Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is my great pleasure to welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to the House and to invite her to speak.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo agus ba mhaith liom ar dtús mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as an am agus an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt leis na Comhaltaí inniu. I am honoured to be in the House to bring the Education (Leaving Certificate Examinations) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021 forward on Second Stage and to open this debate.

When I was appointed as Minister for Education on 27 June last year, it was clear to me that beyond the immediate priority of reopening schools, it was vitally necessary to support leaving certificate students. Even under normal circumstances, completing the leaving certificate and transitioning to the next phase of life can be a challenging time for students. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this challenge has been heightened for our students who have missed out on important rites of passage and have sacrificed time with their friends, playing sport, working in part-time jobs, and so much more in order to protect their loved ones and indeed broader society. For many of these students the continued operation of school has been a source of routine and stability of great importance. I commend school leaders and communities on the work they continue to do to maintain and sustain our schools and keep them open.

From the successful reopening of schools in late August and early September last year, students were able to attend school each day, something which provided an important social outlet for them, ensured they received the academic support they needed and, in some cases, provided a respite from challenging personal circumstances.

Regrettably, after last Christmas, amidst very high levels of Covid-19 and the increased challenges associated with the new B.1.1.7 variant, our schools were required to close for another period to support the broader minimisation of movement within Irish society. This period of school closure, similar to last year’s closures, inhibited many students’ learning and heightened a sense of anxiety and isolation, at a time when students are in particular need of academic and holistic supports. Amidst this considerable uncertainty and in the context of this loss of learning, the Government took the decision to provide leaving certificate students with a choice of accredited grades, to sit examinations in a safe manner or to avail of a combination of both. Last year, through the co-operation of everyone in the school community, the leaving certificate class of 2020 was able to complete its education at post-primary level and to progress to the next phase of the students' lives, whether in further study or in the workplace. The process of calculated grades was far from easy for many teachers and principals, and I am deeply appreciative of the work they undertook solely for the benefit of their students and the class of 2020.

In 2020, the decision on calculated grades was made at a time when legislation could not be brought forward. As a result, the calculated grades system was operated by the Department of Education with the support of staff seconded from the State Examinations Commission, SEC. The State Examinations Commission's powers are as set out in the establishment order of the commission, given effect in 2003. Those powers relate solely to the operation of examinations as defined in the Education Act 1998. All this and, most acutely, the need to support the leaving certificate class of 2021 have led the Government to bring forward the Bill before the House today.

The approach the Government is taking to the leaving certificate of 2021 seeks to apply the lessons of calculated grades in 2020. We have also listened to the views and reflections of the advisory group on the State examinations which was reconvened, having played a significant role in 2020. It is worth noting that the accredited grades of 2021 differ from the calculated grades of 2020 in a number of significant ways. First, subject to the enactment of this Bill, this system will be operated by the State Examinations Commission. Second, and perhaps most importantly, and subject to public health advice and considerations, written leaving certificate examinations will proceed from 9 June. This is designed to ensure that the choice which many students had sought and which was decided upon by the Government is a real one. A clear process has been put in place to facilitate students who are studying outside of school settings, either entirely or in individual subjects, to obtain accredited grades. I have been very clear that the school historical data, which some refer to as school profiles, which was ultimately excluded from the 2020 system will also be excluded from the accredited grades system in 2021. A point of concern for some in 2020 related to rank order data being released. This year, teachers are not being asked to generate class rankings. The Department of Education has engaged Educational Testing Services, ETS, as the contractor to develop and deliver the standardisation process on school-generated estimated marks. We also expect to appoint a second quality assurance contractor shortly to provide an added layer of confidence that the process of standardisation operates as expected.

While some Senators were able to attend a briefing for members of the education committee on the day the Bill was published, I will now set out the principal provisions contained in the Bill. Section 1 sets out the definitions to be used in the Bill. The phrase, "Leaving Certificate 2021" comprehends the conventional examinations provided for under the Education Act 1998 and the accredited grades process. The "teacher" and "tutor" definitions are designed to capture everyone who is directly involved in providing an estimated mark which, following a process of standardisation, results in the establishment of an accredited grade for a student.

