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Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 9 Nov 2021

Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion (Resumed)

The committee is meeting in public session after a short suspension to allow the witnesses to take their seats. Apologies have been received from Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and Senator Eileen Flynn. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present in the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House. I will not allow committee members to participate in public meetings where they are not adhering to the constitutional requirement that they have to be in Leinster House. I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with broadcasting equipment even on silent mode. Are the minutes of the meeting of 2 November 2021 agreed? Agreed.

This is a meeting with organisations regarding leaving certificate reform. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children, Ms Suzanne Connolly, CEO of Barnardos, Ms Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, Ms Beatrice Dooley, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Ms Mai Fanning, president of the National Parents Council Post Primary, and Mr. Daire Hennessy, chairman of the youth steering committee of Citywise Education.

Our witnesses are here to discuss leaving certificate reform with references to assessment options, key subject areas and digital learning, access, equality and well-being supports, Irish language and Irish medium education. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Dr. Muldoon to make an opening statement followed by Ms Connolly, Ms Ward, Ms Dooley, Ms Fanning and Mr. Hennessy. This 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. I ask members to direct their questions to specific witnesses.

As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following the meeting. Before beginning I remind members of the long-standing practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory about an identifiable person they will be directed by the Chair to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with this direction.

I invite Dr. Muldoon to make his opening statement, followed by the other witnesses as I outlined earlier. Each witness will have four minutes and I ask them to stick to this time.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the committee for the invitation to present to it and to discuss the reform of the leaving certificate. As members of the committee will be aware, the Ombudsman for Children's office is an independent statutory body established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002.

I commend the committee on taking on this work and seeking new ways to imagine the leaving certificate.

I will start by echoing the words of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who presented to the committee last week. He said that the leaving certificate system does not prepare a student for life beyond education. I refer members to my full submission, which they received previously, because I can only highlight a few areas in this statement.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Children made a very strong recommendation to our State that it needed to reform the leaving certificate. It made this recommendation following a meeting in Geneva with young people from Ireland, where the committee was persuaded that the leaving certificate process placed a disproportionate level of mental stress on the young people undertaking that terminal exam. I believe that, six years on, the State will fail to show any real progress on the implementation of this recommendation, despite having had the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, embark on a review of the senior cycle. This review was undertaken in a very inclusive and comprehensive manner over the past three years but it has still not been made public and is still to be presented to the Government for formal consideration. I note that there was an article in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times commenting on the matter.

It has also been made clear that any change to be carried out following the acceptance of the document could take until 2030 to come into being. The proposed date of 2030 is unlikely to be suggestive of massive modifications but rather is indicative of the time needed to navigate the complexity of all the vested interests within the education system, among whom the students do not have a strong voice. It suggests a lack of urgency and affords too much time for arguing, procrastination and unnecessary delays while all the time students come and go through a system we know is not optimal for them.

Any deliberations about, and proposals for, reform of the leaving certificate need to recognise young people as the primary stakeholders and must put the interests of students first. If the aim is to improve and restructure the examination in such a way as to best serve these young people during senior cycle and beyond, their views must be heard now and into the future, and these views must be considered in a manner that gives them equal weight with all other stakeholders.

This office endorses the Irish Second-Level Students Union call, made at a previous meeting of this committee, for exams to be spaced out and for greater diversity in assessment methods other than terminal exams, and that there is a need to "capture and reward students' diverse learning abilities, and not just their memory". The presentation to the committee on 24 September by the joint managerial board also highlighted a range of options for assessment which are already in place through transition year. These include school-based projects, portfolio-based assessments, end-of year interviews and modular credit-based assessment. These need to be considered in the context of improving the senior cycle and leaving certificate examination process.

The current programme for Government states, "Education is a cornerstone of society and a driver of social equality". The way the senior cycle and leaving certificate are set up offers huge advantage to the student with most support at home in terms of finance, educated parents and connections, computers and broadband. At a time when we, as a nation, are able to provide top-class staff for most of the top ten biggest ICT companies in the world we simultaneously do not have enough skilled tradespeople to help build sufficient homes, hospitals, schools and infrastructure for all of our people. Neither do we have sufficient care workers, front-line staff or teachers to properly provide for our people. I believe that we as a society need take this opportunity to create a new and more wide ranging senior cycle which caters for all of our children, and an exam process which is not just beneficial to those who are aiming for university. We must revive the belief in apprenticeships and vocational training as being worthwhile and valuable, not only for the young people who engage in them but for our society as a whole.

Professor Gerry McNamara, a professor of education at Dublin City University, described the leaving certificate "as a terrifying rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood" and he was incredulous that it has lasted for more than 40 years, relatively unchanged. We now need our students to be able to work and thrive in a new world which constantly evolves and changes and which requires lifelong learning. As a result, there must be options given, across the two year senior cycle, for assessments and examinations so that pressure on students to perform for a one off, time-limited final exam is reduced. If students were aware that they already had perhaps 50% or 60% of their subject examined before sitting down to do the final exam it would be a much less stressful scenario. This would also be in line with what those progressing to third level education experience. This continuous assessment format is something that will be familiar to all students from now on as the junior cycle is run in this manner. I thank members for their time and I am happy to answer questions when the time comes.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

I thank the committee for inviting Barnardos before it to provide evidence on this important topic. Last year, Barnardos supported almost 18,000 children and their families. We work with families to help them address issues affecting children's development and well-being, including their ability to take part in learning.

More than one third of children who benefit from our targeted family support are aged between 11 and 18. A significant proportion of our referrals come directly from schools that believe students could benefit from our support. We work alongside schools and teaching staff to help young people engage effectively with education. The children we support often live in complex and frequently chaotic circumstances and are affected by traumatic life situations such as poverty, parental poor mental health, neglect, separation and parental addiction. In addition, they may have added responsibilities such as caring for siblings or, indeed, as young parents, caring for their own children.

These challenges can make it more difficult for young people to partake in the leaving certificate to their full potential. They may find concentrating on schoolwork difficult at times when their home environment might be particularly chaotic. They may not have the time or resources necessary to study after school or have access to an appropriate environment in which to do so, living in cramped and overcrowded accommodation. Their families may be struggling to afford materials necessary for young people to study and partake in the leaving certificate, such as textbooks and digital items.

Education is a primary route out of disadvantage. Completing the leaving certificate can be highly predictive of individual life-chances in Ireland, for example, future levels of income, risk of unemployment and homelessness. Children who leave school before completing the leaving certificate are almost five times more likely to be unemployed in their 20s and 30s, and research has found that they are two to four times more likely to say that their general health is poor or fair.

Children living in disadvantaged and less affluent communities, on average, do less well in the leaving certificate. Some 58% of students from higher professional backgrounds achieve four or more honours in the leaving certificate compared with 16% of those from semi-skilled and unskilled manual backgrounds. Our staff work directly with families and teachers to deliver plans to help children engage more with education, including the leaving certificate, taking account of their individual circumstances, behavioural and emotional needs and other needs. We support families to build routines to help children engage more with school, as well as address additional practical issues such as struggles to get to and from school or accessing specific educational items that might impede their ability to learn.

We provide specific services that support teen parents to stay in education, for example, in Finglas, Tallaght, Waterford and Wexford. We understand the barriers these young parents face to remain in school. Our staff provide emotional and practical support through the funding of childcare costs, fees, travel expenses, the purchase of laptops and other educational resources. We know first-hand of the positive outcomes direct support has on young parents and their children.

Children from stable backgrounds with expectations to proceed to third level and with emotionally, educationally and financially supportive parents, appear to achieve better outcomes within the leaving certificate framework in comparison with those who lack such supports. Children who live in less stable backgrounds are not on the same playing field. If they are struggling, they have fewer financial opportunities for support such as private tutoring and do not have access to the same conducive areas for studying. Some 90 to 100% of school-leavers in affluent areas go to college. In areas of socio-economic disadvantage, the average is 26%. A reformed leaving certificate should provide a broader range of supports with less emphasis on learning by wrought. There should be a greater focus on practical and technical skill development. It would help broaden future employment and development opportunities for all students. The leaving certificate must be reformed to better engage young people who are disadvantaged and improve their outcomes. It is vital these young people and their parents are directly consulted in relation to any potential reform.

Ms Tanya Ward

I thank the Chair for the opportunity to take part in this important discussion. The Children’s Rights Alliance welcomes the scope of the committee's review of the leaving certificate. We represent more than 135 organisations and it is our goal to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. I will not go through the kind of reform that needs to take place in my opening statement as it has been covered by Barnardos and the Ombudsman for Children.

I ask the committee to think about its approach to and recommendations for reform. A key issue with decision making in education at present is the lack of focus on the best interests of children and young people.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child obliges the State to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration. One of the challenges in the education sector is that is not always the case. There is situation after situation where decision makers try to apply the best interests of children and young people but fail to do so. That is something we need to think about in the context of leaving certificate reform. I urge the committee when making recommendations to state that the best interests of the child and young person should be a primary consideration for all decision makers and stakeholders in reforming the leaving certificate.

An issue touched on by Dr. Muldoon is the structure within the education system and children and young people being given equal weight within the education system. It is a service for children and young people to benefit, grow and develop. However, in the context of decision making, there are 17 partners that make decisions relating to the education system and only one of them, namely, the Irish Second-Level Students Union, directly represents the voice of children and young people. Of course, the others are concerned about the rights of children and they play a critical role at that decision-making table, but none of them represents the interests of children and young people and that is something we must consider.

I wished to discuss the reason reform is absolutely necessary. What is significant about what the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended to Ireland is that stress is a key reason for reform. In study after study, children and young people have said they are experiencing enormous levels of stress, at up to 75% in a particular study. The principals carried out a study which found that 85% of principals believed far too much stress was being generated through the leaving certificate system. An issue of significant concern to me is that, particularly in the aftermath of the various restrictions that young people have experienced during Covid, there are many children and young people with very poor mental health and poor emotional well-being. Many of them have the leaving certificate ahead of them. Obviously, reform of the leaving certificate is a critical thing that must happen, but it will take time. As such, we urge and recommend that the school-based assessments within the leaving certificate are retained in the interim. We noticed from the studies of young people who went through the new form of accreditation that it did reduce stress. That is something we recommend to the committee in the interim.

The final matter I wish to bring to the attention of the committee is the pace of reform. As Dr. Muldoon stated, we have been living through this for 40 years. I had the same leaving certificate experience that most young people going through it have had. That is absolutely unacceptable. Why has it happened? Why are we still in this situation, given that study after study indicates that children and young people are saying they are far too stressed and that the leaving certificate does not prepare them for life or a range of jobs? I urge the committee to consider the reasons for the lack of reform because that needs to be unpicked and addressed. We need to see real change happening for children and young people in the context of the leaving certificate. It cannot be about just satisfying one sector in society that likes the leaving certificate because it helps with streaming into various university programmes. I am sure that is not the only consideration but, unfortunately, it is one of the main drivers for the retention of the current system. That is something that absolutely must be addressed.

