I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for coming to the House to speak on the important topic of statements on the leaving certificate 2020. I want also to thank all of my colleagues who are the spokespersons on education in their respective groups for attending here today. This is an issue that has proven very trying for the students and is also a very difficult situation given the unique circumstances that we find ourselves in with respect to this year's leaving certificate. I ask the Minister now to address the House.
Leaving Certificate 2020: Statements
Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh, as an deis a bheith anseo inniu. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to be here today.
A great deal has happened since my last appearance here both for the country as a whole in terms of the move to level 3 of the Plan for Living with Covid-19 earlier this week, as well as for students who availed of calculated grades, some of whom received increased grades during last weekend. In the interim I also brought proposals to Government during that time on school transport which is a subject which many Senators raised on the last occasion I was in this House.
Last Saturday I announced that we had identified the final number of students and their grades that were affected by errors that had occurred in how elements of the software used in the calculated grades system had been implemented. As Members also know, earlier in the week I had first spoken about two errors that had been found in the coding used in the calculated grades process.
The model was designed to take the junior cycle results of a group of students and use that group's results to inform the calculation of their leaving certificate results. It bears restating that the system did not take the results of a single student's junior cycle exams and apply it to that specific student's leaving certificate calculated grade. Rather, the system looked at performance at an aggregate class level in the junior cycle examinations, and applied that in calculating students' leaving certificate results. The model was intended to use the students' scores in Irish, English and maths and their two strongest subjects. The error we discovered meant that the coding drew on the students' two weakest subjects rather than the two strongest subjects.
A second error concerned the inclusion of civic social and political education, when this should have been disregarded by the system. At that point, I decided to seek independent expert oversight in the interest of certainty, particularly for our students. I commissioned Education Testing Services, ETS, to provide an independent expert opinion on the coding. On Saturday, I received a statement from ETS and published it that afternoon.
ETS raised two issues in its review. The first was an error which occurred in the use of data, where a student did not sit all three core subjects at junior cycle. A small minority of students do not sit one of the three core subjects in their junior cycle examinations for a variety of reasons. In those cases, the system was meant to use the average national junior cycle score in the missing subject of the group of students who took their leaving certificate in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Instead, it chose that student's next best subject for inclusion in the group computation.
The second issue raised by ETS is how the algorithm treated students' marks at the extreme ends of the scale, that is, students who received between 99% and 100% marks or between 0% and 1%. The treatment does not exactly match what is described in the national standardisation group's report but ETS has confirmed that both approaches are equally valid. ETS confirmed that this does not have any meaningful impact on results as it could not have changed any student's grades. The corrected model has been run again and this allowed revised increased grades to be issued to affected students on Saturday evening.
The final, definitive number of students impacted was 6,100 involving an increase to 6,870 grades which broke down as follows: 5,408 students will receive a higher grade, by one grade band, in one subject; 621 students will receive a higher grade, by one grade band, in two subjects; and 71 students will receive a higher grade, by one grade band, in three or more subjects. Importantly, no student will receive a lower grade as a result of this process.
Earlier today, I understand the CAO has made approximately 420 offers to students who received revised increased grades on Saturday and that this means such students can be accommodated in the current academic year. I want to wish those students every success in their studies and to acknowledge the support of the Minister, Deputy Harris, his Department, the Higher Education Authority, the CAO and the higher education institutions in facilitating these students. There are some students who submitted appeals in regard to the calculated grades which they received initially. The calculated grades executive office in my Department has been progressing those appeals and it is expected that the results of those appeals will be available next week.
Without doubt, we need to learn lessons from the errors that came to light in recent weeks and I have already announced that an independent comprehensive review of the operation of the calculated grades process will take place when the process is complete.
As Senators will be aware, the student portal for leaving certificate candidates to apply to sit one or more examinations in November 2020 closed at 5 p.m. yesterday, having been extended at my request. Provisional data to hand from the State Examinations Commission, SEC, indicates that 2,320 candidates have applied to sit the 2020 leaving certificate examinations. This represents 4.85% of the leaving certificate candidature for 2020.
Further details are not available at this time until the SEC can analyse the data from the portal.
The reopening of schools is a clear priority for Government and indeed for me since becoming Minister for Education and Skills. When Government met earlier this week to consider the latest National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advice, it was very clear that keeping schools open continued to be a priority and would influence any decision taken. Public health specialists working with schools and the Department of Health are closely monitoring the outcomes of mass testing in schools to ensure that where schools are open with appropriate infection prevention and control measures, there is no additional threat to public health. The data that they are collecting are informing the decisions and recommendations of NPHET in this respect. In recent days, this issue has been afforded careful consideration by NPHET. In recommending that schools remain open, NPHET has considered the national experience of school reopening to date, including the epidemiological data and information gathered through case and outbreak management.
The decision to recommend that schools remain open in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the current trajectory of the disease in Ireland is based on multiple factors, including the following. The Irish experience to date supports the current international position that schools are low-risk environments for Covid-19 and are not key drivers of transmission in the community. Many cases of Covid-19 linked to schools in Ireland have been found to have exposure to the disease outside of the school environment, for example, in a household or social setting. Similarly, where testing of close contacts of confirmed cases linked to the school identifies additional cases of Covid-19, many of these are found to have had exposure to the disease outside of the school environment. The importance of schools for the overall health and well-being of children cannot be overstated, and the risk of Covid-19 must be carefully weighed against the very real harm that can be caused by sustained school closures. When children do develop Covid-19, the great majority experience no symptoms or very mild symptoms. International evidence and the Irish experience to date suggest that adults are not at higher risk of Covid-19 in the school setting than in the wider community or household.
In supporting these conclusions, the Department of Health has provided my Department with some up-to-date factual information. As already noted, the Irish experience to date is reassuring and supports the current international position that schools and childcare facilities do not appear to be key drivers of Covid-19 transmission in the community. The Department of Health also notes that these additional cases did not necessarily develop Covid-19 as a result of contact with an index case in the school, and the additional cases detected via contact tracing are likely to include people who contracted Covid-19 as result of exposure in the wider community, for example, in a household or social setting. Finally, there was no significant change in the proportion of total weekly Covid-19 cases attributable to school-aged children before and after reopening of schools, supporting the hypothesis that children are not at increased risk from Covid-19 in the school setting. Everyone in a school community and more generally in society has a role to play in contributing to the fight against Covid-19 and the achievement of the objective of keeping our schools open. It will be necessary for all stakeholders to reflect on experience over the initial period of schools being open and any further or evolving public health advice.