The definitions of "teacher" and "tutor" are sufficient to capture the non-curricular languages approach by including subject assessors within their meaning. Section 2 sets out the main elements of the system of accredited grades, which will be further elaborated upon in regulations if and where necessary and in written and published procedures developed by the SEC. Section 3 provides for the indemnity, previously approved by the Government, which is written comprehensively to include any person who performs a function in relation to the provision of estimated marks. This includes persons who may provide tuition to students outside of in-school provision and who might refuse to provide evidence of such a student’s learning in the absence of such an indemnity.

Section 4 deals with canvassing of those providing estimated marks and stipulates that, where such canvassing occurs, the SEC may withhold results from a candidate. Detailed procedures in regard to the operation of this provision will be provided for in regulations or be dealt with administratively, should such an issue arise in advance of the commencement of this provision. Section 5 provides for an ability for the SEC to withhold results if false or misleading information is provided for the purpose of the award of an estimated mark. Section 6 provides a non-exhaustive list of the functions that are to be conferred upon the SEC and what may be provided for in regulations in addition to this.

Section 7 provides a regulation giving power to the Minister to give effect to various procedural aspects provided in other sections, principally in regard to the withholding of results and the operation and conduct of appeals. Section 8 contains a power to designate people to be tutors in addition to those already defined in the Bill. This is intended as a safety net in case somebody or a class of tutors has been inadvertently omitted from the definition as currently drafted. Section 9 provides the SEC with the power to provide a leaving certificate in respect of 2020 students on the basis of the best of the grades achieved by the students from the calculated grades process or the written examinations held subsequently. This will ensure that the leaving certificate of 2020 will have the same look and feel to it as any other year.

Section 10 provides a statutory basis on which the personal data of leaving certificate 2021 candidates can be processed for the purposes of the operation of the accredited grades system. The section allows for data sharing between the Minister, the SEC, the external contractors involved in the process of standardisation, including any quality assurance contractor retained, and any persons acting as appeals officers. This section has been the subject of consultation with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. Sections 11 to 13, inclusive, are standard in nature and relate to the laying of orders before the Oireachtas, expenses and how the Bill once enacted may be cited.

I referenced in outlining the details of the various sections that regulations will be required in some instances and their drafting will proceed in parallel with the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas to facilitate commencement of this Bill once enacted. The administrative planning for and early steps in the accredited grades process are under way, being led in the first instance by my Department pending the enactment of the Bill. This work is in close co-operation with the State Examinations Commission, which will assume the lead role when the appropriate legislative powers are conferred upon it. A variety of guidance documents have issued to students, schools and those studying outside of school settings in recent weeks. The logistics involved in ensuring each strand can proceed as planned, whether examination or accredited grades related, are huge and continue to require close attention and commitment from all concerned.

Recognising that the various strands of preparatory works for leaving certificate 2021 are well under way, with the oral and practical examinations for the vast majority of students having already taken place, I wish every success to all leaving certificate students. Teachers will proceed to generate estimated marks in the period between 14 May and 28 May, with the school alignment phase following immediately after that. I particularly note the leaving certificate vocational programme students and those seeking accredited grades in non-curricular languages, who will be undertaking various assessments tomorrow. I wish them every success.

Each time I have been before this House, Senators have shown a very clear and real commitment to students across all levels of the education system.

In those various debates, the leaving certificate classes of 2020 and 2021 have been routinely highlighted. The Bill seeks to provide further support to those students and deliver on the clarity that Government decisions seek to give them. The Bill has been carefully considered and I acknowledge the role of the Parliamentary Counsel in drafting it. I am aware that a number of amendments have been tabled by Senators and I look forward to considering those on Committee Stage. I have also tabled a small number of technical amendments, which we will also have an opportunity to discuss. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from Senators in today's debate and I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber, which is her Chamber also.