Ms Beatrice Dooley

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it. It is not feasible for me to address the four items addressed in my written statement in the four minutes I have, so I will address items Nos. 2 and 3. I am very happy to address any queries members have regarding items Nos. 1 and 4 during the questions and answers session.

In the context of key subject areas in learning, decisions on which basic subjects should be taken need to be made in consideration of constraints imposed by minimum and specific subject requirements for some third level courses. There is also a heavy focus on languages in the current system. Input from SOLAS and the expert group on future skills needs would enhance these subject options greatly as they are currently out of date and out of sync with skill shortages in the labour market.

Could we offer the option of replacing an entire subject option with one large piece of work that focuses on a skill instead of a particular subject? The Institute of Guidance Counsellors, IGC, would welcome the opportunity to deliver input to students on skills education in senior cycle. That is a role we could carry out if properly resourced, given that most of us already deliver guidance classes to one or two of the three senior cycle year groups. This should take place as early as possible, ideally in the year after the junior cycle.

Guidance classes typically take place in the school's computer room but broadband quality needs to be upgraded in some areas, including in my school and many peripheral areas of the country, to guarantee equitable access for all students to college and career information.

We would love to see the introduction of two distinct and unrelated opportunities for work experience or career investigation for all students, regardless of which leaving certificate route they choose. This would require a serious buy-in from industry to step up and supply meaningful work experiences for students of all abilities and to forge relationships with local schools. Again, we are ideally situated to co-ordinate this work experience, given that providing vocational guidance is part of our brief and we already have an holistic view on each student. We are doing this work in a piecemeal way and lack resources, mainly adequate allocations, to lay the scaffolding required to support this as it could be rolled out.

We have some recommendations on access, equality and well-being supports. Guiding students into the optimal educational or vocational pathway, given their unique set of abilities, aptitudes, academic history, personality, work values, preferred ways of working and learning styles, requires an individual appointment with a qualified guidance counsellor as a pre-requisite if students are to make an informed choice about their next step. Research shows the link between positive mental health and successful progression to gainful employment. The guidance counsellor is the person in the school with access to all this information and the necessary training to guide the learner on a journey of self-awareness with reference to what I outlined.

One central function of the senior cycle is to facilitate students' progression in their educational and vocational journey. We are well placed to deliver modules giving students the requisite resources and skills to navigate their way after school, whether in the world of work, further education and training or higher education. We are all too cognisant of the lifeline offered by vocational education to a significant cohort of our students. Working in schools, youth and adult services, we are strategically positioned to demonstrate to students of all abilities how choosing FET, apprenticeship, traineeships or internships are valid options. We can explain to ambitious students of all abilities the progression pathways proposed in the apprenticeship review, how they work and to what level students can progress over their lifetime, culminating with a level 9 or 10 qualification or at master craftsman level if they so wish. The same is true of FET, higher education and employment and the levels 6 and 7 options offered at institutes of technology nationwide. We meet all our students on a one-to-one basis in the senior cycle and in class, and we make annual presentations to the parents of most year groups.

I thank Ms Dooley and invite Ms Fanning to make her opening statement.

Ms Mai Fanning

On behalf of the National Parents Council Post Primary, NPCPP, I thank the committee for the opportunity to participate in these consultations and in today's meeting. I will read only excerpts from our submission due to time constraints. Over the past year, the council has significantly and demonstrably increased active engagements with parents and parents' associations in all traditional sectors, alongside those now representative of the increased diversity in Irish society, via our office and online facilities. The role of the NPCPP is to consult the Minister for Education, as outlined in The Role of Parents in the Educational Systems of the European Union.

Every year, the council organises and hosts a leaving certificate helpline, a freephone service that addresses issues of concern arising from the release of the leaving certificate results. The overwhelming area of distress and anxiety presenting itself by both parents and students to this helpline relates to the historical battle between grades and points. Fortunately for all involved, the helpline phones are manned by professional guidance counsellors from the IGC, who expertly deal with all issues arising.

In the context of the assessment options, is it appropriate to continue with the tradition of a State exam that, in most subjects, relies totally on students' performance solely in respect of their ability to recall information at a specific time on a specific day, culminating in a grade that is supposedly reflective of their performance throughout their school life?

Project, aural and oral aspects have been introduced to a variety of subjects but the concept of standardised continuous classroom-based assessment has not yet been explored as a real option. It is very clear from our consultations with parents that this must now be addressed.

We must explore standardising the use of digital technology in education and the effects this would have on differing demographic groups. One of the main factors which must be addressed in any scenario is the support and guidelines which would be necessary for the teaching profession to adopt in order to implement any alternative approach. Science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM, has become an increasingly important factor in Irish education. It covers a much broader range of subjects than many realise.

With regard to access, equality and well-being, one of the questions that has arisen is whether all pupils, including those with special needs, should be entitled to a national certification of their educational achievements. Do all pupils receive the access, equality and well-being supports they require? These questions form part of an ongoing survey we are carrying out, the results of which will be circulated to the committee in due course.

With regard to Irish, we are looking at the 20-year strategy for the Irish language. We have to examine what is expected from the teaching of Irish as a curricular subject and what can realistically be achieved in the classroom.

For the leaving certificate programme to remain relevant, the required changes must include the necessary supports for our post-primary students to effectively prepare them for their future lives and careers and to assist, where necessary, to ensure equality of opportunity, particularly for those who are disadvantaged or who require particular supports.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

I thank the committee for the invitation to speak today. How many CAO points did you get in your leaving certificate? It is a number you are likely to remember because, at the time, it might have felt like it defined you. We all know that you, and certainly the young people we work with, are more than that number.

To give some context, Citywise provides support to young people and to local schools, delivering programmes which see over 85% of our members going on to third level education. This is from a

community which, unfortunately, has little history of such participation in post-secondary education. The last census found that 5% of people in the immediate area of Citywise, the area where I am from, have a college degree. Of course, this is a multifaceted problem, but we have several insights, many of which we shared in our original submission, based on our work not only with regard to educational progression, but also student well-being and the role which community organisations can play going forward.

A decoupling of the leaving certificate and college admissions would go some way to addressing these issues. Assessment should have a purpose and that purpose should not be to sum up five or six years of learning into a single number. It seems that the leaving certificate is considered an entrance exam to third level education as opposed to a final exam for secondary school. The assessment process should accredit the work of students, while also facilitating and fostering learning in its own right. The current system puts teachers in a difficult position with regard to what they should teach and how they should approach their classes. We should not let an exam dictate what and how we teach and learn in the classroom. This is especially important when we consider 21st century skills. A rigid system does not lend itself to the development of such skills as communication, collaboration and problem-solving, that is to say, the transferable skills we talk about regularly. We need to learn to trust our schools. We need to widen our consideration to subjects and educational pursuits which have traditionally gone unexamined.

When we speak to students, it is very often the experience, the projects and the informal learning which seem the most impactful. These worthwhile learning opportunities can be sidelined under the current system in the name of the points race. They not only need to be protected, but they should also be recognised and accredited. While, of course, recognising the importance of numeracy, literacy and the skills and knowledge traditionally central to the leaving certificate, it is important to include in these discussions the other learning that takes place in schools. Participation and the learning achieved in non-exam subjects and outside of the classroom should be recognised in curriculum design and assessment. It is been said that what we measure, we value. The failure to recognise formally the important non-academic work of schools in this way has been a disservice to both students and teachers.

There is also another point to be discussed around the way in which we conceptualise schooling and learning. We often think of it as preparation for a career or for the future but in reality, students are in school now and their well-being is suffering now. We all know that the leaving certificate has an impact on this. We have made suggestions, including assessing over two years, bringing in a three-year curriculum, having college interviews and postponing the college start date. This review is an opportunity to put student well-being at the heart of our education system and to take innovative and novel approaches.

We ask that the committee consider the role that community organisations such as ours can play in supporting senior cycle teaching and learning going forward. I have seen a community approach to education work for my local area and it has worked for me. We have been supporting 15 local schools for many years, offering the kind of informal learning opportunities I have already mentioned, while supporting student well-being and offering educational support. We can help. I will leave members with the following thought: no matter how many CAO points you got, it is time to give the leaving certificate back to students.

I want to acknowledge what Dr. Muldoon led with. I do not know if it is correct to say it has been joked about but all committee members have said, just as Ms Ward has said, that we still remember our leaving certificates and that we do not remember them in a good way. For us to continue inflicting that suffering down the line does not make a great deal of sense to me. An element of distress is consequent from the structure of that final exam and there is a lot of intergenerational stress. As well as that I mention the matriculation element of the leaving certificate. Students are being told this is the most important exam of their lives. We are looking at skills training, further education and different pathways into further and higher education so in no way should it be the most important exam of one's life.

I am struck by something that was reported on at the weekend, which described a school principal, Fionnghuala King, having a consultation with parents. Parents were asked by the NCCA to say what they thought the purpose of senior cycle education was. They were divided into four groups and after some discussion all four groups came back with the same answer. The same one-word answer was written on a piece of paper: "Points". I have a grave worry about how we are conflating a matriculation exam as something that should be a summative exam. When I look at dropout figures from the leaving certificate they make sense to me. If one is disengaged from the education system and is not planning on taking this route to further and higher education, why would one sit the leaving certificate if it is only a matriculation exam rather than a summative assessment of what one has learned from senior cycle? A lot of what Mr. Hennessy said is reflected in that and is very true. It is very reductive that one's success in the senior cycle is based on a number that is crunched out at the end of it. It is something the committee has taken on and I commend the Chair on that. This is a terrible phrase but there is a moment. We have seen that there are other potential models because of what we have had to do during the pandemic. It needs to be looked at and reformed. As Ms Ward said, it is not good enough that it is more or less the same as the exam I sat many years ago.

I want to focus on a few questions. I am interested in the idea of modular learning. Micro accreditation was mentioned last week, which might be an interesting idea to explore for transition year. Perhaps I am asking the wrong group of people about this but I wonder how much resourcing would have to go into that. There has been a lot of talk about having a final exam but only having it account for 40% or 50% so that the guts of the work is already done. That models what students will go onto in third level.

I want to ask Ms Dooley about guidance counselling. I have asked at a number of committee meetings if we need to better resource guidance counselling at secondary level, both in leaving certificate reform and in pathways to further and higher education.

We also did a comprehensive report on school bullying and well-being measures that are needed in school. I would like to give Ms Dooley the opportunity to outline to us from her experience how much time she gets to spend with an individual student over the course of the senior cycle and, presumably, how much more time she would like to spend with a student. What would increased resourcing for guidance counsellors in the senior cycle look like from her point of view if we were to strive towards something and how would that improve the student experience?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

I am nearly uncomfortable answering that question in a sense, in that I am aware of what Ms Ward said that only the Irish Second-Level Students' Union could speak for the students. To clarify, we are the advocates for students in school and our role in that space is non-political. Perhaps people do not realise that. I am speaking for students and for resources for us all.

