irish language at leaving certificate level.

It needs to be a spectrum. We need to engage with children and students at all levels of ability and competency. We could have a round-table discussion forever on Gaeilge and languages, but we need to take into account that we are now looking at an integrated language curriculum at primary level. We are looking at introducing foreign languages at primary level through Post-Primary Languages Ireland, PPLI, and almost 500 primary schools have signed on for the new language sampler model. It shows the interest there is in promoting language as a concept, not just Gaeilge or European languages. There is a major debate to be had, but all students have to be catered for and we must make sure, number one, if we are making certain that Gaeilge is a requirement for primary teaching, for example, that all students have access to an honours-level course that would enable them to access that. The different abilities and competencies should be acknowledged, as they are in other subjects. It needs to be acknowledged in Gaeilge freisin.

I will give Mr. Gillespie one minute.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

On the first question on external validation, the SEC has a tremendous reputation and can change, as we saw over the past two years, quickly. If we move towards second components of assessment that can test or check how people are progressing and learning competencies and skills, the SEC will be able to rise to the occasion to look at that as an external validation. We will not fundamentally change the support nature of the relationship of the teacher with the students. It is important that students are supported by their teacher. That is the core relationship for teaching and learning.

On the issue of Irish, orals and other project work may be associated with the language to make it into a living thing. That could become part of second component assessment, which is not all about a terminal exam in June but is measured at different stages throughout the year taking the different developmental levels into account. The same standards do not have to be set at any time. The SEC could manage the orals and aurals, maintaining them as second components of assessment that could have a very high percentage mark. A student could go into an exam in June at the end of a course with 70% or 80% of the marks done.

I will move on to the next speaker because we are under time pressure. Senator Mullen is next. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh is not in the precincts of Leinster House, so I cannot take a question from him. Senator O'Loughlin is after Senator Mullen.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na haíonna ar fad agus gabhaim buíochas leo as ucht a bheith linn agus as ucht na bpáipéar a chuir siad chugainn. I will address my first question to the ASTI. I have read its submission and I note how it recalled the recommendations of Professor Áine Hyland on options such as the decoupling of the leaving certificate from higher education access, which is one of the central questions before us.

I have a couple of questions, not just for the ASTI, on the issue of vocational options and career paths. In its submission, the ASTI noted that the NCCA's advisory report underlined the need to reduce the ring-fencing between leaving certificate programmes. The ASTI broadly supports this proposal, while stating that transition year must remain a stand-alone programme. Will the ASTI representative say a little more about what it means by unhelpful ring-fencing between the three leaving certificate programmes?

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

The three programmes, for example, the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, have limited availability. A student has to choose certain subjects. We would be in favour of that not happening any more. Any subject a student does for his or her leaving certificate is, possibly, a vocational subject, such as languages. It does not matter what subject it is. Any subject can be vocational.

On that point-----

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

I am sorry. The Senator also made a point about the leaving certificate applied, LCA. There are elements in that also. We believe those students, especially LCA students, should be able to choose one, two or three subjects, or a mix of them, when doing their leaving certificate, if it suits them.

On the question of career progression, we all frequently encounter parents and students who say they do not know what to do or what course to go for, etc. I often find myself saying one thing to remember is that people should be less worried about getting it right or wrong from the get-go at third level. People are much more mobile between courses, and between work and courses, throughout their careers and so on. Nonetheless, a thought occurs to me. What is the role and value of various kinds of aptitude testing throughout the secondary schooling period? Does it go on much? Is there value in it? Is it seen as predictive? We need hardly worry there will be a danger of funnelling students too narrowly and too soon because there is a broad and increasing breadth to the curriculum. Is work being done in the area of techniques that will assist students to think about where their aptitudes lie? It is not just a question of the subjects they are getting good marks in because that can be deceiving at a certain point.

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

I was certainly very familiar with aptitude tests back in my day. To my knowledge, they are not used nearly as much now.

I had a dedicated career guidance teacher when I went to school all of those years ago who provided us with several interesting aptitude tests. I think some colleges may have been interested in the results. These tests used to be done - I think they still are - in first year to identify the various abilities of a new cohort. This debate brings me to a key point that we are trying to get at here, namely, the systemic inadequacies of the second level education system caused by a lack of funding. It is all right to say we should do this or that but we do not have the human and material resources to do it. We have to be careful. What we are doing with what we have is pretty impressive considering that it is only a tiny part of our GDP compared with what other countries spend.

We talk about other systems. Senator Mullen may have read the Hyland report, which refers to these very criticisms of the system, that it is not fit for purpose and not serving people properly, that we should do this or that, etc. All of these criticisms are probably true to an extent but they are levelled at other systems as well, particularly the US and UK systems. Professor Hyland mentioned them in her report. She also mentioned all kinds of alternatives, for example, introducing some other mechanism or examination to operate alongside the leaving certificate. That exam or component would suffer from the same sort of what one might call "gaming of the system" where people will be coached to do it. Who will be coached? It will be those who have the most resources. I work in the education system and it is difficult to work in it because classes are too big and teachers feel they are not doing enough and there are many students for whom they would much prefer to do more The education system is flawed but it is also lacking investment. The people who work in it are doing their best.