It has been a difficult and tumultuous time for the leaving certificate classes of 2020 and 2021, their parents, their teachers, the whole school community, the Department and the Minister. The word "unprecedented" has been bandied about a great deal over the past year, but the task faced by her office and the Department of Education must have seemed overwhelming at times. Our appreciation must go to all of those involved in the Department and the school community who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we had a leaving certificate of sorts last year and that the class of 2021 will have every opportunity to show their best selves. We all want every leaving certificate student to have the opportunity to showcase the best of his or her abilities and talents in order to transition to the next period of life, be that in university, an apprenticeship or the workforce. Last year, human error added to the trials and tribulations of the accredited grades system, so it is important that students know that our systems have been tested, we have all learned lessons and we are now giving them an exam system they can trust.

This is an important Bill. Last year, we thought that no one could have it as hard as the leaving certificate class of 2020. We did not believe that, 12 months later, we would be looking at a similar situation. The current sixth years have experienced difficulties over the past 14 months. To their credit, they organised themselves in an incredible way. They became vocal and formed a strong advocacy group. The Minister listened to them and patiently took the time to engage with them, as did many other Senators and I. That engagement was very important.

I thank the Minister for the consultation process that she undertook with all education stakeholders - students primarily, but also with teachers, boards of management, principals, patrons and everyone else who was involved. Having that process was important, as was considering every nuance to be able to reach a stage whereby the Minister could offer the best opportunity to students. That is what is on offer in this Bill. Allowing students the opportunity to choose between the accredited grades system and the traditional leaving certificate is important.

More important, they have the opportunity to do both. I know from talking to students who are sitting their leaving certificate this year, in particular my niece and her friends, that while their first choice was to go down the accredited grades route, with the encouragement of many, in particular the Minister who took a strong leadership role in this area, 80% are now opting to also take the written examination. Truly, they have the best opportunity. As emphasised by the Minister, the student will have the best result of both and so will have two chances to try to get it right. That is wonderful.

In terms of the Bill, we know that its main purpose is to confer on the State Examinations Commission the necessary powers to run a non-examination based form of assessment to inform the student's results for the leaving certificate. This was signalled by the Government decision on 17 February. This could not be done last year because as the Seanad was not in place it could not go through that process. As I said, that students have the option of applying for accredited grades or sitting the leaving certificate examination, or both, is significant. That students have an additional choice within their examinations is also important. We all know the stress that comes with leaving certificate examinations in normal times. There is additional stress this year. We are all concerned about the impact on young people's mental health, in particular those sitting State examinations. This provision goes a long way towards alleviating that stress for them.

The statutory indemnity for teachers is also important, as is the section dealing with canvassing. I acknowledge the proposed engagement with education planners. One of the important factors in this Bill is that it ensures there will be no rank order data. Two issues arose last year. The ranking led to issues with some of the schools that would traditionally have had higher grades. The release of the rank order also caused a difficulty for teachers. I am glad that that point of concern is being addressed. I am glad also that the schools' historical data, once again, is being excluded. A clear process has been put in place to facilitate students studying outside of school settings. That is important. The Minister has engaged Educational Testing Service to develop and deliver the standardisation process. I welcome that she proposes to point a second quality assurance contractor.

I take this opportunity to wish all of our students well. Before we know it, the examinations will commence. As pointed out by the Minister, some are starting tomorrow. It is a difficult time. Following on from this debate, we need to look at how we can best prepare our students for life and how we develop their critical thinking and resilience. I look forward to the Citizens' Assembly discussion, which will happen across the country, on how we look at the future of education and how we can best equip our students going forward.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I echo some of what Senator O'Loughlin said in terms of welcoming the clarity that this Bill brings to the learnings from last year. We can all recall the various issues that arose last year at a very difficult time for people.