I have been a guidance counsellor since 2005. The pre-2012 enrolment in schools of 600 to 700 students was 28 hours in a week. After 2012, some of us lost half our hours or one third of our hours. In my case, I was teaching four subjects and I was acting as a guidance counsellor for half the hours. That means you have the skills to help people and you are in the uncomfortable situation where you are literally running to a class to get there on time, having helped somebody who was upset. You have to send them back to their class upset because you have not been able to finish that piece of work and you walk by somebody else who is upset that you could be helping.

A lot of the work we do is responding to events that happen. Much of it is dealing with anxiety and preventative work. If we had more time to do that work, a lot of the issues we are referring out would not get to that point. We would always be referring students out, but we would not have as many as are being referred currently. The numbers are very high. We did some research about two years ago which showed that some 67.4% of members were dealing with mental health issues every day. That is too high. We are referring students to a wide range of about 12 different organisations. We want more time, as then we would be able to nip things in the bud. We would be able to put in place the skills piece I was talking about.

We have not got professional recognition. We are looking at that with international partners. We brought delegates from Finland to our conference last year. We are looking at countries where that has been achieved. One of the things they have done is put together a system where there is class contact with students. We must be careful with this so that we are not shunting it into a class, and that we do not have time for a one-to-one meeting. We need adequate time for the one-to-one work, but we would welcome more resources and time to put together a menu of learner outcomes for students around that skill piece. We have done a lot of work in recent years with organisations like SOLAS, Future Skills Ireland, the apprenticeship providers, institutes of technology and education and training boards nationwide around upskilling our members on labour market skills needs. We are very up to speed with what is needed out there. We are in a good position. We would love time to access students and have access to a class in each of the senior cycle years.

Am I hearing in that answer that IGC members are spread very thinly in terms of interacting with students on issues that come up? Is it the case that guidance counsellors are reacting, as opposed to being able to engage with students? There might be students who do not present to a guidance counsellor over the course of the entire senior cycle with emotional needs. Do IGC members find they do not access such students in the way they would like in terms of giving them advice on future pathways?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

That is definitely the case. It is a tightrope. We always make sure we meet every student individually at least once, and twice in my school in leaving certificate year, to spend a class period with them on post-leaving certificate options. What tends to happen is that one third of those appointments end up becoming focused on mental health issues, as students come in and get upset about something and then the whole focus becomes anxiety or what the student was upset about. Sometimes the issues are referred out.

We have the time to meet them for a number of sessions to try to help them with that mental health issue. It is a tightrope between making sure you are getting to every student to get through the career stuff and dealing with the other stuff as well.

On that idea of chaotic households where learners are based, one of the days I learned most as an educator was when I asked a child why his homework was so bad compared with his classwork. The child was living in a congregated setting and he told me it was because he had to do the homework sat on the toilet because it was the only seat available to him. That day I learned they may all be equal in the classroom, but they are not all equal in terms of educational access in their home environment.

The witnesses are welcome. I appreciate their presentations. I think it is the view of the committee that this is our one chance in a generation to reform the leaving certificate when we come out of this pandemic. The examination has remained largely unchanged from the time we were all traumatised by it, back in the day when we sat it.

We have to address a number of things, but two in particular. The first is what school is like for the young people or children going through it. Are they studying things they are interested in? The second is how those things are assessed. You could have a great experience in school studying and learning things you are interested in, but the model of assessing what you know is brutal. Alternatively, you could have a situation where you are not that interested because what you are being asked to learn does not reflect who you are, where you are from, your background, heritage and culture or the interests of those in the locality you are from. You are asked to study things that are alien to you and then to go through an assessment process that is brutal and that does not reflect your abilities and how you learn.

Some 15% of students who go to DEIS second level schools do not make it as far as leaving certificate. We have a reasonably high level of retention until leaving certificate year. I think it is approximately 91%, which reflects pretty well internationally, but it is 85% in DEIS schools. I have a few statistics. The number of DEIS schools where not a single student studies higher level English at leaving certificate level is 31. There are 39 DEIS schools where not a single student does higher level Maths and 41 where not a single student does higher level Irish. In terms of higher level Irish, that is 41 second level schools where not a single student can become a primary school teacher. That is either because not everybody is good at Irish or because the school has determined that it cannot justify the resources for somebody who may be good at Irish. This happened during the debate on assessed grading for the leaving certificate when members of this committee were strongly against the idea of school profiling. What if a student is one of the small number who have the ability and who want to power through and break through disadvantage and poverty? How will he or she do it when the entire context of what is happening at his or her school militates against it? We have a second level system based on competition. Schools compete against each other and have the whole reputation thing going on, so they have open days.

I am supposed to direct questions to individuals but I like to direct questions to those who are interested in answering them rather than putting people on the spot. How do we assess those things? First, how do we produce a school experience that is reflective of young people and what they know and want to learn? Second, how do we produce a model that can assess that? Third, how have we come to a situation where schools are failing young people because of the competition model we have insisted upon? There are 41 schools in the Republic that cannot produce a primary teacher because not one single student either has access to or has been empowered enough to do higher level Irish.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

One thing in our submission that would fit here concerns the concept of using digital learning that we have all been forced into in the past two years.

We would see an opportunity for classes to be livestreamed to students in those schools the Deputy is talking about. The question is whether we can partner up with the big schools that are doing livestreaming. We do not need extra staff for it and one child who wants to participate can sit in a classroom, watch the class in Dublin or wherever it might be and learn from it. There are schools like that all over the country where maybe five or six children want to do a subject but there is a shortage of certain language teachers. Again, we can create opportunities for one language teacher to stream or record for other students to get those opportunities. There is a huge benefit from that. There are also students who may not be able to access school due to behavioural issues or mental health difficulties, or they may be in hospital, and they could do it from home. Livestreaming and recording of classes can be of huge benefit to children.

On assessment, the Deputy talked about the overall situation and whether we can provide students with an opportunity to do things they are interested in. One of the recommendations we made was the concept of reducing the number of subjects they do from seven to five, and allowing one day a week to do something they want to do; it might not even be a subject, and could be farming, metalwork, hairdressing, landscape gardening, charity work or working with children. They get assessed, they do a video blog and they get interviewed in the same way as in transition year. There are lots of opportunities to assess those things, which again gives a holistic opportunity to those children to do the pieces that are really important, so the child gets a more rounded understanding of what is valued by us as a society. We are saying "what is valued by us as a society is what you are interested in, young man or young girl, and we want to see you develop that". It may never become a job but it will make them better at what they do in those other five subjects because they will have had that opportunity.

There are a couple of opportunities. Again, on this concept of a leaving certificate review, when we talked about it not coming into being until 2030, I did a calculation. If we assume 60,000 children do the leaving certificate every year from 2016, when the UN committee heard from children in Ireland and asked us to review this, up to 2030, some 800,000 children will have gone through that system and it will be the same way it always was. We have to speed up that process and, again, the voices of children need to come high in that planning. The way Mr. Hennessy said it earlier was fantastic; it is time to give the leaving certificate back to the students. It was never designed by the students and students were never asked. The NCCA has asked them and it has got great feedback from students. We need to put that front and centre all the way through, and do it quickly.

Probably the strongest statement I heard today was from Mr. Hennessy in terms of giving the leaving certificate back to the students. Does Ms Ward want to comment?

Ms Tanya Ward

The Deputy is raising a critical point. What strikes me is that it is not just about the fact the school does not necessarily have the resources to organise the higher level for the child. An issue that comes up from all of the representative groups is aspirations. Educators sometimes have low aspirations for the children and young people in their schools. When the centres and educators have high aspirations, that motivates a child or young person. When they hear someone tell them, "It does not matter what the obstacle is, you can do it", it changes how they think about themselves. It is one of the big things that people living in poverty experience all the time and, unfortunately, it is experienced by many of us within the education sector. I would have been that child. I was that child in pass classes and the only way I got to university was that my parents paid for grinds to get me through.

Ms Tanya Ward

That is the only way I got out of it. Here is the thing we need to think about. A very good study has just been done by NUI Galway evaluating alternative education providers like the Life Centre and Scoilnet. Some of the things that are coming through in terms of the findings are striking. They were saying things such as that a person-centred approach made a big difference. These are young people who have been on reduced hours in school. They were told they would never get to third level but they did go on to third level and did go on to a career. That seems to be a critical point. The other thing was having high aspirations, which was critical, and that is what the young people said and what the provider said as well.

I wonder about that. I looked at the findings and said this is probably what happens when people go to a private school, and this is the kind of approach people get. Everyone tells them: “It is okay, you are going to get there.” That is probably something missing within the education system at large.

The other thing that comes through is that for a principal or school that wants to upskill in this area, there are very few places for them to go. We do not have a forum where these providers can come together and exchange information on methodologies and teaching and learning approaches. That is another gap for providers and schools.

Let us say the school says that it has these talented young people coming up and asks what can it do to shift the direction in which they are going. They have nowhere to go. The principals have to go off and investigate what they can do but there is nowhere for the principal to go to upskill and train, and for other people within the centre to upskill and train as well. That is a gap that has to be looked at as well.

My time is up but I would be grateful if Mr. Hennessy could respond.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

We are one of the projects that was part of that evaluation with NUIG in Galway. Aspiration has been a key piece of that work that we do in Citywise and other programmes. I always remember a case that was reported in the newspaper a couple of years ago in our local area where there was a student in a local school who was sitting higher level mathematics. That was in the newspaper. That was fantastic for that student but it is not news.

Places such as community organisations have a part to play in this. When we talk about the need for grinds and the extra academic help, places such as Citywise have been providing that service for people who are unable to afford it and gives them that step up to a level playing field.

I would also like to echo what has been already mentioned by some of the other witnesses here today, whether that is face-to-face opportunities within community organisations where we can have central classes such as mathematics, higher level mathematics, higher level Irish, English and whatever it might be, or the digital mode that we are all accustomed to now. At the minute, we are fiddling around the edges. There is an opportunity to do something structural here which gives students the flexibility to dictate and be leaders and agents in their own learning where they are deciding what they want to do and projects they can take up. That aspiration piece is key. That is something that has been missing in under-served areas because of the intergenerational aspect of it. That is a piece of work that really needs to be done.

I thank the Chairman.

The next member to speak is Deputy Ó Laoghaire. He will be followed by Senator Mullen, if he is here, or else Deputy Conway-Walsh.

I welcome all the speakers here. It is probably worth reflecting briefly on why we are looking at reform of the leaving certificate. There are two primary areas, and maybe a third. The first is the fact that there are significant advantages conferred on the middle classes who have already benefited from high levels of education and, indeed, have disposable income to spend on that, and who maybe attend schools that are under less pressure. The second is the trauma, to be totally frank about it, that the leaving certificate inflicts on so many people. Perhaps a third is that it equips our students poorly for the needs of modern third-level education, and, indeed, industry, but that is a much lesser priority than the first two. These groups that are here today are particularly well-equipped to give us an insight into all those areas, but particularly the first two.