With regard to change, the system is not able to change under the current system of funding. For example, with regard to guidance, counselling and psychological services, as we state in the paper we submitted to the committee, these services are aspirational. They are something we would like to provide. We would like to be fair and equal but the investment to do that is not being provided.

Ms Clare Austick

I will respond to the point made about investment in education at both second and third level. One of the main reasons there is so much stress and pressure placed on leaving certificate students is the build-up to the examinations. The communication around it is that students should get the leaving certificate, choose a course, go to third level and then that is it. There is no real opportunity to deviate, for example, take time out before going to college. One of the main reasons for that is the cost associated with attending third level education. Students automatically assume they must pick the right course at the age of 17 or 18. People can change, develop and change their mindset and attitude over 20 years. It is completely unfair that this monumental milestone opportunity occurs when people are aged 17 or 18 and there is no other opportunity for them to go back to third level. There are options, access courses and alternative routes but it is more challenging to get into them. When we talk about access to education, we must start with the funding that is allocated to second and third level to ensure there is no financial barrier placed in the way of students.

If a 17-year-old student decides to do a course and after a year decides it would be more beneficial to take three years out to go into the workforce before returning to higher education at the age of 30 or later, that is okay. However, there is a financial barrier because if a person does a course but drops out, he or she must pay more fees. The conversation must be anchored around funding, investment and ensuring that there is no financial barrier to accessing third level education or alternative pathways.

Ms Austick spoke about the goal being to reduce the competition of the points race and to support students to have an equal opportunity to attend higher education, with which I am sure everybody would agree. She talked about addressing the unacceptable inequality of outcome which is perpetrated under the current points race system. Does she mean inequality of outcome or opportunity? I ask because there is often a debate between those two ideas. Is it not true that in any situation in life, whether it is in college or subsequently, there is going to be an inequality of outcome based on people's differential capacities, performance and commitment? Is it realistic to talk about the inequality of outcome even under the points system? Do we not need to address the matter at the opportunity stage as opposed to the outcome stage?

Ms Austick can answer the questions at the end of the meeting. Next to speak is Senator Fiona O'Loughlin and she will be followed by Senator Aisling Dolan.

Vere Foster, who was a great educationalist and the first president of the INTO, said, "A nation's greatness depends on the education of its people". Never a truer word was said. While all of us who have done a leaving certificate exam and gone through different stages in life can acknowledge that the exam is a mere drop in the ocean compared with what students go on to learn in their lifetime, at the same time we cannot understate its importance.

The submissions that we have received today and on the last occasion focus on how to strike a balance between protecting the well-being of students, promoting self-development and ensuring that all students are well equipped with the essential skills and knowledge required to participate successfully in the transition to further education and in a rapidly changing society and economy. I know from speaking to business leaders that they are more interested in students learning transferable skills than in the points gained in college.

The importance of foreign languages in a changing global economy is hugely important and something that we need to emphasise. What we do not want is the teaching-to-the-test mentality and an overemphasis on rote learning for final exams because that, as we know, is inadequate in assessing a student's overall intellectual ability, analysis, ethical reflection, etc. There is no doubt that teachers and students need to be part of how we change, why we change and what we change. The upcoming Citizens' Assembly on education will be really interesting and imperative in informing us, as committee members, and informing policy in the Department of Education.

Mr. Gillespie stated in his submission that achieving a particular number of CAO points does not necessarily indicate a person's suitability for a chosen college course or career. I completely agree with him and ask him to expand on what could be a better way of indicating suitability.

Mr. Michael Gillespie

As I said before, the CAO points are based on a supply and demand system, whereas suitability for finishing a course should be based on much wider things, including the subjects someone picks. People sometimes pick subjects just to maximise points, rather than the subjects they need in order to progress in college. It would be interesting to research how many people failed first year because they had the incorrect leaving certificate subjects for the subjects they picked up in college. We should be looking at people doing subjects or even PLC courses that will prepare them for subject choices in college. We are focusing on college as being the only route into employment whereas there are other routes, including apprenticeships and the earn to learn model, which is one of the scarcities we have now. There is a huge scarcity of people going into that area and a deficit in employment there because we do not have enough people to even continue the green agenda in terms of all that is required there. A whole variety of things can be used there.

It is always very refreshing to hear the voice of young people so I welcome Ms Neville and Ms Austick in particular. The USI submission referred to the need to establish and develop alternative pathways to education. We have engaged with Cork Life Centre at this committee. I am picking up on the INTO's point that no career guidance is given to students in special schools, which is completely wrong. I ask Ms Austick to expand on how she feels alternative pathways to education could be developed.