A key element to supporting students in getting to school safely is the operation of the school transport scheme. The Department has been engaging intensively with Bus Éireann in regard to the logistics for the safe operation of school transport scheme services for the 2020-2021 school year. The Department has also been engaging with Bus Éireann on the logistics involved with the rolling implementation of measures on post-primary services as required to provide physical distancing. The implementation of 50% capacity has been put in place where possible over recent weeks, while Bus Éireann has been carrying out a detailed analysis of the resources required to implement fully the advice on all routes.
Bus Éireann and my Department have supported all bus contractors to put in place measures to support infection prevention and control on the buses. My Department has also issued detailed information and guidance to parents and children on the operation of school transport services for the 2020-2021 school year. Measures include all post-primary students wearing masks, all bus drivers and bus escorts receiving personal protective equipment, PPE, where necessary, as well as funding to support additional cleaning and hygiene measures, including the provision of sanitiser on all buses. Seating plans with preassigned seating are in place on all routes, with children sitting next to their siblings or classmates where possible. This reduces the interaction of children on the buses with those outside of their family, class or school.
Government has agreed to provide the necessary funding to ensure that full implementation of the public health recommendation of running buses for post-primary children is achieved as quickly as possible on the post-primary scheme and on the special educational needs scheme for post-primary children. As well as additional funding, significant numbers of up to 1,600 additional buses and drivers and bus escorts will be required. Bus Éireann is implementing different means of providing extra capacity with existing operators, including upgrading vehicles, additional runs or additional vehicles being provided. Where additional services will need to be procured, Bus Éireann has put in place a framework of operators that are willing to provide additional services where required. An analysis has been conducted to determine what is required to implement fully all post-primary school services to operate at 50% capacity. The estimated full-year cost to operate all services at 50% capacity is substantial, with an estimated requirement for an additional 1,600 drivers and vehicles and 650 additional school bus escorts. The full cost will be determined as Bus Éireann finalises the logistical arrangements involved.
I offer my best wishes to those students who have today received CAO offers and to acknowledge again to the wider body of students the concern and anxiety that the issues surrounding calculated grades have caused. I look forward to hearing from Senators.
I thank the Minister. I really appreciate her time as I know it is extremely hectic at the moment. It is shocking what happened with the calculated grades. I appreciate that the team within the Department of Education and Skills discovered these errors and brought them to the Minister's attention, and that an immediate plan of action was put in place. My question concerns the company that was involved, Polymetrika International, which the Minister mentioned in her statement last week. There was an investment of roughly €75,000, if I understand correctly. Was enough investment given to the company involved in doing the calculated grading scheme? I welcome hearing about the independent report. It is very much the case about lessons learned, but the leaving certificate grades were so important for more than 60,000 students, although we know that more than 424 have been accommodated in higher education. Was there sufficient investment at an early stage in the context of dealing with an unprecedented event and managing a calculated grading system? I look forward to seeing that report and would appreciate if the Minister could give us a timeline for it. I acknowledge and appreciate the work done by the Department in such a short time. It moved very swiftly from when it discovered the situation to analysing the details of who was affected. It is shocking, however, that this occurred. I understand that for the Minister it was also a very difficult time.
I note that 2,820 students have opted to sit the leaving certificate exams. As the Minister said, a very low percentage, just 4%, are going forward to sit again. It will allow the students an opportunity for a higher grade in that they will not be penalised if their grades are lower than what was given in the calculated grading system. I welcome the work behind the scenes between the Department of Education and Skills, the new Department with responsibility for further and higher education and innovation, and the third level institutes to increase capacity. That was also done in a very swift timeframe, taking just a week for 424 students to receive an upgraded offer from the CAO. I wish all those students well on their voyages of discovery.
I wish to highlight again the wonderful opportunities that exist through further education and apprenticeships. Many students are stepping out and may not have achieved what they would have wished for when they first put in their CAO requests, but there are so many opportunities now to discover the apprenticeship programme where one can earn and learn at the same time, and with further education possibilities through the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board and all our ETBs throughout the country.
It is great to hear that schools are a low-risk factor. That is very important.
I had a chance to see "A Big Week in September" on RTÉ One last night which showed the experience of children and families returning to school, including those at Abbey Community College in Boyle. From the first days of going to school to secondary school principals encouraging teenagers to keep social distancing we can see the importance of keeping our schools open. That is a huge priority. Keeping the schools open through dealing with Covid-19 has been our number one priority.
High classroom numbers in primary schools, however, are an issue. I am aware we spoke previously about the European average being 20 pupils per class. In Ireland, it is 25 pupils per class and yet we are aware, particularly in regional areas, of student numbers being up around the 26 and 27 mark. I look forward to the budget next week and hope that there will potentially be some focus on managing that and on helping schools keep that social distancing. It was funny in the programme last night seeing principals running around trying to encourage teenagers to maintain social distancing while going through corridors. We really need to ensure, however, that we can achieve it in classrooms.
I welcome that the Minister is looking at the school transport scheme and the capacity measures therein.
With regard to the different levels of Covid-19 and what our society may face in the weeks and months ahead, I wish to highlight how the influenza vaccine can be given to children now through the nasal spray, if I understand correctly, and how we are encouraging both teachers and children in our schools to take up the vaccine measure as much as possible. What measures are being taken in schools?
Finally, with regard to the wearing of visors, we heard many GPs come out last week and say they are not as effective as masks. This is particularly true in areas where a taller person is with young children and much of the droplets are going downwards. What opportunities will the Department of Education and Skills consider for teachers and all staff members working within schools at primary and secondary level?
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am sorry to say the previous time she was here I was forced to leave immediately after my presentation and the same will happen today as I have a committee to attend.