I might direct one question specifically to the ombudsman, Dr. Muldoon. In previous sessions, I have raised the fact that there are undoubtedly schools where too few students go to third level but there are also many schools where too many go to third level because there is too much of an emphasis on higher education and a cultural stigma towards apprenticeships. I believe that there is a shift happening. I believe that there is at a policy level, both in government and in terms of the agencies, SOLAS and the education and training boards, ETBs, an appetite to move this along but one of the big obstacles will be cultural and, frankly, the parents and, to a lesser extent, maybe the schools themselves. There are many policy issues we need to get right to shift the balance in that area, but how can we tackle the culture?

The following may be a question more generally for everyone to pick up. One of the little knots that we need to figure out during this process is, to be fair to the people who initially designed the leaving certificate, was that they did not imagine this as being primarily a route to third level. It was the terminal examination. That is a long time ago. It has become that, and something we as a committee need to figure out is whether we, in reforming the leaving certificate, need to deal with the implications of that for third level or whether we need to completely separate them out. In separating them out, we must also ask if it is worth the duplication.

Perhaps that is justified. Perhaps it is worthwhile in order to ensure that the leaving certificate stands on its own two feet. Then third level can be dealt with separately, and people sit their terminal examination and gain entry yo third level. I have an open mind on that and I think most other members do also. However, it is something we have discussed.

There is a final question that I would leave open to everybody to answer. There should not be an obstacle to us reforming and pursuing change very enthusiastically. We have to do so. There is no choice but to pursue change. In bringing about change, however, there is also potential for mistakes. There are reforms that could make things worse and that could advantage middle class students to an even greater extent and disadvantage working class students, ethnic minorities, etc., even more. I hope that is not too provocative. Will our guests outline one of the things they would not like to see coming into the leaving certificate in the context of any reform.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

If I understand Deputy Ó Laoghaire correctly, he was referring to the concept of a parent who is pushing hard for the student who may not want to be an accountant to become one or to get to university when he or she may want to do something else. That is where we need to get to. We need to create a leaving certificate or senior cycle that is guided by the child in some way or other and that includes enough opportunities for the child to express what he or she wants. At the moment, at the Deputy says, it is a pigeon-hole; it is very much a funnel. For 14 years, you are heading towards the first three weeks in June. Everything is picked out for you and you have a limited number of opportunities to go in a certain direction. There are three or four compulsory topics so, again, you are left with very limited choices. We need to widen that out so that parents start to value alternatives. I am old enough to remember the time when a third of my class left after the intermediate certificate back in the 1980s. Some of them would have already left after sitting the group certificate examination in second year. There were opportunities and jobs. Some of them became much richer than anyone could ever have imagined but there were jobs as tradesmen, farmers, developers, builders and so forth. We valued that. None of them was left unemployed for long because they were willing to work. We need to get back to that situation where there are more opportunities to recognise the value of the leaving certificate, in and of itself, in the context of creating opportunities for our children.

Parents will always push their children. The whole nature of parents is that they want their children to do better than they have perhaps or to do as well as they have done. That is appropriate. If we build a senior cycle that allows the child to speak up, be heard and choose a wider selection of subjects that fit, as Ms Dooley just mentioned, their personalities and their the learning styles, then that can happen side by side with what the parents want. The child will get a better choice as a result. Changing that culture will take a long time. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, we must ensure that the reforms do not make things worse. At the moment, I do not see how it can get worse. Every one of us at this table has heard children talking about suicide in the run-up to examinations. That is wrong. We have done something wrong. It cannot get worse as far as I am concerned. Changes have to come soon.

Ms Beatrice Dooley

This is relevant to the NPCPP and to all the parents' organisations nationwide. I would love to see a conversation happening between apprenticeship providers, employers and parents. We have started that conversation with them. It is electrifying when you have a young person or a person of any age who has come that route stand in front of a bunch of students or parents and talk about the journey. It is a different presentation and way of communicating to each of us of those target groups. If parents could understand that instead of paying so many thousands each year to put their daughter or son through college, they are bringing money home. They are going to be able to buy a car, a house in a couple of years and, guess what, a couple of years later they can employ other people, which is where it gets really exciting. We need to get behind our entrepreneurs and apprenticeships. It is a no-brainer. The appetite is there from those of your colleagues I have spoken to for that happen. Anything we can do to help, we will do. This needs to be happening in the school context in some way. In other words, parents could be brought into schools and those to whom I refer could speak to them. We have parents' nights for each year group every year, so it would not be huge cost to the State for that to happen.

Ms Mai Fanning

We are running a survey at the moment. It has only been up for two days. We have had more than 1,000 respondents to it already. One of the questions is:

The current Leaving Certificate process requires students to choose one option only of – Leaving Certificate, Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme or Leaving Certificate Applied.

Would you be in favour of adjusting the system to allow some movement between the programmes to suit the educational needs of the student?

The results coming in are very positive, namely, at more than 90% in favour of that. I would look at things like that in terms of the fact that, yes, we have to change the system. More than 86% of parents do not want to go back to the pre-Covid-19 model of the leaving certificate. That number is very high. They want either assessment and project work with a smaller final examination or continuous assessment and project work without any examination. If we are looking at a way to speed up this process, opening up what is already established is possibly a route to begin with; it is a starting point. It is going to take quite some time to develop the curriculum, make subject changes and facilitate everything that needs to be done. There is a conversation going on about the need to have ordinary level and higher level. One of the things we have been discussing is that there are many aspects to higher level subjects, especially mathematics, that many students taking ordinary level would be able to do. If we look at subjects like mathematics in terms of the module approach as opposed to a very constrictive curriculum, it might give us a broader opportunity. It might also give a broader opportunity to students in all schools to take higher level rather than, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin said, what happens in DEIS schools where it is either one or the other. This is an issue. We cannot have a school where it is either one or the other. There has be equality for all.

Ms Tanya Ward

A quick response to the question on the matriculation dimension to getting into third level. Adding another layer of matriculation would be a further barrier for disadvantaged students. Students who want to enter the Law Society and become solicitors can be discouraged by the other eight examinations they have to sit. Separately, the committee needs to look at the entry levels into university and how that system actually works at present. It is clear there are not enough places in certain areas where there are massive gaps. In medicine, for example, it is pretty clear that we need to increase the number of available places. That might address some level of the grade inflation that is happening around those very particular disciplines. There is another thing we need to look at and expand. The access programmes are hugely successful at getting people from different backgrounds into university. We need to see an expansion of those programmes because they offer an alternative route and are working very effectively. We need to see that happening with all the high points subjects. That is the approach we need to see.

I thank the witnesses. This is an ongoing topic for discussion but it is always interesting to hear various perspectives in order that we can put it all together to come out of this process with some actions. The key thing is, we have talked about this matter for so long.

As Dr. Muldoon noted, we need to be aware that in 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its concluding observations on Ireland, recommended that the Irish State needed to reform the leaving certificate. That says it all. The committee made recommendations around that. I will not say that nothing has been done, but it really is a matter of concern that we not made any progress in addressing the issues that committee raised. As Dr. Muldoon stated, the review is coming up in 2022.

What excuses will the Government make for not having addressed the important issues that were raised? What is the defence for that? Why has the NCCA report not been published? I ask Dr. Muldoon to respond to those questions.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I certainly would not like to be the person standing in defence of the Department of Education. My suggestion is that the NCCA review was the action that was taken. It did a fantastic job and was very inclusive. It included children in special education, parents, teachers, all kinds of groups. It produced a report over three years. From what I have picked up, it sounds very good but it has not made it onto the table yet. We have not even started the process of negotiating to bring it forward. From our point of view, everything that happens in the Department of Education is a compromise and that is the wrong way to go. If we take the gold standard, the first thing the Department would think before putting out the gold standard is that because it has to negotiate with 17 different education partners, as Ms Ward just set out, it will suggest the copper standard, negotiate from there and, hopefully, get to the silver standard. In reality, however, we need to create a gold standard new version and that needs to take into account the voice of the children. That is what we are missing at the moment.

I will quote an article in The Irish Times in relation to that review;

... change looks set to be slow and modest in scope... It is likely a recognition of what happened with ambitious Junior Cycle reforms, which ended up getting bogged down in lengthy disputes with teachers’ unions.

Where is the student in the middle of this? Where are the children who are leading this and why are we not giving it back to them? From my point of view, there are no excuses available to the UN committee, which will not stand for it. We need to get the negotiations happening quickly and get the review published first. The review started in 2016 and we are talking about it not coming through until 2030. That is equivalent to a child starting in junior infants who will do the leaving certificate in 2030. That is how bad it is.

As a committee with the responsibilities we have, to whom should we send a communication on having that published?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I am not quite sure if it has gone as far as Cabinet. I presume it goes through the Department of Education. I am not sure of the process involved in that. I presume it is sitting with the Department of Education to go to the Cabinet. I am not well up on that.

Coming out of today, if we have agreement from the committee, we need to send a communication to the Department. This is very important. We will be discussing this in ten years when some of today's primary school children will be in leaving certificate year. This is too serious to just leave there.

All of these reports cost a great deal of money, time and resources to put together. When they are not made public or acted upon, it is a complete waste of money. Regarding money and creating the level playing field we talked about, when I worked in community development, in recognition that not all homes are conducive to children participating fully in the education system, particularly around homework and different challenges in the homes, we set up homework clubs specifically dealing with Irish and mathematics. We had qualified tutors coming in for everybody but trying to reach those who could not afford grinds. The Government stripped away all the funding as though it did not matter. That is such a mistake. I hear many reports about different challenges within families and for youth in communities. Instead of closing down very successful projects, they should have been mainstreamed. It is not rocket science.

Ms Mai Fanning

I will jump in here quickly. This is something cyclical about how this comes around in the conversation. Why are outside supports needed for education? Why is there a necessity in deprived areas?

Why is there a necessity for extra supports depending on what socioeconomic group you come from? We have a system in this country called the education system and institutions called schools. That is where you are supposed to get all of your support.

What are we looking at? Is it that funding is going on outside supports when it should be concentrated on the school? The school is a community made up of the teachers, students and parents. That community seems to be where much of the lack of support is. Schools are crying out for support. We have voluntary secondary schools that are in the DEIS system, but because they are voluntary secondary schools, they do not get the same level of funding another school outside of the system would get. There are such discrepancies all the time. What has become increasingly apparent is that, if a parent wants his or her child to succeed and get the necessary points, he or she must make the sacrifice to pay for the grinds. That hits the middle classes so badly and it is such a struggle, but why is that a necessity when we already have an institution established called a school that should be supported?