Ms Clare Austick

It comes down to the different information that is presented to students, so they are aware of the different pathways. Apprenticeships, PLC courses, going straight to the workforce or doing an internship are all alternative pathways to higher education that should be presented to students during their guidance counselling sessions whereas often at the moment they are seen as a default if a student does not get into his or her chosen third level course. It is about the narrative, attitude, mindset and culture we are trying to shape, by recognising that there are different pathways there. It is about investment but also the outreach programmes, that is, ensuring that students have access to information on all the different pathways available to them and that they are seen as equal to one another, that there is not a hierarchy between a PLC course and attending college, or going to an apprenticeship and then attending college. It is about presenting that information to students in a way that they realise they can avail of whatever suits them at that time. It comes down to the awareness and educational piece during the guidance counselling sessions, expanding upon the places available for apprenticeship programmes and making sure that whoever wants to attend the pathway of their choice has access to it.

The ISSU's submission referred to the need to reform the leaving certificate curriculum to promote Irish as a living language. My colleague, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, has spoken about that at length. I ask Ms Neville to expand on this further and outline the type of teaching she thinks students would require to keep and maintain an interest in the Irish language and culture.

Ms Emer Neville

We are recommending the implementation of two new Irish courses in lieu of the L1 and L2 courses that were outlined in the NCCA's draft specifications. The current specifications set out for L1 and L2 have the potential to cause serious problems for students and the Irish language community, one of which is the de-incentivisation to attend Irish-medium schools without some form of recognition for students sitting the more challenging course. As well as this, the ISSU believes there is a need to retain foundation-level Irish in order to ensure that all students can access ways of learning in their language. There is still time to look at other options to achieve more for students, rather than continuing with the L1 and L2 approach.

We are recommending the introduction of two Irish courses at senior cycle level: a mandatory communicative Irish course undertaken by all students based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and a further optional literature and lore course targeted at native speakers, students from Gaelcholáistí and students who are achieving a high proficiency in Irish. This approach would be similar to that of applied maths. The introduction of these two courses would provide students with the opportunity to fulfil a high level of communicative Irish as well as providing them with the opportunity to engage in a more difficult Irish course at second level.

The next speaker is Senator Aisling Dolan, followed by Deputy Conway-Walsh, who has been waiting patiently to get in since early morning.

Today we are hearing representations from students and teachers about matters at primary, post-primary and further and higher education levels, including PLC courses. I thank everyone for submitting their opening statements. There is a body of information there and there is an awful lot in them about the role of senior cycle reform. I thank all the organisations that are with us today, the ISSU and the USI on behalf of students, and the IFUT, INTO and ASTI on behalf of teachers and educators for giving us their time this morning. Students' experiences and future endeavours, their careers and vocations, are at the heart of our discussions regarding the reform of the senior cycle. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, have both contributed and both are very committed to reform in this area.

Our educational system adapted in the last 18 months due to urgent need. That is thanks to the educators who are here today who had to develop a system, which came down to the accredited grades and so on, to support students getting through the last year or two. We owe a debt of gratitude for the work that has been completed to date. I met locally with some of our teacher representative groups, including the INTO, which explained very clearly its perspective on the last 18 months. We have a high level of qualification among our teachers at post-primary level. We would like things to be a little bit different. So many of our second level students - over 84,000 - apply through the CAO form. It is a huge number. That is the way things are. We may wish them to be different but that is currently the way things are. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has done a lot in terms of looking at reforming the CAO form, along with Solas and the Irish Universities Association, IUA, to allow it to include apprenticeships and further and higher education places, in order to make sure that students are fully aware of all the options that are out there. The cost of going to third level has been mentioned as well and there are options for earning and learning but families and students need to be made aware of that. Sometimes it comes down to communication and having those extra options on the CAO forms will encourage students to see what other options are out there.

Some of my questions relate to the statements we received, which cover wide areas including subject choices, digital learning, assessments, well-being, access and equality. My first question, for Ms Austick from the USI, is on the high rates of drop-outs in first year for students at third level. Does Ms Austick have some detail on that? In STEM courses we sometimes see a high level of drop-outs and I have seen some figures suggesting up to 7,000 drop-outs a year at third level. How can we support students at that point? What can we do in that regard, taking the leaving certificate into account? I would pose the same question to Ms Neville. So many students are going down the track of the CAO at second level. I am sure Ms Neville sees this in the organisation she represents. In what ways can we engage with career guidance in terms of this potential reform of the leaving certificate?

My next questions are for Mr. Gillespie, Ms Ní Chéileachair and the representative from the IFUT.

Mr. Jones might speak from a further and higher education perspective, including our PLCs and Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board. Some of the organisations might have representatives from further and higher education as well, including perhaps Mr. Gillespie from the TUI. How are they finding it, when students come to them, in terms of managing dropouts in first year? I am interested in that. I thank the witnesses.

Mr. Frank Jones

I thank the Senator. I will speak on academic preparedness of students entering higher education and my sector, which is the university sector. The Senator is correct that the rates of dropout are high in some subject areas. The drop-out rate in first year can be up to 60% and 80% in third level computing and engineering courses. That is far too high. The possibility of having more preliminary subjects in first year and a reduction in the number of subjects were mentioned. This stems from the theme of this meeting, which has been trying to distinguish between the leaving certificate and the points race. There is a view that if a student get points for a subject, which are set by demand and supply, that student is wasting an opportunity is he or she does not enter that field, which may not be the area for him or her at all. The word "decoupling" was used and Professor Hyland's report was referred to. There needs to be a decoupling. Much of this goes back to career guidance and the stuff we talked about earlier. I hope that answers the question.