Before I speak on education in this public forum, it is important to recognise the professionalism of Dr. Tony Holohan. After the way he has been maligned over the past few days it is encouraging to hear that he and his team have acted professionally at all times and at no stage leaked anything to the media. Those who did have much to answer for.
The clarification provided by the Minister today is welcome. While the issue was widely reported in the press, we needed a statement from the Minister and her Department. At the outset, let me acknowledge that the procurement process and final decision making did not take place on the Minister's watch and that she has acted professionally at all times in the way she has handled this problem.
It has been a terrible year for the leaving certificate class of 2020. Even a normal leaving certificate is one of the most stressful events in young people’s lives. This year, however, students have had to endure uncertainty, social isolation and months of studying alone at home. On top of this, students were guinea pigs for an untested and untried marking regime and faced into it all with bravery, hope and a great deal of trust in the system.
From the outset, the system threw up anomalies such as how to mark those who had been home schooled or who had taken on additional subjects outside of school. As a teacher, the Minister will be familiar with these things. It was inevitable that many issues would arrive on the steps of the courts, something that a few students, or their parents, have envisaged. There will be many more cases to come. However, what about the disadvantaged student whose parents cannot afford to go to the courts and seek a resolution should that person feel he or she has a case? That is really heartbreaking when one thinks about it.
The recent coding fiasco resulted in 6,100 students receiving grades lower than they deserved and 7,943 students who gained a place with incorrectly assessed grades. It is a new nightmare for those involved. Those who were downgraded have now received a new higher grade and those who have been graded higher than they should have been have already secured places. What will happen to those who received the correct grades but may have missed out on places on other courses? I understand that more than 450 new CAO offers will be sent today to those affected by the grading error. For some, this will be welcome, but for others it will just increase stress. Take, for example, a student who wanted a place in a university in Dublin and finished up taking a place in a university in Galway or Cork. That student now finds he or she would have secured the place in Dublin but has incurred costs in moving to Galway or Cork and paid for accommodation up front and whatever else is incurred in the move. It must be heartbreaking for them and their families.
It beggars belief that the procurement process was not opened out to seek bids from Irish companies. We have a brilliant and flourishing IT sector in this country and I cannot understand why the contract was given to a Canadian company as the sole vendor. I have no doubt that the company involved is highly reputable and competent but others should have been invited to tender.
The decision not to make the code open source was done with the tracing app. Why was it not done with the app for the grading system? One of the key things about making the code open source is that it threw up anomalies and problems with the tracing software that is used. That might have happened if it was made open source.
I wish to put on the record my thanks to the teachers of Ireland who continued to teach, mentor and counsel leaving certificate students, and students at all levels, throughout the lockdown and who marked them fairly. The Minister will recall during my time as president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, there was extreme resistance to getting involved in grading students in any way so our teachers have really gone a long way to support the system. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Teachers Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers, ASTI, for their commitment to their students which is vitally important.
The young people are now embarking on another exciting chapter of their lives in further and higher education. I wish them good health and every success. For those who find themselves at a crossroads and who are wondering if they should come back to Dublin or stay in Cork, Galway or wherever, I wish them the best. I am hopeful that a solution can be found and that the Minister's Department will ensure their families do not incur additional costs.
I wish to address a couple of things before I finish, one of which is the transmission of Covid-19 within the schools. It is a little hard to believe that Covid-19 does not get transmitted in schools. Of course it does. It gets transmitted on public transport and school transport. While driving down the road the other day I saw one of the schools emptying out at four o'clock in the evening and large groups of students were literally shoulder to shoulder walking down the street. No school can stop that happening. The fact of whether they get it at home or at school does not matter. What matters is the response to anybody who is infected.
The other issue is with respect to where we are right now. If the predictions we hear from NPHET come to pass, we may find ourselves having to close schools again. I ask two things of the Minister. One is that she look into the possibility of a single portal run by the Department of Education and Skills that will continue to deliver education programmes to those who are out of school for whatever reason. The second thing I ask of the Minister today is to engage. I read an article entitled "Here's a solution to remote learning if schools shut: the humble TV" which was written by Dr. Triona Hourigan, a teacher at Laurel Hill Secondary School in County Limerick and Dr. Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in technical communications and structural design at the University of Limerick, UL. I ask the Minister to invite both of those people to her office to discuss with them what they might have to offer to the education system should we face a closedown. I have only read the article and I do not know the two people involved. The article, however, is extremely impressive and both people seem to be well advanced in the areas of electronic learning and blended learning which is something I introduced in my teaching career as far back as 1996. I ask the Minister to consider meeting those two people.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, back to the House. It has been such a difficult time for the students of 2020 and their parents, teachers, the Department of Education and Skills and, indeed, the Minister, who inherited a strange legacy. The word on "unprecedented" has been much bandied about over the past few months but truly the task faced by the Department of Education and Skills must have seemed at many times to have been completely overwhelming.
I thank the Minister for giving us an update on the transport situation. Huge investment is going into ensuring our children get to school, that they do so safely and securely and that they return from school. When the Minister was here before I spoke about the need to change the whole transport system and that is something on which I look forward to engaging with her down the line. I thank her also for giving us the update on keeping schools open. It is hugely important we keep schools open and the Minister has given more confidence to parents, schools and, indeed, communities about the safety and security of children within schools during this pandemic. From what I am hearing from schools and parents, schools are handling the situation very well when they have found that a child has tested positive. However, there have been delays with the HSE contacting parents of children so that is something that needs to be looked at.
I return to the substantive issue we are dealing with today, namely, leaving certificate calculated grades. Our absolute appreciation has to go to all those involved who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to bring the leaving certificate calculated grades process to fruition. Of course the leaving certificate is a mere drop in the ocean compared with what our senior cycle students are capable of going on to learn but it is still hugely important for helping our young people transition to third level, further education or to work. The fact that a coding error resulted in the difficulties we faced last week should not detract completely from the massive work effort that went into 60,000 students completing the process and beginning third level, further education courses and the next phase in their lives. I welcome the good news this morning that 424 students who were identified by the Central Applications Office, CAO, as requiring a new offer have been given the place to which they were entitled. Well done to the Department of Education and Skills and the Department with responsibility for higher education for getting this across the line. Some questions obviously remain.