I agree. Obviously we need to look at why. It takes a whole community to educate a child. Not taking away from what Ms Fanning is saying because I agree with her 100% but there are models that are working within communities, bringing communities together. It can also be in giving students a hot meal even outside that setting when they leave school. There are different positives from it.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

On the funding issue, we all accept people are starting from different starting lines in the education race. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about funding being cut in different situations. There are models that work. In our programmes we see 85% of people going on to third level. It has been externally evaluated by NUI Galway. We never received consistent State funding. Funding has come from knocking on doors in the local community, fundraising drives, corporate sponsorship and philanthropy. We never had consistent State funding for programmes that are shown to be effective and support, not only in the education and progression of young people but also for their self-esteem, well-being and ability to live fulfilling lives.

It is life-changing, and even generation changing in terms of breaking cycles that need to be broken. I have used up my time but I have many more questions. Perhaps I will get in again.

Ms Tanya Ward

Dr. Muldoon talked about junior certificate reform being confined and restricted because of disputes that happened. One of the key game changers we need to see is leadership. We need to see leadership at all levels for leaving certificate reform to take place. Leadership needs to happen among the 17 educational partners. They all need to be speaking with a singular voice. We need to see it across the political parties. We see consistently that political parties are in broad agreement. It is always a big question that, if the politicians think we should have reform, and the Government thinks we should have reform, why is it not happening? That is something that needs to be unpicked. A key ingredient to focus on is leadership among all the bodies in this space.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na n-aíonna. I have been listening to the witnesses' presentations and I thank them for being here, for all the good work they are doing and for all the ground they have covered. There are so many issues we could talk about.

On the change we need, what is taught and to whom it is taught is one aspect of the issue, along with how it is assessed and how that relates to progression to third level. There are many issues that are fite fuaite - interconnected - but I would like to start with Mr. Hennessy because I am astounded to learn that Citywise Education gets no State funding.

There is a lot of money going to a lot of quangos in this country and they give varying degrees of value for money. I know a little bit about Citywise over the years. It is an area of the country that is very much in the news at the moment. We heard the statistics about 5% having college degrees in the catchment area it is in. Why is it not getting State funding? I am sure it is not for the want of applying. It astounds me to hear Mr. Hennessy say that just now.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

I do not know why we do not get funding. I could offer lots of guesses. In some ways, we have fallen between stools. This work needs to start really early. One cannot just turn up to ask someone who is in leaving certificate year why he or she does not think about going to college or doing an apprenticeship. We have to start from an early age. We support people aged eight right up to those in third level. Historically, we have been pushed between Departments and have fallen between stools. We do youth work, but also have an educational focus. Recently we had difficulty with applying to different funds because money is going to people who have historically received money to make sure that services can continue. At the minute we are locked out of that.

It is a bit like farm payments. People who received them in a certain year will continue to receive them and those who did not are locked out.

Organisations such as Citywise, which are working with people on the ground and helping them to advance their life chances, should be very much the focus when it comes to targeting resources. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on the leaving certificate examination can be released from the clutches of third level. I have asked this question in previous committee meetings. I asked university representatives this question and the witnesses referred to it in their submission. Should the universities not do their own testing for aptitude and the filling of college places and let the leaving certificate get on with being a more direct test of student engagement, learning and accomplishment during a certain period? Are the needs of the colleges getting in the way of making the leaving certificate, and the second level experience leading up to the leaving certificate, be what it should be?

Mr. Daire Hennessy

I suppose so. In my opening statement I said that we need to give the leaving certificate back to students. We need a different model, which moves away from the CAO and college admissions dictating what is taught in classrooms. We are giving too much importance to the leaving certificate because it is a matriculation examination rather than a final assessment of second level. Something similar to the leaving certificate will always be used in college admissions, in the same manner as job interviews where people are asked about the last thing they have done. If we have a system whereby the leaving certificate is only a minimum standard and we base it on things such as people's interests and aptitudes it would be a more welcome system for students and take a lot of the pressure off them.

What the views of the other witnesses? I am not the expert, but it seems to me that the leaving certificate is a prisoner of colleges' needs. They are institutions with their own resources. I find it very strange that in this day and age that one can sign up for a three- or four-year, or longer, State-funded third-level education programme without being interviewed as part of the assessment.

Ms Tanya Ward

The Senator asked an excellent question of Citywise, namely why it is not funded when it outcomes are so significant. There is a gap because no national programme funds alternative education providers. These organisations, despite their high success rates in transitioning young people in their career choices, are not being funded by the State. It means they spend huge amounts of time fundraising when they should not be doing so. They should instead be focusing on teaching, learning and helping young people. It would be an easy win, to be honest, if the Minister was able to introduce a programme of that nature. I understand a review of alternative education is taking place and a paper is sitting in the Department, but it has not been moved on.

I urge the committee to look at this aspect. Alternative education providers have a huge role to play in dealing with the life chances afforded to children, especially regarding those children failed by the one-size-fits-all approach.

I agree fundamentally regarding what was said about the leaving certificate examinations having become a system of matriculation for third level colleges. It is unfair. If we take medicine, for example, entry requirements for people to study in that area in Austria, regardless of whether they want to be social workers or doctors, is nearly the same. There is no big, prized medical degree, and people who want to work in those jobs are therefore more likely to end up in them. There is an issue with people ending up in medicine who do not really have the inclination for it, while there are others who would be brilliant in those roles but who cannot get next or near them. They can spend years doing extra degrees and trying to find other ways to enter these occupations.

Our system of prized points for different courses must be unpicked and entry to such courses unlocked. I also agree with what was said regarding how an examination- and points-based system can be the best way of finding the best candidates for those programmes. It cannot possibly be so, and if the committee was to focus more on entry to third level education, that could make a huge difference to unlocking this connection between the leaving certificate and entry into third level education.

It is a problem with third level match-up and with what happens prior to third level as well.

Ms Tanya Ward


Do our other witnesses have a different view?

Who would like to go first in answering the Senator? I call Ms Connolly.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

To take us back a bit to the very purpose of school for children and young people, it is about their overall development. Ideally, it should be a context where children are supported to develop and one that ensures they will leave school with a sense of their own skills and abilities and with a positive expectation for themselves and their future. This is a unique opportunity for the committee to put its weight behind what has been referred to and what parents are asking for, which is continuous assessment of some sort.

I refer to that aspect in the context of bearing in mind what we know about how children and young people have suffered during the past year and a half to two years and the impact on their well-being from a mental health perspective. In addition, it is also an opportunity for us to explore the question of what children and young people need and to listen to their voices, and for the committee to pull its weight. I do not even know who the 17 stakeholders are, to be honest, but their collective purpose, as has been said, should be to place children and young people at the very centre of schooling and to determine what doing that means.

I will finish with a positive reflection of what can happen when all the parts of the system work together. I refer to our teen parenting service, where schools work with us, and other providers of such services, to ensure mothers, which it is generally, stay at school and come out with qualifications. That is an example of a national programme that resources and supports what is in the best interest of the development of young people and their children. Therefore, there are examples of good practice that must be funded. Let us put our energy behind challenging the stakeholders in this area when they need to be challenged to ensure they focus on children and young people.

Ms Beatrice Dooley

There are other international models we could look at. In many cases, those applying to go to college in Europe must satisfy minimum requirements. There is not a kind of points hoop to get through. Accessing third level education in Ireland requires people to jump through three hoops. There is the points hoop, which everybody talks about and it gets loads of attention. There are two others as well, however, in the form of the minimum subject requirements and the specific subject requirements. It is that aspect that causes my colleagues and I to lose sleep if we do not get to our students in time before they make those all-important subject choices. I say that because doors slam closed each time students drop a subject without the right information.

The ideal would be some kind of system modelled on what we can see works from looking at international best practice, which is what I think is being done now. Looking at countries like France, for example, would show us a system where a written exam and oral and practical work are considered for the terminal assessment. Equally, in Queensland in Australia and in Ontario in Canada, projects done by students during the senior cycle count towards results in the final exam.

Doing an exam has its merits because many aspects of life are like an exam. We must be able to perform live, rise to the occasion, deal with unexpected events and cope with all that entails. Let us think of any job, including, for example, as an actor, a doctor, a teacher or being a parent. All those roles require people to be able to deal with what comes at them in a live space. That must then be balanced with the fact we have many people who get anxious in exams. Some people are really good at cramming, so exams are not a test of their ability but of their memory.

It would be wonderful, therefore, to have an element of continuous assessment as well, and to have a good balance of both types of assessments. I am anxious because we tend to have pendulum-style swings in Ireland, where we go from one extreme to the other. I would hate for us to go from the existing extreme of having one very stressful exam to a situation where there is no exam at all. We must be careful to ensure we have a wee bit of balance here.

The continuous assessment aspect will suit many students. All the students in sixth year who have ever come into me have said the same thing at the start of the first session, namely, that they wished they had worked harder in fifth year. That resonates because when we are younger, we think in the present tense. Even though young people of that age have a big exam ahead of them in two or three years, they procrastinate and that is human nature. Something with short time spans, therefore, of perhaps six to eight weeks, which students can compute and relate to as happening in a few weeks' time, would resonate with young people, whereas an exam that is two or three years' away may not be working so well.

This is an interesting and, indeed, a fascinating conversation. A point was made earlier asking why are we talking about this subject again since we have been talking about it for years. We must keep talking about it, no matter what the outcomes it is hoped we can achieve from this eight-week session in respect of recommendations we can make. We are never going to have a situation where the leaving certificate curriculum or assessment is going to be the best possible scenario for the young people it is intended to serve. Times change, society changes and challenges change. We must always be mindful of that, and we must continually attempt to reform this area and to examine the best way in which we can serve the young people involved at any particular time.

The whole concept of education, what it is and how it serves mainly younger people but society in general as well is a huge question. It is frustrating for all of us who are trying to solve this problem in a short time. The skills that young people need to navigate life and, it is hoped, to enable them to progress within education and a career are very important. All the areas touched on are relevant and all the points made and interactions and conversations we have had in the past hour and a half are important. Young people who feel good and confident learn better, and in that context I refer to the crucial connection between, and the importance of, well-being, belonging and achievement. That point must be central to our discussions. We must develop young minds and ensure they have an appetite for learning and the ability to adapt to anything that might happen. When we look back over the past 18 months, that need becomes clear.

Turning to comment on the submissions and the opening statements, I will talk a little about the leaving certificate applied. Several aspects concern me in that regard. It can be a good programme. I have had the opportunity to go into schools and to talk to young people in the programme about politics and how decisions made at local and national levels impact their lives. I have always been impressed by that engagement. I am concerned, however, that there is no pathway from that programme onward into further education, and there should be. While it is good news the CAO form has been changed to include apprenticeship courses etc., we must also examine the leaving certificate applied programme in that context. Several schools are opting not to run that programme now because of the league table situation.

It is wrong and we need to look at that because all of us want to break the cycle for those in disadvantage. Some of the statistics in the submissions are quite scary and Barnardos has said that over half of the people detained in Oberstown detention centre had not engaged in education prior to that, which is a crucial fact. I hope that with the home school liaison programme and the school completion programme coming back into education may help improve things.

