Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus go raibh maith agaibh, a Sheanadóirí, as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid an tSeanaid inniu. Tá áthas orm freagra a thabhairt in ionad an Aire Oideachais atá gnóthach faoi láthair agus gabhann sí a leithscéal. Bhí mé ag caint léi roinnt noiméad ó shin.
I thank the Senator for raising what is obviously an important matter, of interest not only to Senators, Members of the Dáil and all of us, but particularly to the 60,000 young people across the country who are due to sit the leaving cert this year and who are continuing their education. The leaving cert is not an end point; it is a part of their lifelong journey of education. I spoke to the Minister for Education and she sent her apologies. She is otherwise engaged but would like to have been here and has asked me to do this.
The Government is acutely aware of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the education system this year and last, particularly the unique challenges it poses to those preparing to sit State examinations. For leaving cert students, the continued closure of schools for in-school learning results in these students missing out on significant in-person class contact time. I pay tribute to those students and their teachers, in particular, who are continuing education despite the difficulties. There has been a huge amount of development in the provision of education, as I see with my own children, between the first stage of this pandemic and now. It will never be perfect, of course, and that is why we are having this discussion but there have been dramatic changes. That is to everybody's credit and that of the education system.
Planning for the 2021 leaving cert is under way by the Department and the State Examinations Commission. It is recognised that a flexible and agile approach is necessary in light of the fast-moving changes linked to Covid-19 but the welfare of students and their families is front and centre in all decision-making. The planning work under way is being helped by an advisory group of key stakeholders. This includes students, most importantly, as well as parents, teachers, school leadership management bodies, the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and obviously the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service. The advisory group has met on a number of occasions and a subgroup has formed to consider in depth the issues towards planning the 2021 exams, including those identified by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, in its recently published report on the 2021 State examinations and the return to school. I pay tribute to the ISSU for its key and central role in planning and its strength of voice on behalf of its members.
The Department of Education has indicated to the education partners that any corresponding process will need to include a number of features. The State Examinations Commission has to run the examinations and corresponding processes. This was an issue last year and the Department wants to address that. There needs to be better provision for out-of-school learners in the corresponding process, which we also saw last year. There must be some cognisance of performance and additional component elements of exams, such as course work, orals, practicals, etc., and timely progression to higher and further education using either exams or the outcome of any corresponding process.
Bilateral meetings began and continued last week and the weekend gone by and discussions continue today. In other jurisdictions where State exams have been cancelled, I understand there is further work to be done to clarify what is intended. This is natural because we are in an unprecedented situation. In England, for example, a consultation process on possible arrangements closed on 29 January and feedback from that is being considered. Ofqual in England has stated there are no straightforward options for how exams are to be replaced and we can all agree on that.
The best we can do is to work together and all of us talk to ensure we get the best possible solution for our students. The Government, of course, is focused on identifying a solution for the students who are due to sit the leaving certificate this year, including the applied leaving certificate. The priority afforded to education by the Government has been clear throughout, with the Minister and officials working with the partners to reopen schools safely and identify the best way forward for the leaving certificate class of 2021.
As Senators will be aware, one of the partners withdrew from the process last week. Following engagements with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, however, the Minister for Education is very happy that it returned to discussions over the weekend. I believe everybody will welcome that. The Minister publicly welcomed it and the ASTI has returned now to confidential discussions with everybody else regarding the 2021 exams. We note its willingness to engage on the agenda that has already been set out on this process.
The Minister has also thanked the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, parent bodies, the student body represented by the ISSU, as I have said already, and the managerial bodies that help run our schools for their constructive engagement. That continued over the weekend and is resuming this morning as the issues continue to be worked out. Intensive engagement is therefore continuing with the education stakeholders to advance progress and provide certainty and clarity at the earliest possible time. I understand from the Minister that it is hoped students will receive this clarity in the coming days. That, however, is subject to ongoing engagement with all the education stakeholders. I note the comments made by the Senator about the junior certificate. I believe the Minister will address that issue in due course but I do not have an answer for the Senator on it today. I believe that, clearly, we all agree the leaving certificate is the critical issue today.