On the procurement issue, I would like to know a little bit more information about why Polymetrika was awarded the contract and on whose advice. Were other firms looked at? What due diligence was done on this company before awarding it the contract? I fully appreciate the difficulties that would have prohibited any kind of regular procurement process but we need to be given the reasons for the Department's decision to chooses Polymetrika for the contract over any other group.
We have heard about the testing that was carried out but did the Minster feel at the time that adequate testing of the coding was carried out? What assurances was she given by the company in question regarding the testing process? What validation checks were in place to check the coding? I am interested in hearing if penalties applied to the company as part of its contract given it delivered a flawed product.
Questions also remain about the written exam set to take place in November, where students will have the opportunity to repeat all subjects or just a few. Will the leaving certificate papers in November be the papers students were to have sat in June or will they be different ones? If they are the same papers, will the those correcting them take into account that many students did not get to finish the syllabus? Should those sitting the leaving certificate in November earn increased points will they be offered a place from this year's CAO and will their place be held for them next year to start in September 2021?
We also have to look ahead to leaving certificate 2021. We have 60,000 students waiting with bated breath for what is going to happen next. They are in a very difficult, stressful situation, as are their parents and teachers. When will a decision be made on whether their exam will follow the normal format for the leaving certificate or will there be calculated grades again? How will the grades of students who have deferred this year, for any reason, stand up against those of deferred calculated grades candidates from 2020? Will the exams of 2021 reflect the fact that students have missed part of their fifth year?
There was much more that I wanted and needed to say but the time goes by so quickly. We have to build confidence into the system and to ensure it is robust and fair. That is important for everybody involved. In all of this there is the need to protect the mental health of students as it is absolutely essential. The importance of that should never be lost amidst the societal pressure for our students to succeed in secondary education.
I acknowledge once again the work the Minister has done and commend her officials on their efforts. In terms of a plan for 2021, it is essential we get the message across to students that while our systems have been tested, we have, as the Minister said, learned lessons and we can give them an exam system they can trust.
I thank the Minister for the good news received by St. Paul's Secondary School in Monasterevin during the week that builders will be on site in October. I mention to the Minister once again the pressing situation of a new secondary school in the Curragh-Kildare-Newbridge area.
I have a direct question for the Minister. Given that the Government knew about the errors from Polymetrika up to a week before it let students and parents know about them, will she place on the record of this House a cast-iron guarantee that there is absolutely nothing else that we are unaware of? There are also concerns that some pupils have been told that their personal data may have been passed outside of the State and the European Union. Can the Minister confirm whether her Department is investigating any potential breach of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, in this case?
We must also not forget that there will be students sitting the leaving certificate next month and I wish them well. Will there be a standardisation process applied to the marking of the small group sitting the leaving certificate in November? If this is the case, will the details of the standardisation process be released given that it will be an atypical cohort unlikely to fit with the patterns of an ordinary summer leaving certificate?
We are also aware of the massive effort of principals and teachers over the summer months to get school buildings ready for the return of pupils. However, school secretaries played a huge role in dealing with the extra administrative burden which involved contact with the Department and ensuring that parents were kept up to date. Even before the pandemic struck, a huge cohort of school secretaries and caretakers were performing vital work while in precarious, underpaid employment arrangements. For years many school secretaries have faced unequal pay as well as poor conditions. Many are paid as little as €12,000 per annum and have no occupational pension, entitlement to sick leave and no incremental pay increases. I think school secretaries felt they were close to a resolution after the formation of the Government given that two of the Government parties stated in their manifestoes that they were determined to see this issue resolved. This being the case, will the Government parties still make good on their pre-election promises? We are 100 days into the Government and last Thursday the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, hearings on a final resolution ended in failure. The feeling among Fórsa, which is representing the secretaries, is that the Government did not enter those talks with any intention of finding a resolution. Now the affected school secretaries are planning strike action to begin on 23 October and to continue through the month and into November. What immediate steps will the Minister make to resolve this?
The pandemic must not get in the way of talking publicly about key issues facing the education system. In The Irish Times of Saturday, 23 October, Ms Una Mullaly reported that a student union welfare officer at UCD received some 350 disclosures of harassment and assault, most of which took place in one academic year.
It is imperative that we provide future generations with an understanding of the importance of consent, the development of relationships, safe use of the Internet and a healthy and positive attitude towards sexuality.
In December, it will be one year since the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment released its report on a review of relationships and sexuality education. In the context of that report, students were unanimous about the importance of relationship and sexuality education. I want to read a quote from the report into the record of the House. It is about students' perspectives of relationships and sexuality education, RSE. The report states:
There is unanimous agreement among students about the importance of RSE. While students frequently cite friends and the internet as sources of information about relationships and sexuality, they were aware of the shortcomings of these sources. They want schools to provide comprehensive, relevant and age-appropriate RSE throughout all stages of education. Students have a sense that this is hindered by RSE’s low status and low priority in schools. They express frustration that they are not receiving comprehensive RSE and that their needs are not being met. There is a strong perception among students that provision of RSE is uneven both within and between schools which means that students cannot be guaranteed the same quality of experience in RSE as they can expect in other subjects.
RSE is a contested topic. There are those who believe that I have no right to talk about RSE because I do not have children. I have news for those people: I was a kid and the RSE curriculum let me and my friends down. Queers and LGBT people had to fight for ourselves, not just to live privately, because that is rubbish, but to fight for our right to live openly and free in public.
In the context of the report from which I just quoted, students also frequently mentioned the lack of opportunities to learn about sexual orientation within RSE. The report does not recommend changes to the ethos opt-out rule which allows schools provide RSE, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. I would like to know where the newly-appointed Minister stands on the issue. Does she agree with the report from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment or does she agree with the most recent education committee which recommended that the Education Act be reviewed so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective teaching of relationship and sexuality education? I put the House on notice that I will be raising this issue every time we have a debate on education.