I thank Mr. Jones. I will bring in Ms Austick and Ms Neville. Mr. Gillespie is looking to come in as well.

Ms Clare Austick

I thank the Senator. The unfortunate reality is that many people decide to drop out and do not avail of the supports they need early on in first year or throughout college. It comes down to preparedness, including how the leaving certificate is taught, while third level education is on an individual basis and involves independent learning. Many students in college are doing their second, third or fourth choice because they did not get their first one as a result of CAO points. It comes down to how the points system is interlinked with it all but we can support them by emphasising the different pathways available to students. Some students will benefit from taking a year out or doing a PLC or some other work before going to college. Then, if someone is struggling during their course, we can ensure they avail of the supports available to them through investment in the support services that are there and awareness of supporting students' progression. Access to education is not just about entry into third level education but progressing throughout and the opportunities available on the other side after graduating.

It comes down to the points system, students not being fully prepared for what is expected of them in terms of independent learning and recognising that many students might drop out because it is not the choice they wanted and they did not get their first option. Many students then go into undenominated arts or science because they did not get their chosen course. We should keep that in mind.

I thank Ms Austick. Having wider areas open at first year within our colleges and third level institutions might be a way to support students.

I ask Ms Neville about the leaving certificate. We have heard about people dropping out in first year. What can we do with the leaving certificate to try to prevent that?

Ms Emer Neville

The ISSU believes we need to allow students ways to gain points through other forms of recognition, such as extracurricular achievements, when applying to further and higher education, while ensuring the opportunities to take part in such additional activities are available in an equitable manner to all students. This would provide students with a greater understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and allow them a better insight into what they might want to study at third level education if that is the route they choose to progress towards. Additionally, we need to greatly increase the number of university admission places through access routes while normalising PLC courses, apprenticeship programmes and other forms of further and higher education.

The ISSU believes our goal should be to reduce the competition of the points race and provide support to guidance counsellors in helping students choose the right pathway through education and a better understanding of what their strengths and weaknesses are.

I thank Ms Neville. I think an extra 4,000 places are being allocated through the CAO. There are approximately 60 apprenticeships and they are looking at developing another 18. We could look to increase the numbers, as Ms Neville mentioned, doing apprenticeships and PLCs. Can I bring in Mr. Gillespie on behalf of TUI?

Mr. Michael Gillespie

I thank the Senator. One of the big things is the support students get before they fill in the CAO form in schools. Over the past ten years, we have had serious cutbacks in the career guidance structure. We have only one guidance counsellor in a school of 700. We have schools below a certain level that do not have guidance counsellors. The idea where we had pastoral care pre-2009 and teachers who were year heads has all been cut back over the past ten years. The individual care we have been capable of giving to every student has been radically reduced. It is not that students may not be able for the course; they just might not have an interest in it. They pick the wrong route and that is because people have not focused on and supported them. People fall through the cracks.

Giving us more places in college is only one aspect. They will be eaten up by the demographic increase over the next couple of years of people going to leaving certificate. It is about preparedness and focusing minds on doing the right thing. There is nothing wrong, as was said earlier, with going off to do an apprenticeship and then doing a degree years later. One might be a better engineer for that. We have to open people's minds to the different routes available and that can only be done by supporting them in school with enough proper guidance counsellors and pastoral care systems that spot students who are a little lost and putting down the wrong choices because external reasons have told them to put them down and not to waste X number of points, as Mr. Jones said. People fill it in for the wrong reasons.

I thank Mr. Gillespie. It is crucial that students are able to engage with the likes of the career guidance person in each of the colleges. What has happened with the development of the Departments of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and Education is that it is clear how the budgets are being allocated between education and further and higher education. An extra €400 million is going into education in the 2021 budget but we have to look at crucial areas, such as class sizes, particularly in rural areas, which are areas I look at, and particularly at primary school level, though we are looking here at senior cycle reform. I do not know if I have time, but there is another person I want to bring in.

Unfortunately, the Senator's time is up.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

I thank the witnesses. I listened intently last week and this to the submissions. As I see it, this is probably the biggest change management project we have undergone for decades. I note the differences in approach, particularly where Mr. Gillespie said we need evolution rather than revolution, while Ms Neville said we need radical change. I come down on Ms Neville's side because I think we need radical change. We have a decision to make. We either tweak around the edges and try to keep everybody happy or we do something fundamentally different. I acknowledge the wonderful work that is being done in schools with limited resources but there is an opportunity for change that we have never had. Change management and change are always uncomfortable and need to be because we only make progress out of our comfort zones. There will be discomfort.

In what we produce from the committee and the evidence we will hear, it is vital that we have resources attached to that and a commitment from Government that those resources will be delivered.