Many people will have been somewhat discombobulated as they grew to learn more about the element of sausage making in the processing of leaving certificate results and the standardisation. I think few people would claim to understand it but it was possibly quite unnerving for many people. What we are trying to achieve here is for the sausage making to be done as fairly as possible. I am glad that provision is being made for people outside the normal system such as those who are home schooling and the experiences and lessons of last year are being learned.

I welcome the fact that the lead into the leaving certificate examinations this year involves less of the sort of frenzy and chaos that we saw last year. It is still a very trying and anxious time for all involved, as the Minister well knows, perhaps better than anybody, but it is a positive that at least students have some decent knowledge of what to expect and can plan accordingly. I note that the use of the phrase "the look and feel of the leaving certificate" is being restored by the fact that leaving certificate examinations will take place in the normal way at the normal time.

While it is good to see schools fully back and State examinations proceeding with some kind of normality and proper structure, we can never underestimate the damage that has been done to the education system and the well-being of so many young people over the past year. Every week that schools remained closed meant that additional stress and strain was placed on students by the uncertainty over State examinations, so it is good that the psychological barriers of the school reopening and the examination arrangements have been crossed to a large extent.

I spoke in the House last September about the lessons we should learn from the Covid experience and its impact on education. For the past 20 years, the welfare and well-being of young people often seemed to be sacrificed at the altar of the State examinations and access to college. Covid brought this into very sharp focus. The leaving certificate and the progression to third level are increasingly seen as “box-ticking” exercises both by young people and by the system - hurdles to be crossed and chores to be got through on the road to third level or the employment market. A teacher observed to me that our system is increasingly constructed with employers and multinationals in mind; often seeming to treat our young people as economic units. I ask whether enough consideration is given by policymakers about how to shape or help form young people so they can become fully rounded human beings.

Policy in this area of examinations and examination standards seems to be heavily driven by Department of Education officialdom. There seems to be an obsession with comparing our system to systems in places like Finland and Queensland, which are often held out as benchmarks. There is also a quasi-religious devotion to the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, league tables compiled by the OECD.

Instead of constantly trying to benchmark our system against models in other countries, while always having due regard to what other countries are doing, can we not build an education system that suits our society, our needs and our young people? I read somewhere that the man who designed the examination system in Finland pleaded with other countries not to try to copy its system because in his words, every country is different and yet our educational establishment still engages in that exercise of imitation. It must be said that State policy follows the same path across successive Governments. I am not laying this at the Minister's door but in the past, there has been a tendency for successive Ministers to be co-opted by civil servants and have their policy agenda handed to them. With due regard to the good intentions of everybody involved, that is a temptation or a potential tendency within the system. It involves depersonalising the issue and finding the appropriate balance between the role of the Minister, who must follow to some extent but also lead, and the role of policy advisers and civil servants. I put that out there as a principle to remain with.

One recent example involved a research paper called "Advancing School Autonomy in the Irish School System", which was originally written almost ten years ago. The paper proposed a series of radical changes to how schools operate that would have brought us closer to a British model of more locally independent schools. A consultation with schools in 2015 showed that the proposals went down like a lead balloon and were a non-runner and yet they reappeared in the 2016 Fine Gael manifesto, which proposed to implement those proposals in a Bill.

I wonder whether that was a prime example of mooted Government policy not being set by elected politicians but being set elsewhere. Was this a case of a doomed and failed policy proposal being recycled, copied and pasted into the manifesto of a Government party? If it is, it is not the way I would like to see our education system being led and run. We need distinctive Irish policies to suit our needs as a country, not policies imported from abroad.

I have two issues to raise with regard to the Bill. I raise them tentatively because I am conscious of the effort and expertise that is going into solving the problems we have had. I pay tribute to the Minister for her hard work and to the people working with her in the Civil Service, the Department and so on in seeking the best outcomes.