I thank the Minister for coming again to the House. She has been in and out regularly and we all appreciate her taking the time to be lambasted by questions about what has obviously been a challenging and difficult time for her. We accept that she has an enormous amount on her plate. She has dealt with reopening schools and had a lot of inherited messes to deal with. I do not think any of us would wish that on any Minister, particularly not a first-time Minister. I must commend her tenacity at what has obviously been an extremely difficult time.
When the Minister was previously before the House, I highlighted things that she will have to deal with in the coming period of her term in office. She will obviously have to address the fact that class sizes are too large in both primary and secondary schools. A teaching union is balloting for industrial action because of the nature of what is going on in second level schools. There is also the issue of pay inequality which I hope will be dealt with during the Minister's term in office.
As has already been mentioned, we must provide proper pay and conditions for school secretaries who have now balloted on the matter. The Labour Party will be supporting them in their campaign. The Department will also have to deal with special needs assistants in a respectful manner and vindicate the rights of children with special educational needs to get a school place. There is a huge number of issues on the Minister's agenda, all of which I have previously referenced.
The Minister mentioned that appeals will be available next week. Does she have an indication if that will be at the beginning or the end of the week? A number of students have been anxiously contacting me, looking for any kind of light at the end of this tunnel. We talk about the leaving certificate as a metaphorical tunnel and I hope we are coming to the end of it.
I very much welcome that the Minister extended the deadline for the application to sit the leaving certificate examinations in November but it would have been beneficial if the students could have got their appeal results before the deadline so they could have made a decision about what they wanted to do. That said, I understand that the timing of the leaving certificate has put the Minister and her Department under enormous pressure.
There has been mention of this year's leaving certificate examinations, which will not be like any other examinations. I reiterate the question about standardisation. It will affect a small cohort of students, approximately 2,800. How will the process work? There is standardisation in a normal leaving certificate year but will it apply in the same way? How will that work?
I also want to ask about guidance teachers, resourcing and mental health supports. Will the Minister outline if there are any plans to provide additional guidance or mental health supports? There is great sympathy across the country for this year's leaving certificate students but there has also been a bit of maligning and dismissing of them. I was on a radio programme last week and there were some appalling comments coming in telling students to get over it, deal with it and all this kind of stuff. It was disheartening to hear members of the public being dismissive of a group of students for whom we all have enormous sympathy. Does the Minister have any plans for additional guidance, resourcing or mental health measures? I am thinking of students who are at home, trying their best, and perhaps do not have the compassion or care that they need.
At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health yesterday, I referenced some of the groups who traditionally struggle anyway. I am thinking particularly of migrants and the difficulties they may be facing in the coming year, LGBT students who perhaps are not out to their families and are going to face additional stresses at home, or indeed are out to their families and do not have the supports that they need. I am thinking also of students who are in situations in which they face domestic violence or difficult home environments and those who are coming from direct provision and have already been isolated during lockdown. Traveller students may also struggle. Today is the first National Traveller Mental Health Day and I hope everyone takes note of that. Those are some of the groups of students about whom I am concerned. Will the Minister give an outline of any additional plans for mental health supports or guidance?
Looking forward to the leaving certificate examinations of 2021, can the Minister provide comfort or assurances to the students who will be affected that next year's system will be fair and we will not face the problems that we had this year? I know that this is a bit like asking the Minister to predict the future. I am not asking her to be Mystic Meg or anything like that but are there plans in place if there are going to be school closures? We do not know what is going to happen. Can the Minister off a bit of comfort to those students that the Department has this in hand? I have no doubt that the Department does, but what plans are there to try to get the leaving certificate class of 2021 through?
I know that the Department is running a helpline but are there plans for any more targeted supports? That comes back to the question I asked about the mental health of leaving certificate students.
As a former officer with the Union of Students in Ireland, I echo the statements made by Senator Warfield about consent and sexual education. It is important that we have equal, inclusive and appropriate RSE. I am certainly happy to talk to the Minister about my experience in the students' union and the impact that the lack of RSE at second level is having on students in third level.
I see that my time is ticking away. Those are all of the questions I have. I know that the Minister is a compassionate and capable politician. Her compassion for leaving certificate students has shone through over the past couple of weeks and she has provided comfort for them. I am optimistic about the changes she is going to make to the education system over the coming period. Those are some of the questions I have and they have all come from constituents or people who have contacted me.
I again welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for her dedication and all the work she has put in. This year has been a particularly difficult one to be a Minister as all of us, across the House, recognise.
I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Higher and Further Education, Research, Innovation and Science at which the Minister with responsibility for higher and further education, Deputy Harris, asked the committee to look into the issue of consent which some other Senators have raised. A significant survey of more than 6,000 third level students was carried out earlier this year. It showed a lack of understanding in society of what consent is and the real sexual violence being experienced by young people.
We have to take those calls about RSE seriously because sexual violence and a lack of understanding of consent and sexuality does not start when somebody is 18 and goes to college. We must recognise that we have to do this as a lifelong learning programme that starts with the youngest children and in the most appropriate way. I echo those calls regarding RSE.
I also want to speak to the Minister about the leaving certificate, which is primarily why she came here. I thank the CAO and the Minister, Deputy Harris, for finding places for the 424 students, which will give some comfort. Swift action has been taken on top of the 5,000 extra college places that were made available throughout the summer. However, there can be no doubt that errors have been a further blow to many young people who have had an incredibly tough year. They had the expectation of sitting a leaving certificate for which they studied before the rug was pulled from under them. They had the expectation that, for some of them, they would go to a third level institution swiftly following the examination. They also had to deal with not really understanding what was going to take place until quite late on or what the calculated grades would look like, and we as politicians would be included in that.