Looking at the leaving certificate, there is agreement across the board that we need continuous assessment. Currently we are cramming everything into two weeks while expecting young people to vomit up all they have learned on a page so we can tell them they are either good or bad and this dictates what they will do in their additional education pathways. That is totally wrong and out of sync with everything all of us believe in. It just cannot go on and we must stop such a process now. How we stop it and what we need to do that are the two questions.

I have heard what has been said about continuous assessment and the need for the external assessment. I suppose that concerns what I want to ask. Will Mr. Gillespie indicate how the external assessment would work in that respect? I very much like the idea of the different assessments being spread over two years. We need reform. We must all be honest about what might be my greatest fear. The students who can afford to get outside lessons, tutoring and support, whether it is in a particular subject or in paying €250 for career guidance, will be okay. There are, however, very bright students who cannot afford that and we are doing them an enormous disservice, which cannot be allowed to continue.

When we studied the third level sector last year, we heard that 75% of students said they did not get enough career guidance in second level. I appreciate the honesty from the witnesses around that aspect. For something that is so vital, there may be one career guidance person for 700 students. That is a waste of time and the school might as well not have any. It does not matter whether it is a wonder woman or a wonder man. It is a case of ticking the boxes and we are doing too much of that. Until we have the proper resources, we will continue ticking those boxes.

I have gone on a bit but what the witnesses are doing and hearing their voices is really important. Will Mr. Gillespie speak to me about how the external continuous assessment will work?

Mr. Michael Gillespie

We can go back to the core idea that we had, which is to develop second components of assessments in subjects that can start being assessed in fifth year in certain aspects. They would have to be appropriate to the level of knowledge, skills or competences for that stage. It would be a case of State certification of those, and all those second components of assessment would be added together. As I said, there are already subjects where 60% of the exam is done due to second components of assessments before the formal exam is done in May or June. For example, this year home economics will be the first leaving certificate exam when it begins in December. The first component of assessment of home economics will be in December and it will gradually build and add together.

These processes also measure different skills. If we design second components of assessment and it is not a case of measuring ability on a written exam, we will give better opportunities to all the types of intelligence and learning abilities in students. It widens the spread of what can be examined and what students can benefit from. We would give more opportunity to students.

As the Deputy indicates, the problem is we are resource-poor in schools. We are punching way above our weight in all the OECD measurements for the level of investment we have compared with other countries. It is something we should be proud of but why not make up that level of investment so we could have the required number of guidance teachers or therapeutic supports that were mentioned earlier for the students who need it? All these support systems are absolutely overstretched in our schools, which limits our performance and our ability to help students to achieve what they should be capable of.

We have already mentioned the number of people who are failing in first year for a variety of reasons. It could be down to economic support, for example. An earlier question asked why there is not diversity in teachers. We have geographic and social issues in training teachers.

In certain areas of the world, teachers cannot get a placement for their postgraduate diploma in education because there is no availability of a college in their area. There would be an added cost in doing it elsewhere. Everything eventually comes down to finance and the lack of financial support for students and the systems that need to support those students. It all comes down to money.

Yes, and it must be targeted to the right place and prioritised. We cannot allow what is happening with career guidance to continue. People are not fulfilling their potential because they do not have the right career guidance. We can have all the apprenticeship programmes we want, along with all the other alternatives, but it will not matter if there is appropriate career guidance personnel to talk through choices with individual students about where their strengths lie.

The INTO submission refers to special classes in mainstream education and students with particular needs. We talk about selecting students at second level and all of that. Students are being selected at five years old when it comes to the question of special classes. We have two excellent special classes in County Mayo, with seven pupils in each class. There is one in Ballina and one in Castlebar. There is a major demand for those. That may arise because children have not got the supports in audiology or speech and language therapies through no fault of their own. The competition is nominally for seven places but it can amount to perhaps six places between the two because the full cohort of students is not replaced each time. It is totally wrong. We are excluding children at five years old from our education system.

That is why reform is needed throughout the system and not just at leaving certificate level. I was glad to see that mentioned in the INTO submission as a challenge. It is purely a question of resources. In speaking to people at these schools, I know they and other schools would be happy to have these special classes with speech and language elements but they do not have the resources. They are being refused those resources, which is wrong. I know the wonderful outcomes that can come from those classes. They can be life-changing and there is no other way to describe them. I commend those schools that do such a good job in that sense.

It is invaluable to hear from the student representatives and I thank them for giving their time today. As a committee, we will listen to what the witnesses say about the needed reform.

The next speaker is Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and I also have a couple of questions. We will have approximately ten minutes at the end and Senator Dolan wants to come in again. Others may do so at that time if they wish.

I thank the guests for coming before the committee today. The meeting has gone on for a long time and I do not want to delay it much longer.

I will first ask Mr. Dennehy and Mr. Gillespie a question. One of the suggestions put forward by Ms Neville in her presentation on behalf of secondary school students was that the terminal exam of the leaving certificate be spaced out over a longer period. I suppose the reason for the recommendation is that the exam period can be stressful if a student must do two exams per day or an exam on consecutive days. What is the view of the ASTI and the TUI on such a recommendation coming from this committee? It might space out the terminal exams over two months, for example.