Under the Bill, students will have a chance to opt between sitting the exam and the calculated grades, and taking the best of the two. Some people have expressed concerns to me that this might lead to attempts to game the system to a certain extent. For example, a student might opt for a calculated grade in Irish, which is generally seen as a difficult subject, but might choose to sit a written examination in, for example, geography, because it is seen as a subject where a good result is achievable in a written exam. We would say fair play to the student who seeks to work the system to his or her best advantage. After the year students have had, we certainly could not blame them. Are there issues there for the integrity of our education system and the consistency of grades? While on the surface it seems welcome, to give people the best of both, could it lead to a gaming of the system where people make strategic decisions about which examinations they sit the paper for and which they take the calculated grade for? It looks reassuring but is there a risk? Many people will ask if the calculated grade is always likely to be better than the written examination. Is a hedging of bets envisaged by this approach that might not ultimately be to the good of the system and with the ultimate good of the people served by the system in mind. I ask those questions tentatively, but if the Minister has anything to say about the consideration given to those concerns, I would be interested to hear it.

I have heard anecdotal evidence, as I am sure have other Senators, that the novelty of the calculated grades has meant that individual schools and teachers have substantially ramped up the amount of in-class testing they do. The aim is probably to ensure they have sufficient grounds on which to assess calculated grades and a basis on which to stand over them if they are challenged. I have heard that in some cases, assessments are carried out almost daily. I ask the Minister for her opinion on that. I meant to look up the difference between the words "continual" and "continuous". I would be worried if continuous assessment meant that students were being continually assessed. We all know the difference between intermittent rain and continual rain. I would be concerned about that too. I did not think anybody ever intended that the grades would be taken so literally.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley. In her opening speech, she mentioned that she was nominated on 27 June. It is phenomenal to think of what has happened and what has been achieved in that year. It was a steep learning curve for the Minister. As Fine Gael spokesperson on education, I support this Bill to amend the 1998 Act to allow the State Examinations Commission powers to operate the accredited grades system for the leaving certificate examinations for 2021. From speaking to leaving certificate students, they welcome the choice that is offered for each subject either sitting the traditional examinations or opting for accredited grades. It has definitely reduced the anxiety and stress levels. I commend the Minister and the officials from the Department of Education on working to reach a solution after such a difficult year for students, parents, principals, teaching staff and administrative staff. It has included the entire community involved with keeping our schools open for the duration of the lockdown.

There were many concerns last year and I am happy to see that with this legislation and the measures that have been taken, they have been substantially resolved. Some of them related to the accuracy of the algorithm. The Department and the briefing the Minister provided to spokespersons have confirmed that Education Testing Services, the company that resolved many issues from last year, will lead on the algorithm and will develop a brand new one. This will be tested by the company, the Department and, as the Minister note, an independent third party that has yet to be contracted.

This can only strengthen our confidence and mitigate against the difficult issues we encountered last year which had such a severe impact on students. My main concerns have been around quality assurance. I am delighted, therefore, that these measures have been put in place.

I am very pleased that ranking, another major concern, has been removed and teachers will not have to rank students this year. I am also pleased that modifications have been made to the examinations to allow further choice in exam questions. There are roughly 1,600 out-of-school learners. Panels of three teachers at school level will be formed to evaluate evidence.

There are necessary elements in the Bill. It provides for the sanction of withholding results in the event of canvassing of teachers by students' parents or giving false information. This will be handled in a proper manner and conversations will be held with all groups. It also provides indemnity for teachers and tutors.

I will ask the Minister a few questions and perhaps she or her office will respond. What measures are being put in place to ensure this process will meet timelines, ensure students receive their results as scheduled and there will be no impact on the CAO allocation process? I am aware that extra staff have been seconded to the State Examinations Commission.

Does the Minister have feedback on what measures might be taken into account when students who are fifth years now and have been impacted this year and last year do the leaving certification examination next year?

For the more than 1,600 out-of-school learners and 800 students of non-curricular languages, it was very difficult to get a calculated grade last year. The panel of three teachers must review evidence from qualified teachers and tutors. I ask the Minister or her office to provide details on acceptable evidence? What is acceptable evidence? Has this information been circulated to principals and schools? Will there be contact in a timely way? Will the Department proactively engage with out-of-school learners or will it be the schools?