No system is perfect. I attended the briefings and completely understand where the Department was coming from. Now, to make matters worse, we have had these errors in the actual calculations. We cannot simply brush this issue under the carpet and say we found places for the 424 students, because there have been real difficulties for students who have spent money, for instance, on housing and now they have been allocated a place that will send them somewhere else. First, we need to assess whether more needs to be done for these young people in terms of their mental health and economic impact. Second, we need an investigation into how much responsibility lies with the Department and the coding company, Polymetrika. Third, I firmly believe that the inequalities that exist in the education system came to the surface this year and showed the bias that exists regarding the leaving certificate. To this end, we should move ahead with the promised citizens' assembly on education and look at the future of education in Ireland so that all children can have equality of education in the years ahead.
I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber this afternoon. I apologise in advance that I will have leave after my contribution, but I will check the record to learn her response.
Covid-19 has impacted on all important services. We have seen the health and wealth of the nation affected. Education and learning were forced to move from schools to homes. One million young people were homeschooled in April, and many without the necessary supports or resources to do so. The leaving certificate of 2020 has been the main talking point. We took too long to decide to cancel the exams. We did not consider the needs of all students, especially those from poorer communities. We did not consider the mental health impact that sitting at home for three months would have on students. Then there was the big mess over the coding system used for calculating grades.
Let us be frank. The Government has made mistakes. While we should face up to them, and I am not here to criticise unfairly the efforts of any people in this room, I do want to ask the Minister and the Irish education system how we want to remember this period. Do we want to look back on the leaving certificate of 2020 as the mess that it was, brush it under the carpet and return to the old way of doing the exam or do we want to be brave and use this process to learn and grow and improve the leaving certificate and how we choose to assess our students in the future? I want 2020 to be viewed as a time when we took the challenges that Covid-19 placed on us a nation and used them to transform the leaving certificate programme. We have an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive and to use this experience to explore alternative ways to assess students. We have the chance to look at how the leaving certificate aligns with what is required for a modern society, and how we can change the system to ensure that we prepare students for the world ahead.
When Covid-19 hit, many multinationals such as Google and Microsoft moved their work life online. They were able to continue growing and developing their businesses because they were skilled in ways that our students and teachers are not. They all had access to technology and Wi-Fi; our students and staff did not. They know how to use technology creatively; we do not. They know how to meet each other, deliver learning and build products collaboratively using technology, and we do not. When we lost access to the outdated talk and chalk method used in our classrooms, we lost the capability to teach students and prepare them for a memory test, which is the leaving certificate.
Covid-19 has given us a chance to rethink education, provide our young people with the competencies required to make the most of their lives in a world of ubiquitous change, and give them the competencies to contribute at their full capacity for the betterment of wider society. We have resisted change in the education system for far too long. Teachers opposed the reform of the junior certificate. The idea of using project-based learning and continual assessment was negated. Teachers did not know or trust the process. Covid-19 has moved us beyond this argument. We now know that teachers can and will do this, and may even want to. We also know that despite the mess of the coding system, students and staff are relatively happy with how teachers assess their own students, so why can we not establish this as our new mode of assessment? Can we be brave and say that we made mistakes, but let us get the process right for next year?
We have had report after report of how unfair the leaving certificate is. It negatively affects students' mental health. It is influenced by class and wealth and does not prepare students for the 21st century jobs market. If we are brave, develop this new way of assessing, and introduce a skills-focused approach, which was the basis of the junior certificate reform, we could move to a fairer system which assesses as we go, trusts our educators, prepares our students for living outside of the blackboard, and removes the meritocracy of the leaving certificate.
Reform does not imply criticism. Great work has been done by our teachers in this pandemic and prior to this. Reform means to grow, adapt and change. Let us not be reactive to this pandemic anymore. Let us use it to make sure that our education system is the best it can be and everyone has a fair chance to succeed. We are in the lucky position where we can now start preparing teachers and students for the leaving certificate examination 2021, where we can begin changing the system and asking students to complete project work for the coming exams rather than waiting to see what Covid brings in the coming months. Students for examination in 2021 have had the same challenges as the students for examination in 2020. They missed months of schools and had stress and strains. They should be told earlier that things are going to be different for them and not to worry. If we plan now for the coming year and embrace the challenges and changes of Covid-19, we may actually have the education system that celebrates skills over memory and allows everyone to shine. Let us not leave the leaving certificate of 2020 to be remembered as the year we made a mistake in a few lines of a code. Let us make it the year that we embrace change to the leaving certificate.
I echo the comments of Senator Warfield on reform in sex education and sexuality teaching in schools.
Senators Murphy and Byrne are sharing time.
Rightly or wrongly, I am a person who lives in a world that believes mistakes can be made. In today's society, it seems no mistake can be made. Of course what happened is regrettable for leaving certificate students, teachers and parents. The error caused stress but it was not of the Minister's making. If anybody in this Chamber believes that we will ever get to live in a world where nobody makes errors, then he or she is in the land of make-believe.
I express my admiration for leaving certificate students. As has been said here on numerous occasions, they certainly have been put through the mill. The way they live their lives, socialise, make good friends and play sports has all gone. I spoke to a friend the other day and asked them if this had happened to us in our youth growing up, where we would be and how we would feel.
I admire them. Although some may be doing so, they are not all partying or breaking the rules.
I watched and listened to many students respond to the crisis that arose on television and radio programmes and I read interviews with them in the newspapers. I spoke to students from Strokestown, Elphin, Ballygar and Roscommon in the constituency in which I live. Even though some of them lost out, they took a very measured view. They were not into condemning anyone. They wanted the situation rectified. I think the Minister did the right thing. I admire the students for their calmness and coolness. I believe we have good people coming up behind us who will do a good job because of the way they have reacted to a crisis.
I know the Minister is not a person who ever looks for praise, but when the fire was right around her, her dignity, calmness and coolness were outstanding. Sometimes Ministers use the PR stick and when people realise that, they feel tricked. However, those in the silent majority out there admire the Minister for the way she handled a crisis not of her making. I know that if it was of her making, she would stand up here and admit it. That is all people want.
I am concerned about the class of 2021. Covid will remain with us and we will need more funding. I am sure the Minister has taken that into account.
I join Senator Murphy and others in praising the Minister for how she has handled a very difficult situation and for doing it with transparency. At all times she put the student at the heart of the process. We must always ask of the Minister for Education and Skills that he or she is always thinking of the students.