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

There is no real issue around that. What we want to preserve in our schools, and what I want as a practising teacher, is for the teacher to be an advocate for the students being taught. I do not want to be judge, jury or executioner if it comes to that either.

I do not want to do that, especially at that age of students' lives. We are talking about teenagers who may be 16, 17 or 18 years of age. They do not need somebody to judge everything they do, all of the time. They need an advocate and support and that is what teachers do now, under our present assessment. Our system is also verifiably fair. It is absolutely fair and transparent. It does not allow one school or person have an advantage over another in the exam. All the things happen around and before the exam, such as coaching and all that, but that is what happens when one has an unequal society. The schools are not unequal - society is. People who come from the poorer parts will not be able to access the education system in the same way as wealthy people, especially when it is one as poorly funded as ours.

The system we have now is fighting with one hand behind its back, on behalf of our young people. The real proof of that is we manage. Our schools are safe, fair and democratic places in which people can even overcome their socioeconomic disadvantage. That was proven in the recent OECD report. That is about the culture of schools we have. I suggest having funding. By all means, let us evolve our system. Let us look at areas of it and improve them and maybe have two components in every subject. I do not know. We will look into that, but it must be based on solid research and it has to be financed. Otherwise-----

I thank Mr. Dennehy. What is the view of the TUI on the proposal we space out exams over a period of two months?

Mr. Michael Gillespie

We are totally in favour of spacing out exams, including the second component of assessment. As Mr Dennehy said, as long as the resources are made available to do that. Obviously, there is also a time sensitivity, in that it cannot impede the progression of someone into his or her next stage of life. An endpoint will have to be agreed, but spreading it over time and making the exams appropriate for that stage in the learning cycle could all be facilitated with timing and negotiating consultation. We could assess all of that over a two-year period. One could start to do certain practical exams during one's fifth year.

In Ms Neville's paper, she refers to the fact terminal exams can favour those students who have access to private tutoring. Does she agree with me in that continuous assessment or project-based work could also favour students who have access to greater resources outside of the school?

Ms Emer Neville

Absolutely. We need to create an education system in which all students are on the same and equal level. That means allowing students free grinds from school or additional tuition, if they are from more disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as providing additional support to DEIS schools. We can all agree DEIS schools are very much under-supported and because of that, their are left on a lower playing field than those in private schools. Much like Mr. Dennehy said, we need to provide more supports and financial support to lower-income schools and schools in which there are more students from disadvantaged areas, to allow them to be on an equal and level playing field.

When it comes to trying to get into third level, there is a higher demand for places then there are places available. How does Ms Austick think we select individuals to get into high-demand courses, if not through a terminal exam system or the end-of-school process?

Ms Clare Austick

What we have got from this conversation is we can keep talking about performance and how it is measured but the way we measure it right now is very limiting and does not include all the different types of learners and individuals. When it comes to a terminal examination, we are not thinking of those who may be better at communicating their learnings via a discussion or conversation or who prefer to present to the class or want to do continuous assessment over a long time. When we talk about leaving certificate reform, it has to be about the way we assess students and giving people the option of being assessed on a method and mechanism that suits them, the way they learn and how they communicate what they have learned.

Integral to the conversation is the way it is taught through a universal design for learning and ensuring every student is on a level playing field and has the same opportunities to convey the information he or she has learned. A written examination is not supportive and inclusive in respect of all students. Some students will have bad days, if something happens and it decides how they perform during that examination, which will then have knock-on effects regarding access to the courses they want to pursue at third level. When we talk about measuring academic ability or performance, it has to be down to the options and the way we measure it. It has to be about presentations, discussions, multiple-choice questions, MCQs, and being able to engage in other alternative methods that suit the individual student and allows him or her to show his or her strengths, rather than being confined in a box that does not work for him or her.

I will pick up on something Deputy Conway-Walsh said. I am sorry she has left the room, which has nothing to do with the committee. As for her comments on special education, there has been unprecedented investment into special education over the past ten years. We have increased the number of special needs class spaces and teachers. Places in special classes have increased by more than 386% over the past decade. There has been significant investment in the special needs assistants, SNAs, and so on. I know there is never enough and we always and will forever want more. If Mr. Dennehy and Mr. Gillespie were to look at any country that has the perfect final examination for secondary level school students, which would they select or where is the perfect example they would like to see fully implemented here?

Mr. Eamon Dennehy

I am not aware of a perfect one. It is a human system. Even the ones we point to get criticised from time to time. One is dealing with people with multiple points of view on what the education system should be and how they perform within it. I am all for research, finding out how things are done properly and looking at other countries to see where excellent education is available. We then must look at how that fits in our system, if we are to change it. If there is to be change, however, it must be based on proper research appropriate for the Irish situation. It has to be appropriate for what we are doing here. The key issue is the lack of funding. I have been making that point. It affects everything, such as teacher training, special needs provision and guidance counselling. In spite of that, the system is working. There is 93% completion in the leaving certificate. I wonder, if we pumped significant money into it, as we propose to do with the new system about which I do not know anything yet, how much better would it perform?