Previously in two reports that we made we have said that therapeutic counsellors or therapists should be provided on site in all primary and secondary schools. I feel that is really important. Ms Dooley said that when young people go to her that she starts off dealing with their stress and maybe do not have the opportunity to talk about subject options, career options, etc. I would like to explore that matter with her.

Ms Dooley has recommended that transition year assignments are included in the calculation of leaving certificate results. I found that an interesting recommendation. She mentioned that consideration should be given to introducing some type of assessment throughout that period. I refer to the idea of conducting leaving certificate exams at three different times and not just at the end, which I also recommend and I am interested in exploring that aspect.

Dr. Muldoon has recommended that the number of subjects should be reduced from seven to five. That is an interesting concept but I disagree because for young people, particularly those who may not have the opportunity to pursue further learning, it is important to have the opportunity to be exposed to as many subjects as possible. Perhaps we can look at the way they are exposed to subjects. For example, I would love to see the subject of philosophy and ethical learning introduced as young people could learn so much from the subject. In European schools it is part of the curriculum and is an exam subject.

The reform of subjects and curricula, and assessment can be used to break the cycle of disadvantage. We talk a lot about breaking the cycle, it is hugely important and it is a priority for us but high achievers are not served well by the present system. In fact, many of them tend to go abroad to pursue their third level studies because they have been left unfulfilled by their experience of secondary school here and not reached their full potential. I would appreciate brief comments on that matter.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Senator. My idea of reducing the number of subjects to five is to allow an extra day in the week for the child to focus on something that he or she wants to do. I mean students could pick the topics they wish to study, the hobby, vocation or wherever they want to go and have that assessed, and they could asses it as well. My recommendation means that it would be a swap as opposed to a loss.

The importance of adopting a holistic approach was mentioned, and Ms Connolly talked about it earlier, we forget that Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to the right to the best possible education. However, Article 29 says that education should promote the development, personality and talents of our children. The holistic development, maturation and social engagement are important but a lot of them are lost by schools focusing on exams and testing students every week in preparation for an exam in 18 months' time. In such an instance there is no maturation, socialisation, friendship or teamwork. A lot of changes can come through if we provide a wider selection of opportunities to children and young people that, in turn, allow us to break the cycle of disadvantage. If children focus on what they are good at and are assessed on that then no matter where they are in this country, straight away that will give them a step up from where they are now and we can go from there.

Ms Tanya Ward

I thank the Senator. I want to come back to one thing. I agree that the leaving certificate applied should be a route to third level or to where one wants to go. This is where the development of access-type programmes are key. That should be the entry point.

I want to pick up on the Senator's points around education welfare. I am very concerned about the area of education welfare. The Senator mentioned the data cited by Barnardos with regard to Oberstown. Half of the children there have not been engaged in education. The Child Care Law Reporting Project, under the stewardship of Dr. Carol Coulter, is documenting cases of children being taken into care in the childcare courts. A consistent feature is that the child has not been in school for months. That is very concerning. If a child is being neglected and abused in the home, the best observer of that is going to be the school, which will give the best report to Tusla on what is happening to the child. We do not know why, when we have education welfare services, there are children in the care system who have spent months out of school? Could it be that some of the children have not been referred to the education welfare officers? Is that happening in all cases? Could it be that the education welfare officers do not have the resources to deal with the needs of the child? We know that there are not enough of them. When one contrasts the number of education welfare officers in the Republic of Ireland with the number in Northern Ireland, one can see that we pale in comparison to their resources. The service providers directly in Tusla have said they do not have enough officers. They are dealing with referrals only, and are not doing proactive work. We must also consider whether there is anywhere for the education welfare officer to place these children. Alternative education providers play a very important role for very disadvantaged children who are experiencing great difficulties in the home. They are able to keep these children in the education sector and give them the kind of emotional support they need. The key for a child in care is to do well in education because it is likely that he or she will not have a support group in early adulthood. Such a child has to get an apprenticeship or move on to third level education because he or she is going to have to be self-sufficient. There will not be a safety net for many of these children and that is their experience.

I apologise for stopping Ms Ward, but I have to bring in Senator Dolan, who will be followed by Deputies Pádraig O’Sullivan and Alan Farrell.

I thank all of our speakers who have come in to us today. Dr. Muldoon is here as Ombudsman for Children. I know Ms Connolly, who is CEO of Barnardos. Ms Ward, who is the CEO of the Children’s Rights Alliance; Ms Fanning of the National Parents Council Post Primary; Ms Dooley of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors; and Mr. Hennessy from Citywise Education are also in attendance. I was able to listen to many of their contributions at the start.

I have one or two questions which are for everybody in the audience and then I will ask or one or two questions which will be directed specifically. According to Ms Connolly's submission, 90% of children in affluent areas will move on to third level education, but that figure is just 26% for children in disadvantaged areas. We are here today to seek the reform of the leaving certificate. I ask the witnesses if they could give me their top two reasons that would make a change in moving that 26% upwards. When I say "upwards", I want to see further and higher education in there, along with apprenticeships.

I note that Ms Dooley, who represents the career guidance teachers, has just left for the moment. I will catch her when comes back. I was going to ask her about accessibility and inclusiveness. I will put that question when she returns.

Some other challenges in disadvantaged areas were mentioned, including the need to have space to study. Reference was made to the impact of the lack of access to education on children and young people’s outcomes. That has to do with employment or unemployment and health.

Dr. Muldoon spoke about skills and competencies and about the importance of resilience, teamwork and self-confidence. He also spoke about entrepreneurship, innovation and project management. I would like more of our young people to have that confidence. We need more entrepreneurs and more people considering start-ups. Enterprise Ireland's Big Ideas 2021 event, which is happening this Thursday, is a wonderful example of 12 companies based in Ireland that have come out of campus start-ups at third level. We need to ensure this is also happening through our technological universities.

Dr. Muldoon and others mentioned that we are seeing CAO reform which will include apprenticeships and all the options that are available to link in with technological universities through PLC courses so that students are able to study locally.

The expense of going to city-based schools and universities does not have to be there. This is what we want to see with the roll-out of regional campuses. I was not aware of the National Parents Council helpline number. I ask Ms Fanning to comment on it. I hope the witnesses have time to go through some of these points.

Ms Mai Fanning

The helpline is run every year by the National Parents Council Post Primary. It coincides with the leaving certificate results. It runs to the days of the CAO first round offers and on the days the appeals process opens. It is a freephone number. Something of which we were very conscious of at the beginning, when we started the helpline years ago, was that when parents and students phoned they would speak to a professional at the end of the line. We brought in the Institute of Guidance Counsellors so we would have professionals who would be able to deal with it and know what is coming up. It has gone crazy over recent years with the level of stress and drama and the traumatic experience this fight for points has become.

Does Ms Fanning feel that all of the options are being presented to students so they have a full understanding and awareness of what is available to them to reach the careers of their choice?

Ms Mai Fanning

They have already made their choice at that stage. They make their choice in the previous January and finalise it in July. They get their results in August or September. If they do not get the points required they panic. They could be two or three points off and panic, trauma and distress come into play.

Reform of the leaving certificate is very important.

Ms Mai Fanning

It is more than important. It is critical with regard to how we as a country move forward. We have to reassess, as everyone has said, the outcome of education. What is our expectation when an individual finishes school?

I apologise. I am conscious of the time. Ms Fanning is right that we have to put the students first, as Mr. Hennessy mentioned. We need to bring the leaving certificate back to the students.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

With regard to 90% of the affluent versus 26% of the disadvantaged going on to third level, and we call it further education, we pushed for a Dáil debate at the start of the new term on a better normal. We have asked the Government to promote an ambitious target of eradicating child poverty in five years. It is outside the remit of the committee but if we can create a floor below which no child will fall, so that they know they have a safe and secure house, heat, clothing and meals, they will be able to focus on their education. These are the things that will start a move in the right direction. Barnardos has much more understanding of this than I do. We have already signed an EU child guarantee to try to move in this direction. We should make it ambitious. It could tie in with changes in the leaving certificate and the education system so that disadvantaged children can have a real focus and do not have to worry about survival. With regard to the CAO, entrepreneurship and other areas, a big step forward is that in the CAO these further education and wider opportunities will be visible to those children looking at it. This is a big step forward. The technological universities will be a help in this direction.

When we speak about child poverty it is about looking for supports for single parent families. This would be crucial.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

It is very important that every child has a right to positive expectations from the adults around them with regard to their future and their capabilities. For a variety of reasons some children do not have this in the family home. When they do not it is very important that it is provided by schools or other organisations working with children and young people. We never know what will make a difference for a child or young person and I will give an example.

One young person mentioned a playground that we ran in Waterford and that he was attending. He said the adults in that playground encouraged him and he said that made a big difference to his belief in himself and his potential to do well in school. I found that fascinating.

It is important for schools to be trauma informed so that when a child is misbehaving or withdrawn, whatever might be going on, the school staff might ask what has happened to the child and how might they support the child to ensure he or she does well. Schools must be child-centred. All of us who come into contact with children must do all we can to ensure that they can do as well as possible educationally. There needs to be a range of options. It is not all academic.

Ms Connolly is right. We all sometimes need positive reinforcement to reach our goals and potential.

In an earlier contribution, Ms Ward mentioned home school community liaison officers within the DEIS scheme. They are a wonderful resource that connects a school with families and supports both in that way. What points would Ms Ward make about how we raise that 26%?

Ms Tanya Ward

Metanarrative studies show that children's ability at the age of three can predict whether they get to third level or not, particularly for boys. That tells us that inequality is embedded from early in a child's life. How do we address that? It can be addressed. It starts with early-years provision and having high intervention and wraparound provision through the kinds of programmes that Barnardos delivers. We must ensure those programmes are available and freely accessible for children throughout the country.

The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is going to publish a report before Christmas on what is called the funding model. One of the areas the report will focus is the notion of a DEIS-type programme within the early-years area. The committee could invite the Minister in to zone in on that. We would be concerned that insufficient funds are going to be made available for this type of provision. We know that many of our members are pulling out of the service. One family has pulled out.

Another key intervention is the alternative education piece. We must ensure that is funded. It is not going to be hugely expensive but it will result in critical changes.

I have given the Senator an additional two minutes or more.

Thank you for that, Chairman.