This is a discussion on leaving certificate 2020 and the decision to use a particular algorithm for decision-making. Senator O'Loughlin and others have various questions about procurement, but I think there is a bigger question for the Government in circumstances where a decision is made to engage in algorithmic decision-making or machine learning. I would like to know what direct input or oversight there was in the drawing up of the algorithm from the Department and experts there. Are we moving towards having a public policy on algorithmic decision-making? That is not just relevant to the Department of Education and Skills, it is relevant across the Government. Was an audit carried out by the Department or the Government of the algorithm prior to it being used? It is always very easy to look at auditing afterwards. I am not talking about the auditing of the procurement process, I am talking about an audit of the algorithm and who carried it out. In terms of good practice in that area, it must be very clear with regard to conditions of service that there is transparency in the process. There have been a number of useful cases taken by the Dutch Government in respect of the need for clarity in respect of how algorithms work. We should learn from this process that when it comes to algorithmic decision-making and machine learning, there needs to be a cross-Government approach.
I welcome the work of the Government and the higher education institutions in terms of ensuring that the 424 students who were affected were offered places in round 4. I concur with the point colleagues have made that it is also now essential that we start to get clarity on leaving certificate 2021, and that there is engagement at all times with all of the stakeholders but in particular the students. I hope the Minister will keep the Irish Second-Level Students Union informed. As Senator Ruane and others stated, it is very clear that we cannot continue to use the model we used in 2020 for 2021. It is now time for reform of the leaving certificate more generally. We have used the same model since 1925. The commission on the points system was chaired by Professor Áine Hyland in 1999 and there was work by the Higher Education Authority and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in 2011 on reform. The system is clearly not fit for purpose. In her response, the Minister might look at identifying what changes we can make for 2021 and a general reform of the leaving certificate process.
Senators Seery Kearney and Buttimer are sharing three minutes each.
I understood that I would have six minutes.
I am sorry but that is what Senator Buttimer said.
That was not my understanding. I will move to the point as quickly as I can.
Senator Seery Kearney should go ahead.
I am running out of time so there is not room for each speaker to have six minutes.
I will be as quick as I can. I echo what Senator Murphy said. I think the Minister's handling of the situation has been extraordinary. She has shown great dignity, respect and regard for everybody. It is a sobering reminder that the human beings who put algorithms in place are susceptible to errors. I seriously question the lack of a checking mechanism. What oversight was there of the pathway of the communication of the instructions mechanism of the contractor and what was going on in that regard? I echo Senator Byrne's points on the issue.
I wish to raise a matter regarding next year's leaving certificate. This year, some students who are native speakers did not have the opportunity to be part of the calculated grades process. They did not need tutors. I refer to native Arabic speakers who could sit the exam and who had no issue in that regard but, as a result, they had no tutors to objectively verify their results and create their calculated grade. I respectfully ask the Minister if there is a possibility that we could put in place regional panels of tutors for next year that these students could go to because I venture to say there are not many secondary school teachers who teach Arabic, and we need to put a mechanism in place because, by and large, the schools that approached me did so on behalf of students living in direct provision who did not have recourse to the courts. We need to anticipate what will happen next year.
I wish to address the issue of special needs assistants. I am aware that the Department has sought advice to create a system of advice for special needs assistants and the provisions for them in schools at the moment. Many special needs assistants are very happy with their experience of work, however, there are those who are not. I represented a lot of them in my past life as an employment barrister and, as a consequence as a Senator I am a magnet for such people to come to me to raise their issues. I am aware that there is a potential reference to the Workplace Relations Commission by Fórsa on their behalf because there are no provisions for some of them. They are not factored into the plans for schools and no provisions have been made for them. They are obliged to perhaps sit on chairs in a corner of classrooms. They cannot always share desks with their special educational needs students because they might, for example, have families in high-risk categories. We really need the Department to address the issue and to outline very clear guidelines on the treatment and work conditions of special needs assistants in the current circumstances. In schools where they are treated as second-class citizens, albeit that it is a very small cohort, they need to be able to point to something from the Department to assist their situation.
An analogous issue concerns boards of management. By and large, schools have been exceptional and I appreciate and respect that. However, in a small portion of schools the board of management is merely a rubber-stamping mechanism for the principal. While I appreciate that the Minister is not the employer and is not responsible for boards of management, the Department could play a role similar to that of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement and the Companies Registration Office where directions or booklets are issued with regard to the duty of care of boards of management. In circumstances where the discussion of autism spectrum disorder units or special needs assistants or where there has been a grievance procedure or a decision of the Workplace Relations Commission, boards of management do not always know what is going on or if members politely raise the issue it is politely suggested to them that they might step down from the board of management if they do something other than acting as a rubber-stamp for principals. I accept that the Minister is not responsible but I believe the she has a role as the funder and the employer of teachers to create a guidance booklet to ensure that boards of management are aware of their role in terms of duty of care and what is expected of them in the same way as the directors of a company would be.
I thank Senator Seery Kearney for sharing. I will be very brief.
I commend the Minister for her calmness, professionalism and the way in which she carried out her business. When other people around her were playing politics, the Minister was firm and decisive. As Senator Murphy and other Senators said, mistakes were made. We accept that. I hope that following this the State Examination Commission and the Department of Education will sit down with the unions and teachers to iron out the circumstances of what happened.
I thank the class of 2020, the teachers and all the people involved in our school communities for the way in which they have responded to this pandemic. When the history of education in 2020 is written, the professionalism of our teachers, school secretaries, caretakers, management, the parents and the students will be found to have stood up to this crisis.
I ask that the Minister would reflect upon the period of the 1990s when this country engaged in major reform of the education system. I speak as a teacher who taught in education. Education reform is very important. As Maslow said, it is about all of us being able to reach that point of self-actualisation. All of us want our students to reach their full potential.
I agree with Senator Ruane that we must reform the education system. That means giving students critical thinking powers and the ability to be able to work beyond rote learning and consider what prepares the student for the outside world.