Mr. Michael Gillespie

Looking at other jurisdictions, the danger is they come from a different historical investment background and have different emphases on different subjects.

It would be difficult to shoehorn something that is in another jurisdiction into the historical background of how our education system evolved. If I were to pick one thing, taking the average of the EU 22, it would be the country's where the class sizes are 16. Reducing class sizes would be a major move forward in giving us far more flexibility in where we are going to move to in any evolution of senior cycle reform. We should be looking at those jurisdictions that have smaller class sizes.

Every jurisdiction has bits that we would like to say might fit into our system. Some countries do particular subjects better. In my own subject, physics, I know one or two jurisdictions that do that very well, but they do other things quite badly. We need to look at and learn from all of these jurisdictions to see what will fit into the unique system that is the Irish leaving certificate and how we can make it and faith in the Irish education system evolve. Parents and the general population still have strong belief in the Irish education system and they have faith in it despite that, maybe, we are underinvesting in it.

I would like to hear the views of Mr. Jones and Ms Ní Chéileachair on continuous assessment for the core subjects. Leaving aside geography, history and what was known as commerce in my day, does a move to continuous assessment for English, Irish and mathematics constitute reform of the leaving certificate or should we go further? I am aware some of our witnesses do not support a move to continuous assessment as the way forward. I am interested in hearing Mr. Jones's and Ms Ní Chéileachair's views on the three core subjects.

Mr. Frank Jones

On continuous assessment, I could ask the question, "What is it?" It is not assessment every day or assessment based on the homework handed up twice per week. An element of continuous assessment in the core subjects would assist in making the leaving certificate fairer. Practical testing is expensive and so the written examination paper has been the preferred method. Any move has to be researched, costed, funded and evidence based. ICTU has asked in its submissions that any changes be based on the evidence and research and that they be costed and properly funded.

I have nightmares about my leaving certificate examination and even worse nightmares about Peig and her struggles. My struggles were far greater than hers when I was studying "Peig". A large majority of students struggle with Irish. Left to their own free will, they would not choose it as one of their core subjects. However, it is one of our core subjects and I believe every student should study it because it is our native tongue. The issue for me is the final examination in the leaving certificate examination. I believe if I had been subject to continuous assessment in Irish, I would have done far better in that subject in my leaving certificate.

Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair

I come from a sector in the education system where the concept of outside evaluation is quite foreign at primary level. Primary teachers are constantly assessing their students by different mechanisms and means as they go along. The structure at post-primary level is very different. On the Gaeilge, Peig is much maligned. If that book was published today, it would be hailed as an amazing social history and it would probably hit No. 1 on the bestseller list, but I will never know. It is possible to achieve a very high grade in leaving certificate Irish without having the capacity to speak the language, which I think is ludicrous.

The ability of students to communicate in whatever language they are learning, at whatever level of the school system, should be paramount. That is a skill we should be teaching our students and pupils before we teach them about literature and poetry. The ability to use a language as a living language should be our priority. This can be looked at on a continuous basis through the use of milestones, as we are doing at primary level with the primary language curriculum, which is a learning objectives based curriculum rather than a content objectives based curriculum. This is the proposed way forward at primary level as set out in the NCCA framework, which is out for consultation at the moment. We could leave Peig and her compatriots aside for a little while and look at giving children a love of their language from a cultural, heritage and historical point of view. We are welcoming people with many other languages into our country. We should be doing our utmost to ensure that we maintain our native language at all costs.

I will move on now to the student representatives. What are the general concerns highlighted to the student unions by students post-leaving certificate? What are the views of, say, the student in his or her early 20s in regard to what transpired with the leaving certificate over the last couple of years and how that impacted on his or her college experience? In regard to students approaching the leaving certificate, in the context of Covid, what advice would the student representatives give them? How would students like to see the leaving certificate reformed?

Ms Emer Neville

Students definitely think that the leaving certificate does not prepare them for third level education. One rarely finds terminal exams in third level education. Modules and continuous assessment are used throughout. That alone is on students' minds as they progress. Another issue is that the CAO is not fit for purpose. Students are being turned away by a raffle system. Students who reached the maximum level of points are not getting their courses, as happened this year. Understandably, we had to drastically change our system to accommodate the unprecedented times, but it highlighted that there are several issues embedded within our system. These are all to the fore of students' minds at the moment. Students want radical change. They understand and resonate with the nightmares that students have about the leaving certificate and the two or three weeks of terminal examinations at the end of the year. A move to continuous assessment for three subjects would assist somewhat. As mentioned earlier, we cannot continue to put plasters on a broken system. That is a short-term solution. We need to completely reform the system as we know it. We need better access to higher education. We have the highest fees within the EU. Many students cannot afford to progress to third level and, as mentioned earlier, there is huge pressure to attend university rather than some of the other options. Students want a drastic and full reform of the leaving certificate.