With regard to resources for schools, administrative supports are very important. I welcome that the Minister allocated funding for leaving certificate aids in March of between 50 and 60 days. There has been a huge load on principals, of which I am sure the Minister is aware. They have been phenomenal in everything they have done this year but there has been huge stress and there is burnout. I also acknowledge the extra work that was allocated to school secretaries because there is an extra element this year that previously may have been done by the State Examinations Commission.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, has committed again to providing an extra 2,000 college places. We also know that, as part of the apprenticeship programme, the number of apprenticeships to be achieved by 2025 has been increased from 6,000 to 10,000. In what way does the Department of Education support the delivery of extra places? Can placements be done for special needs assistants? We could have extra teaching placements. How can we support that?

There is a silver lining because we have a chance to review the leaving certificate format. We can see how continuous assessment relieved some of the pressures during the examination period. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is conducting a review of the senior cycle. I understand that phase 1, which involves scoping 2016-17, has been completed. Phase 2 is the school-based review and national seminars. With phase 3, the emerging themes from the review were gathered in the senior cycle review consultation document. If I am correct, the next stage of the review is the generation of an advisory report on priority areas by the NCCA for the Minister. I understand this work was done in advance of the impact of Covid-19. I ask the Minister to outline her perspective on whether this work can be accelerated. We have a real opportunity to examine what continuous assessment has delivered for students this year. We see that it has reduced stress and anxiety among students and perhaps has a better impact on some students who do not perform well in an examination setting.

On movement around schools, having spoken to principals and teachers, I know that students are currently based in one classroom and teachers have to move lock, stock and barrel. The reason for this is to reduce movement within schools. I also know lockers were closed. This requires an awful lot more planning by schools. Will there be a timeline to notify school principals about how the approach will work in September? Will these measures still need to be in place in September? Will the Department let principals know in advance?

Another major issue relates to the area of disadvantage, which I know is a little bit outside of the subject of this debate but it is an issue I have raised previously in a Commencement matter. There is no timeline publicly available for the completion of the review of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, resource allocation system. Is it possible to set up tiered support for schools that are urgently in need right now? We know that allocation has not been done since 2015. Some 70 schools were reviewed in 2017. The hot school meals programme falls under the remit of the Department of Social Protection and home-school community liaison under that of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. However, if I understand correctly, designation and approval is a matter for the Department of Education. There have been difficulties arising from lockdown and increases in disadvantage and child poverty. A recent Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report points to 15% of children being at risk of poverty and 20% being at risk of deprivation and these figures relate to a period before the Covid pandemic. This results in severe impacts. Children are the most vulnerable group in our society. What supports can we put in place, considering that we do not know the timelines for the review of the DEIS resource allocation system?

I acknowledge the incredible efforts and work of principals, teaching staff, administrative staff, school secretaries, caretakers, school boards, the students themselves and associations, including parents' associations. As the Minister has noted, this legislation is welcome and it shows that lessons have been learned. It is a tribute to her Department and to her officials. At the heart of the Bill is a focus on the students' experience. That is great to see. The Bill really aims to ensure that students have an opportunity to take their next step on their career path and to progress, whether to further education, to earn and learn through apprenticeships or to follow the traditional model of going to college. It has been a very difficult year and what the Minister has achieved has brought about real joy. The students, principals and teachers to whom I have talked all seem extremely happy. My questions are just general questions. I again commend the Minister on the work that has been done.

I apologise for sending my crutches clanging when the Minister was speaking. I did not mean to cause disruption. I welcome this Bill. People have been waiting very anxiously to see what was going to happen and how the leaving certificate was going to pan out this year. It is good to see proposed legislation in this regard. As we always say in this House, we would love to have more than two days to get amendments in for Committee Stage but I very much welcome the opportunity to go through the Bill with the Minister today. Some of the points the Minister has mentioned are extremely welcome, such as the really firm commitment and plan of the Government to commence the examinations on 9 June. I did a live something or other with a group of leaving certificate students last week and they were talking about having a date, knowing what was going to happen and having a sense of clarity and a goal to work towards.