In an article in The Irish Times, Brian Mooney wrote that the journey of the leaving certificate 2020 was a remarkable one. I hope the journey is but one step for all of us in education. We have a Citizens' Assembly dealing with many issues. We have published a White Paper and a Green Paper on education, and the Minister is an educationalist. I hope that when this period of the pandemic ends we can reflect upon how we can progress the leaving certificate and our education system. We have never been afraid of change in respect of the education system in modern times, whether it was the leaving certificate applied, the reform of the junior certificate, issues around the Universities Act, early childhood education, the Education Act or the Munster Technological University, MTU, at third level. As professionals, we embody change as professionals in the education system.
I thank the Minister. I thank also the former Minister, Joe McHugh, for his leadership and the way he handled himself as Minister. We have been fortunate to have two Ministers in succession who can be regarded as safe pairs of hands. However, an error was made in the leaving certificate algorithm and that needs to be addressed. That is not an issue for Members of this House but it is for the people who were involved. I thank Senator Seery Kearney for sharing her time with me.
I will not use all of my time. I will not repeat what other speakers have said but I want to warmly welcome the Minister to the House. It is the first time I have had an opportunity to engage with her in the House. I was not present for debates on other educational matters since the Seanad returned but I have listened to the Minister and observed her modus operandi and she comes across as being very genuine, honest and professional. Not every Minister, particularly a new Minister, has that. It is a major learning curve for a new Deputy and Minister who is in an onerous position. I recognise what she inherited, and that is not to be critical of anybody else. No one could have foreseen what would happen. However, what is important is that the Minister came out in the media, batted to the front line, explained the problems and set out a possible solution and an agenda. That has to be admired and it is important that all of us acknowledge that. Senators have done that but that is an important distinction in terms of an exceptional politician but also an exceptional Minister. We do not have to look too far back to think about some of the great achievements of her successors. I refer to people like the late Donogh O'Malley and others in education. Education will always be challenging. Education is always about assisting people to realise their full potential at whatever step on the ladder they find themselves.
I wish the Minister well and congratulate her. I ask her to continue with her unique, Norma Foley, west of Ireland style, which is honest and full of integrity. People engage and they listen. They hear and see someone who is empathetic and has the measure of the difficulties but also the potential. I wish her well.
My opening remarks allowed me the opportunity to again acknowledge issues that occurred in the calculated grades system and to apologise for those errors and the impact they had, especially on the class of 2020. They must be foremost at all stages in our considerations. This follows the announcement I made on Saturday but, importantly, the Senators have acknowledged, and I appreciate it, the fact that when the errors occurred swift action was taken to quantify the issues and take the remedial steps necessary to ensure that students could receive their revised and increased grades.
As regards students whose increased grades were sufficient to warrant a revised offer from the CAO, I welcome that the CAO and the higher education institutions were in a position today to make the relevant offers. That will allow students to progress, take up places and commence their studies.
I appreciate the opportunity the Senators afforded me here today to hear what they had to say and to rely on the wisdom they bring to the table. While I will not have the opportunity to reply to every point made, they can be assured that I took note of them and will consider them. I want to express my gratitude for the Senators' generosity in their comments, which I appreciate.
The calculated grades office in my Department is currently working hard to finalise the 33,000 appeals, which many Senators mentioned, in respect of individual grades received in recent weeks. I expect the outcome will be next week. I wish I could be more definitive for the Senator but that is the best I can say at this stage. As soon as they are available they will be communicated to students via the portal.
In the broader context, it is worth noting that the calculated grades process was a direct consequence of the extraordinary time in which we found ourselves. Speakers referenced the reasons for moving forward with it and that there might have been an opportunity to continue with the traditional leaving certificate. However, we must acknowledge that the announcement was made in April that the examinations would be deferred until July but it became apparent on 8 May that because of the pandemic it was not possible to move forward with the traditional examinations. The calculated grades process came into being only because it was an extraordinary time and an extraordinary measure was required.
Reference was made to the role played by teachers. I unreservedly acknowledge the co-operation of the school communities to ensure that the process could continue. It is testament to the absolute determination of school communities to serve their students. Many of those involved in the calculated grades process had principled objections to it but they recognised that it was a mechanism that would afford students the opportunity to have a pathway to move forward in their lives. I want to acknowledge that because of that they engaged in the process.
I acknowledge that the calculated grades process was agreed by all of the partners in education. It was put in place to ensure that students could complete their post-primary studies, receive certification of their attainment and progress to the next stage of their lives.
For the overwhelming majority of students this primary objective has been achieved, notwithstanding that some of them will sit the postponed examinations on 16 November and thereon.
I have said repeatedly that students must be at the heart of everything we do and the decisions we take. We have to support our students in the challenges they face and, as such, over the past week and continuing this week there is a helpline available to students who had concerns following last week's announcements on the calculated grades. In speaking with my officials about the nature of the queries that were raised, the biggest single category involved students and parents who want to know when they would have the full details and what might be the next steps. I am pleased that the process moved swiftly so that improved grades could issue to students last Saturday evening. I am also pleased that the CAO was in a position to ensure that the students impacted received their upgrade and preferred offers today and that they are being secured for this academic year.
I do not have sufficient time to go through every issue raised but I assure the Senators that I am working hard, with my colleagues in government and my officials, as well as the partners in education, to address the challenges we face and to ensure we build and strengthen our school sector. All of the Senators have a particular interest in the education sector.
We have an agreed agenda, which is to do all we can to improve the experience of education for the young people and children we serve. I appreciate the collective agreement, agenda and generosity on the part of Senators.
I am looking forward to next week's budget and I have been engaging with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform so we can secure the necessary funding required to enhance, sustain and improve our education system where necessary. Senators are very exercised by this process and many of them have referenced areas they would like to see moving forward. I am taking this on board and I will continue right up to the last minute to engage with the Minister concerned so we can secure the best possible deal for the education sector. I thank the Senators for their co-operation and the opportunity to be with them here today.
I thank the Minister for the leadership, calmness and empathy she has shown to students, teachers and everybody in the education system at a time when everybody was running around like headless chickens looking for media attention. I also thank her for the respect she has shown the House by always making herself available.