I thank our guests. I was listening to the discussion in my office. I will not give a big, winding speech about what I would like to see or my opinions. Many of us here are educators. We have taught at second level, third level and primary level or were involved on boards of management. Many of us have a background in education. I am more interested to hear from our guests. I have three or four direct questions to ask. Before I do, something that strikes me is that, particularly when I was teaching at leaving certificate level, fifth-year and sixth-year kids would ask me if a particular topic would be on the examination or what were the chances of a topic coming up on the leaving certificate examination. They would tell me that teacher X or teacher Y gave them great notes and that was what made those teachers the best. That is not necessarily what is best for a child or the best way to prepare them for examinations, but that is the model we have had. That is what we have all fostered and nurtured over the years. We all have responsibility for the good but also for some of the bad. I liken our education system to a factory-type system, as it probably was, dating back to the industrialisation of the country. It has modified over the years but while many things have changed, others have, unfortunately, stayed the same. The overriding sentiment in this committee seems to be that there is a need for change to move towards more continuous assessment and a presentation-type model. We can see the new modifications to the junior certificate. I would say there is still a place for end-of-term examinations. They have merits, albeit we need to get the weighting right. That is my background.

I will address my first question to Ms Dooley in order that I might hear the perspective of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. A member of my party, Ms Shauna Brady, is a teacher in Dublin, although she is from Cavan. She has been a big advocate for therapeutic counsellors and therapists in schools. As Senator O'Loughlin said earlier, that is something we are also big advocates for. When I was a teacher, over the years I encountered kids who had various needs and some things I felt incapable of dealing with. Do guidance counsellors feel they have the adequate training or do they think a therapeutic counsellor or therapist in schools is a requirement?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

Senator O'Loughlin touched on this earlier. The reality is that most of the work we do is dealing with anxiety. Most of the issues coming across our threshold involve anxious students. We can address these issues if we get to them quickly enough. In terms of bringing in what you call outside therapeutic counselling, we would argue that the work we do is therapeutic. Any counselling work is by its nature therapeutic. We are guidance counsellors. We understand we are not counsellors and that there is a difference. Our model is holistic, educational, vocational, personal and social, but going back to Ms Ward's point, we would argue it is about putting the student first. What is right for the student here? Imagine you are a student with a very heavy personal issue, such as some kind of abuse going on in your life, does you want to bring that into the school environment? Do you want to be sitting in an office in a school building unravelling this piece, and then have to go back into the classroom and have to face your peers? They will have seen you walk in there. That is the beauty of the guidance counsellor's office - again I am putting the student at the forefront so Ms Ward should bear with me. Students come in to us and if they have an issue, they will typically spend five or ten minutes sussing us out and sizing us up - kids are brilliant at doing that - to see whether they want to talk to this person and whether they feel safe or comfortable. When they relax and there is a bit of a rapport going, they get to the real reason they came in, which is not about the CAO or subject choice but it is something else that is bothering them. The beauty of that is nobody knows why they have come in to the guidance counsellor. My door has a sign that says guidance counsellor, but they could be coming in about subject choice, college choice, study skills or time management. They have absolute confidentiality. We do not go to coffee break and tell our colleagues that Mary said whatever. It is confidential, so the students get the psychological space to say what they need to say.

Anything that is beyond a four- or six-week session with us, we will move on. We are dealing with very heavy issues. Every two weeks, sadly, somebody comes in who is self-harming. We get a couple of suicidal students in a year, and students experiencing suicide ideation. We have had a suicide in my school. Many students came in to me in the wake of that, who were triggered by it. We are dealing with heavy issues. There is abuse, the gender issues, the poverty and lack of resources. You name it, we deal with it.

Our training is pretty intense. We are all qualified teachers and have the experience of working with young people. One of the wonderful things about teaching is you become very good at reading people and you can suss out somebody who has a problem at a couple of hundred yards. You know by the way they are moving and walking and not looking at you. You can tell. We have all of that skill set before even embarking on our post-graduate studies.

It is an intensive post-graduate course. It is either one year full-time or two years part-time. Many of our members have gone on and done a masters, although not all. We do a good deal of CPD. We do five afternoons a year. There is a conference every year. We are currently upskilling all our members. We have a big national strategic CPD plan. Last year, I put 770 members, more than half of our members, through cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, and reality therapy training. We are still rolling that out through our branches. We are using all of our funds on CBT.

We respond to what is needed on the ground and at the moment the need is anxiety. There is a tsunami of anxiety. We are very aware of our boundaries and we refer out anybody beyond our brief. We know the difference between who we can help and cannot help. I would be wary of bringing in therapeutic counsellors into schools because what I hear from members is that they are being shunted out of their jobs and put back into teaching and the counsellors are being brought in because they are more cost-effective. It is becoming a money-saving piece.

There are issues around confidentiality and who owns the data. It is an issue when you refer somebody out or go to Tusla or social services. We work very closely with our principals. With all due respect, before bringing in other groups, you had better check whether they will have the same relationship with the principals.

I thank the witness for those insights. Can I ask two or three questions? Mr. Hennessy said earlier that no State funding was received. Can he elaborate on whether they get any teaching hours or co-operative hours? We are going to visit the Life Centre in Cork in a couple of weeks, which is in a similar situation. It provides an essential service. We know at first hand of the good work it does. I would like to ask Ms Connolly about Barnardos. There was a statistic on Oberstown Detention Centre. When people go in, education is provided. A course is tailored to their needs or another route is provided in agreement with the students and which is best for them. I refer to when they return to the school environment subsequently, back out to the real world, so to speak. Are there any statistics on how many of them fall out of education subsequently or how many of them stick with it? This is to see how effective Oberstown is.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

I thank the Deputy for the question. The short answer is "No"; we do not get any teaching hours. All of our funding comes from knocking on doors or from corporate supporters and philanthropy.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

I do not have statistics in regard to what happens after Oberstown. I am sure it does but what is really important is that the young people get loads of support when they leave. Bear in mind, all members who have children, or who know of children, know of the amount of support those children get to do as well as they can. Unfortunately, the chances are that children who have ended up in Oberstown do not have much external support, so it would be really important.

To catch up on something Ms Ward said, early intervention and prevention is very important, as members know. We have so many opportunities to do well by children.

I will make a quick point about children and young people's therapeutic supports. What is important is that sometimes they need support individually, but sometimes what is upsetting them is what is going on in the family. It is important they do not end up carrying all of that burden.

I have a couple of questions but I will go back and give the other members a two-minute additional slot.

Ms Fanning spoke about grinds. How big an issue is it for her association? How big a cost is it to parents? Is it a regular issue that is fed back to her association?

Ms Mai Fanning

I do not have figures. It is something we are discussing at the moment in terms of carrying out a survey and possibly having engagement with parents to assess where we are at. The past two years have certainly disrupted how grinds would be relied on because of remote learning and the amount of it that had to be done. Traditionally, grinds have been seen as a crutch. They are being utilised by those in our society who can afford them. The parents who cannot afford the grinds feel they are not supporting their children to the level that they should be. However, my argument would be that students spend enough hours in the school. They have direct contact with their teacher, so the necessity for grinds should not be so relied on. In many schools, particularly in those focused on the academic, and especially in science subjects, including chemistry, physics and mathematics at higher level, the expectation is that in order to get a good grade in the higher level paper it is nigh-on impossible without recourse to grinds. If the teachers cannot cover the curriculum, or they are struggling to cover it within the timeframe, that is a major flaw in how the curriculum is produced and presented to them.

If it is a necessity to get a grind, that excludes many parents who just cannot provide to their children. It is a problem and it is one of the reasons we would like to explore the possibility of module learning instead of the final exam being everything.

Ms Fanning mentioned grinds. I do not want to be classist in any way but some people from a less well-off background may be less able to do what Ms Fanning has said. What is Ms Ward's feeling about it from what she hears from her organisation?

Ms Tanya Ward

It is down to choice. There is parental choice and choice for the young person. It is symptomatic of the fact that the mainstream school has not been able to deliver on the needs of the child. It creates an inequality. If people are able to pay for grind schools, which contain the key markers and people who set the exams, then they can crack the formula and are able to perform and get the grades. It creates an inherent inequality within the education system.

The other matter that is important to think about with regard to grinds also applies to private schools. When third level fees were abolished, it had the effect of a whole generation of parents sending their children to private school who would not have sent them to private school before, because they would have held on to that money for third level fees. That created another inequality. It meant that entry to third level from private schools increased. It meant that there was a more intensive, higher level of education and supports wrapped around a person. Something there needs to be unpicked about the one-size-fits-all approach within the education system. We need to go back to look at what schools actually provide by way of extra supports. We welcomed the Minister introducing the Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, programme to give extra supports to children who have suffered through Covid and are falling behind. Maybe that is a system-wide approach that should be applied within the education system as a whole. If a child wants to put extra hours in after school, should the child not just be given the opportunity to do so, to develop, and to get where they need to be? Maybe we need to look at a solution of a system-wide change of supports, a type of CLASS programme that is available for any child or young person who wants to avail of it.

On the issue raised by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, the Minister, Deputy Harris, raised the issue of apprenticeships last week. What is Ms Dooley's view on the Minister's announcement last week? Personally, I think it is fantastic news. It takes the stigma away from apprenticeships. If many young people do not go to third level, do not go through the CAO or do not get the points, sometimes they are not really up with the Joneses, as they saying goes. The issue of apprenticeships has been discussed here since I became Chair of this committee, with regard to the shortage of plumbers, carpenters, electricians and so on. We should be pushing more people towards that. The Minister's announcement last week will assist in that. While encouraging students to go into apprenticeships is probably not the sexiest option, what are Ms Dooley's views on that, what does she hear about it and how can more people be encouraged into apprenticeships?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

My colleagues and I are delighted with this announcement. On the IGC website, we have been inviting submissions on this since 2013, looking for parity of esteem between apprenticeships and other options to enter the world of work, through third level and through the further education sector. It is a really welcome announcement. I look forward to seeing what magic Solas will see in the future to make those portals accessible and easier to manage for young people, by making that information easy to access. The Chair asked about how we promote apprenticeships.

I suppose it is a question of communication. The Chairman is right about the sexiness of it. There is much PR work to be done because people do not realise that there is a very wide range of apprenticeships out there. I believe there are now 60 on offer. They range from the old traditional craft apprenticeships to more modern apprenticeships in white-collar areas such as IT, accounting and science.

There are many students in school who are what I would call kinaesthetic learners. They are hands-on people who learn by doing. Reading and writing all day is not the primary way they learn. They need to be doing stuff and getting their hands on whatever it is they are learning how to do. These are really welcome things. Dr. Muldoon was talking about the one day a week. We would echo some of the comments. We want work experience for all students and not just for those going through transition year, the leaving certificate applied or the leaving certificate vocational programme. We would love every student doing the senior cycle to do work experience. I am not sure what that would look like. I am not sure about the logistics of having a day a week with regard to meeting curriculums. There are a lot of different things involved. I would definitely love to see more input from employers, IBEC, SOLAS and apprenticeship providers. SOLAS is certainly out in front and doing an awful lot in this area. It has worked very closely with us, as has the future skills programme.

I am very aware that there is a lot of information out there regarding labour market skills shortages that is not necessarily percolating down to students and parents. That is probably partly because we do not have the time. We would love to get in front of them and give them this information. It is also because there is a little bit of a need to join the dots between the players, including the future skills programme, SOLAS, IBEC, apprenticeship providers and Regional Skills. Is there a way they could be brought together to make this more user-friendly?