Ms Clare Austick

I could not have answered any better than Ms Neville. It comes down to the stress and pressure that is placed on students during the leaving certificate to make the right decisions for themselves there and then to progress to education in regard to their chosen profession and to the access to education piece in terms of students not necessarily being fully prepared or being able to avail of the supports that they need to progress through education, including all of the points made by Ms Neville.

I have a final question for Ms Ní Chéileachair.

In the committee's module on school bullying, one of our recommendations was on the provision of emotional counsellors and therapists in each primary and secondary school. This area is crying out for help. Principals and teachers do not have the expertise to provide emotional counselling and the like for younger students. What are Ms Ní Chéileachair's views on our recommendation?

Ms Máirín Ní Chéileachair

That is a timely question. Recently, we met a group of teachers and principals who had been involved in the pilot therapies in schools programme. Under that scheme, schools were given access to speech and language therapists and occupational therapists, who worked with clusters of schools. There was also meant to be access to nursing services, but that did not transpire. While the pilot's roll-out was affected by Covid, the principals and teachers involved were complimentary of the short period of time in which they engaged with the therapists. Schools and teachers can give a great deal of support to pupils, but we have pupils who are extremely needy and who need other therapeutic interventions. This is not new. More than 30 years ago, I was involved in a pilot project where teacher counsellors were allocated a certain number of schools, but because of the definition of "counselling" in this country and what counselling is held to be, it became the support service and never came out of its pilot.

The level of need in schools is great. One of the main issues is that we do not have access to therapists. It is difficult, even for the HSE, to recruit therapists of any kind. Unfortunately, the therapists who were involved in the pilot programme have been withdrawn back into the HSE and the schools have told us that they have not had communication regarding the scheme since last April. Maybe that has changed in the past week and I am unaware of it, but the situation is at crisis level in our schools. We all recognise the value of intervention at the earliest stage to help children cope with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

I thank Ní Chéileachair. I am not sure whether Senator Dolan is on the line. She wanted to ask a further question before we finish. Is the Senator still there?

Yes. My question follows on from what we were saying. A few queries arose regarding career guidance and the support around same. A website, careersportal.ie, is a good resource that is accessible to students, parents and educators.

I believe it was Ms Neville who made an interesting comment about the supports in place for DEIS schools. There are DEIS levels 1 and 2 for urban and rural schools. Normally, they have good access to teaching supports and educators. Was Ms Neville speaking about post-primary level in particular? We are discussing issues of inclusion, access and the follow-on from those.

Following on from the last update on the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, programme, a budget was allocated in 2021 to increase that for primary schools. I am happy to provide Ms Ní Chéileachair with the most recent update and any other information I might have.

I thank the Senator for that. Does anyone wish to reply to her before we finish?

Ms Emer Neville

Post-primary DEIS schools have noted that they are receiving less support in terms of career guidance and access to grinds and additional educational supports. It is vital that grinds and those additional services be made free so that students, regardless of their incomes and post codes, have access to them. It is not fair that some students are not on the same higher level as students who can afford those supports. It is a major flaw in our system.

Would reform of the leaving certificate reduce the impact that access to particular grinds has?

Ms Emer Neville

Yes. Introducing second component assessments would allow students with different learning strengths, for example, if they are better with visual, audio or physical hands-on learning, to make up lost points and there would not be a need for additional grinds or supports because their educational needs would have been met in other areas.

In other words, reform of the leaving certificate would allow more inclusion and access and reduce the divide between those who can and those who cannot access more grinds and so on, which is a costly endeavour. I thank Ms Neville.

Does Mr. Gillespie wish to respond?

Mr. Michael Gillespie

All of the supports that are given to DEIS schools are welcome, for example, home school liaisons, but their provision is arbitrary. We have DEIS students in schools that are not DEIS designated and, consequently, they cannot get that support even though they need home school liaisons and so on. The provision is too arbitrary for students who are disadvantaged.

The great equaliser is education. As Ms Neville mentioned, the only way we can help these students is by giving them equal opportunities. It is a question of how to identify them. There are schools around the country that are the only schools in their towns and have large numbers of DEIS students yet they have no DEIS designation or home school liaisons. They may have people who provide supports on a voluntary basis, but there is nothing like the formal service.

I understand. It is dependent on the census. Our last census was 2016 and the next will be in one or two years' time, so we are lagging behind in terms of data. A crucial point is that we depend on statistics about the levels of need - one-parent families, high levels of poverty and disadvantage. We must ensure that DEIS designation targets those areas. It is important that we allocate our resources to those who are most in need.

I thank the witnesses for attending and sharing their insights and expert knowledge on the issues we have discussed. This discussion has been of considerable assistance to the committee in our examination of the reform of the leaving certificate.

I sincerely apologise for the technical issues. They were beyond my control and that of the clerk, the assistant clerk and the other officials in the committee room. They were just some of those technical issues that happen every now and then. From 19 October, we will have witnesses and members in the committee room, so there will be no remote access at our next meeting. It will be an in-person meeting. Getting back to some form of normality will be welcome. It will be our first full meeting since last December. I appreciate the witnesses' forbearance during the technical issues and for sticking with us.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.09 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.