I have two quick questions for Dr. Muldoon and Ms Connolly. On continuous assessment for the leaving certificate, one of the Deputies spoke about a child's work in the school as compared with his work at home, where he was not getting the supports. Will either witness, or both, quickly comment on that? Would that type of student have a better opportunity to do well if there was continuous assessment?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

That would be a step forward. I do not think the final examination will ever be eliminated. It will always be there and will always be given some percentage or weighting. However, with regard to continuous assessment, everybody has the capacity to do something well for eight weeks. Everybody can manage to find some way around that no matter what disadvantages they face. It is going to be hard but working continuously without any feedback until the final examination two years later is much more difficult to sustain. Assuming students do well after that eight weeks or whatever length of time it might be, they will also get positive feedback. The way forward is to provide that continuous opportunity to succeed, bank those points and move on. If they have done badly, they will have an opportunity to fix that. That is of enormous benefit.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

To add to what Dr. Muldoon has said, you can also plan around a child. If children do not do as well as expected in a particular aspect of continuous assessment, you can ask what is going on with them and understand and support them more. An environment can also be provided where they are able to study, which might be in a Barnardos centre, another centre or even in the school itself. It gives us an opportunity to plan and to get clued into what is happening for each child.

I was going to ask Ms Fanning the next question, but I will instead ask the youngest of the witnesses, Mr. Hennessy. On continuous assessment for maths, English and Irish to start off with, I am not sure the Department of Education has the appetite for real reform that is needed. The NCCA report has not been published as of yet. The module of work we are doing here is important. We need that report to be published to continue our work. As the most recent school leaver, and I include both witnesses and members in that, what is Mr. Hennessy's view on continuous assessment starting off with maths, English and Irish?

Maths and Irish are probably the two most difficult subjects for a huge number of students.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

Continuous assessment is likely to be the way forward but there is a danger in thinking that it is a silver bullet. If continuous assessment is the only thing we do, there is a danger the stress will spread across the entire year instead. Continuous assessment is a key element of the changes that need to be made but it has to be in association with other measures. If the leaving certificate remains the main college entrance examination with six examinations instead of one, the pressure will still be on but it will just be spread across six examinations instead of one. It is the way forward but it has to be in conjunction with other elements.

I want to get back to my most immediate concerns about this year's leaving certificate. I note from Dr. Muldoon's submission that he has acknowledged the additional stresses and strains, above what we have all spoken about this morning, with regard to the challenges Covid has presented. I know some adjustments have been made. What single further measure could be taken to alleviate some of the stress? Have any of the witnesses communicated with the Minister for Education to express their concerns about this or to make suggestions on what could be done?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

We have reiterated the fact that those doing the leaving certificate in 2022 need to be supported because of the gaps they have had in their education over the past two years. This is the first group of children to come through self-assessment and modules in the junior certificate. It will be their first major examination. We communicated with them. What is being suggested at present seems to be appropriate. We will link with the Irish Second-level Students Union on what it feels would be best with regard to extended opportunities and a reduced number of questions. It will be a very difficult time for these young people. I am not sure whether there is much else that can be done. The concept of predicted grades would take off a lot of the pressure but it does not seem to be on the table. It is something we can consider with the committee as to whether there can be a way of doing it if necessary and having it in the bag for the future. We did it for two years in a row. How can we tweak it so that if it ever needs to be used again it can be? What has been done seems to be satisfactory, assuming Covid does not catch on again. I have always asked for a fallback plan.

As somebody who is living with a leaving certificate student I am not sure whether it is satisfactory in our house. The students have not sat an examination for two years and now that they have started doing tests it is an absolute shock to most of them. Their stress levels are extremely high, as are those of their parents.

Ms Suzanne Connolly

I would ask each school to outline in writing how it will support children socially and emotionally with this, that is a key, concrete task. It is massively stressful for students and there are high levels of anxiety.

Ms Dooley mentioned expanding transition year and making work experience compulsory. I think back to my own time doing transition year approximately 15 years ago, which was not too far behind Mr. Hennessy. I worked for a disability provider and in a primary school. It helped to form my decision as to what my career path would be. It is something we need to do with regard to preparing students for senior cycle. My question is on transition year specifically. Is it the case that we should accredit such things? As I have mentioned to the committee previously, a trip to the Gaeltacht for six or eight weeks could be accredited for a final mark in Irish.

Ms Beatrice Dooley

It is a great idea. We do not know whether transition year will continue to exist as it does at present. What we should take from it are those experiences that cater to the various learning styles out there. We know there are eight different learning styles. It is not all about sitting down and writing an exam paper.

As for work experience, we are seeking more structure, with perhaps two different experiences. Sometimes one experience will be something the student does not like for various reasons. There is great learning in that, however, and it is not a waste by any stretch. Students should be given the option of trying different things. We would love to see some kind of scaffolding around this from industry, whereby there would be a wide range of work experience available. For example, we used to hold mock interviews in our school before 2012, when we had more time. We would match up parents with students. If there was a parent who was an architect, for example, we would match him or her with a student who wanted to be an architect. The student would get to meet an architect, therefore, and be interviewed by them. If that conversation went the way we would like it to go, that student might get an opportunity for work shadowing or even work experience down the road. If we had more time in schools, this could be done in every school. To be able to tap into the rich range of careers among parents already in a school would be very significant.

I missed Ms Dooley when she was speaking earlier but her submission on behalf of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors was very welcome. I might ask some general questions and I apologise if she has covered them. Does the institute represent all career guidance teachers in post-primary schools? She spoke about time, mock interviews and other elements of the projects guidance counsellors provide. How many hours are allocated? Is there a standard number of hours allocated to fifth-year and leaving certificate students? Do guidance counsellors deal with those students only or do they deal with the junior cycle as well? I like the idea of parents being matched with students.

I apologise for directing all my questions at Ms Dooley but we did not have an opportunity to speak earlier. Opening up the CAO reform to additional apprenticeships, TUs and so on is so important, especially for regional campuses. The feedback we get sometimes suggests the focus of courses is always on the points system and the traditional routes into third level. How can we support career guidance teachers to ensure all options are explored? Do career guidance teachers actively come together and say they need to do things in a different way to show students some of the other ways they can get to where they want to go?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

There are guidance counsellors in schools who are not members of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. We have roughly 1,400 members nationwide, approximately 800 of whom work at second level while the remainder work in FESS, higher education, prison and probation services, adult services and private practices.

We had many more hours available to us prior to 2012. We are seeking to have that allocation restored in order that we can do our job and be available to give adequate access to those who need access to us. To empower us to do our job, we should be given back our allocations. I am kind of bored of listening to myself ask for that, given that I have been asking for it at meetings for the past five years. We need enough time to do the job properly. If we are spread too thin, it will not work.

What would that mean per class?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

It does not work that way. We worked on an ex-quota basis pre-2012, which meant that based on the student-teacher ratio in the school, the guidance counsellor worked for a certain number of hours. That is what we are looking to go back to.

For a school of, say, 200 students, how many hours per week would that equate to?

Ms Beatrice Dooley

For a school of between 600 and 700 students, it would be 28 hours a week. My school, if I might talk in my own terms, has roughly 620 or 630 students each year. Pre-2012, there were two of us working full time because I was providing guidance enhancement, which was a brilliant scheme. We were all about retaining early school leavers, developing links with industry and promoting science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM.

On how the Government can support us, if I can be brazen, I ask it, please, to give us adequate time to do our job.

Also, we are looking for some type of dialogue with labour market stakeholders to continue the CPD in that area with our members every year, which I have been rolling out.

I wish to make two points. One relates to the grind mentality. The point was well made about some families not being able to afford it and being at a disadvantage. I should point out that many families who pay for grinds cannot afford to do so, but they feel they must do it in order for their children to get sufficient points to go on. They are making big sacrifices as well. Traditionally, they tend to be the squeezed middle - families who are paying for absolutely everything. We have to recognise that in all of this.

The second point is not dissimilar to what Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan spoke about with regard to the TY work experience. In the context of TY generally, it concerns me that if students do not have family contacts, they do not get experiences that show them the breadth of opportunities that are available. I have a student who is in TY at present. She is an excellent young lady and I am going to her school tomorrow morning to speak about life in politics. She is the only person in her class who went out by herself to look for work experience. I have also had young people from another school. The teachers in the school did not realise that the parents might not have the wherewithal to have those business contacts, shall we say, until I approached the school. It had suddenly dawned on me that I was not getting any requests from the school for work experience. When I approached the career guidance teachers they said they did not realise that the availability was there. I believe that developing that link between the business world and schools is vital. As we know from IBEC and other organisations, they are looking for transferable skills. It is not just about the academic qualifications.

Ms Dooley and Dr. Muldoon might be familiar with Mr. John Doran, who is a fantastic career guidance teacher. Working with him, we developed a pilot programme. Sadly, Covid-19 happened and we could not put it in place. However, it was working with the chamber of commerce and the local employment office on trying to develop that linkage and also trying to develop that support element for the businesses, because all too often the businesses will have a situation where a young person is coming for five days or for one day over the term time and employers are struggling with how to support the young person and what they are meant to do. A great deal more thought must be put into what the young person can learn, what the employer is signing up for and what the young person is signing up for to make it a very positive experience for everybody. All of this is vital in terms of moving forward to fifth year and looking at the breadth of options ranging through apprenticeships, going on to higher education, retail and so many different things. We have to get that piece right; it is vital in all this.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I totally agree. It is the concept of working together, the combination of the community working together to provide the best possible education for our children. That is what we are talking about. I have seen it with the children and young people who come to us for TY and spend a week with us. The ones who have no interest in children's rights ask the best questions and they challenge us more. They come around and understand what we are talking about regarding children's rights and how that works for them. It is a great benefit to all of us, so the Senator is right. If we move forward in this direction, we must get those combinations working together because everybody benefits.

Mr. Daire Hennessy

That was a great point made about work experience, but there is also a wider discussion to be had and a wider point to be made about the role of social capital in education and the networks that we all have. I often tell the story of my own decision about going to college. If I had wanted to be a plumber, I could have chatted to a lot of people because there were many individuals in my housing estate who were plumbers. However, I wanted to study economics and politics, and there were not as many people in those areas around. This shows there is a wider discussion needed. There is a need to platform local role models who have been through different educational pathways and can come back to the community. As many people mentioned, it takes a community to educate one person.

Thank you very much. I thank you all for coming here today. Our discussion has been very productive, and I commend you all on your hard work and commitment and willingness to engage with the committee. It is greatly appreciated that Dr. Muldoon, Ms Connolly, Ms Ward, Ms Dooley, Ms Fanning and Mr Hennessy gave up their time to inform the committee. We will compile a report on this and will send a copy to all of you.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.46 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 16 November 2021.