It is very welcome that students studying subjects outside of school settings, either individually or as a group, as the Minister said, will be able to get accredited grades for those subjects. That caused a great deal of difficulty for some students last year.

With regard to getting rid of school profiling, I will not say that led to surprising results, because we always knew that such a grading system did affect students. It is welcome that it has been got rid of and that teachers will not be asked to generate class rankings. I do not think I have ever spoken to teachers who were more stressed than those I spoke to last year. It was an extremely difficult experience for them. One of the schools on whose board of management I sit really put an enormous amount of time and effort into being fair. The leaving certificate is tough enough so, on behalf of the teachers, I am glad that particular part is gone.

The Minister has mentioned that she hopes to appoint a second quality assurance contractor shortly. Does she have a timeline for this? Is there a procurement process involved? How is that going to be done? There were some concerns about quality assurance in the system last year. How confident is the Minister that this will not happen again because, as has been alluded to here, it caused an enormous amount of stress for the students affected? The most welcome aspect of the Bill is the opportunity for choice, which students very clearly requested. I commend the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, on all of its work on behalf of students.

I will outline a few matters, such as the making available of the grounds for appeal.

When will the more detailed procedure for that come out, or will it? I am particularly thinking of students who may want to appeal against the withholding of grades because of actions taken by an outside person, such as a parent, a sibling, a guardian or even a friend. People do things with the best will in the world on behalf of others. I want to know if there is clarity around this, given it can be very tough on students who may be unaware why their grades were withheld or unaware this lobbying had happened, only to then be notified when they go through an appeals process that this was the reason. I wonder if there will be clarity around that, although there may be nothing that can be done about it.

I welcome that there is a consequence for that behaviour, and I am thinking particularly of teachers. Teachers are some of the most easily identifiable and well-known members of our community, and they are generally on the receiving end of a lot of attention from students and parents, even outside school hours. Therefore, I am glad the Bill recognises the need to shield them from additional work. I would say that dealing with parents lobbying, or a teacher being caught while shopping in Lidl, is work, so I am glad that is being provided for in this Bill and that they will be shielded from that.

Will this system facilitate students who are applying through systems abroad? For example, the Minister might provide confirmation that the timelines will work out for students applying through UCAS. We got communications last summer about students who were trying to apply abroad but, obviously, we were in the early stages of the pandemic so things were a bit chaotic. I would like to get confirmation that they will be able to use this system to apply abroad.

I want to reflect on some of the wider implications of the Bill. As with many aspects of our lives, Covid has moved the goalposts in ways many of us never thought possible. I appreciate this Bill is only for the leaving certificate year of 2021 and I genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, hope it is only for leaving certificate 2021. I do not know if any of us could go through another leaving certificate round or another year of this, so I hope it is only for this year. Does the Minister think there are learnings that could be had from this and if, going forward, a process of assessed grades instead of an intensive exam season for students is something we need to consider keeping post-Covid? We have started a conversation around leaving certificate reform and junior certificate reform. There are learnings that can be taken from this around assessed grades, although not continual assessment, and there should be a clear definition between those two. It is certainly something we need to explore a bit further.

I am very heartened by the introduction of student choice in this process. It has been standard practice to examine school-goers in some form of leaving or junior certificate, or intermediate certificate, as some will remember it, and this is seen as the best means of assessment by teachers, secondary education committees and Ministers for Education. However, I do not know that I can recall a time in recent Irish history when we asked students how they felt they should be examined, other than the limited amount of choice they get in terms of what subjects they do, and that choice can very often be influenced by teachers, parents or siblings. I do not know if, in recent times, we have meaningfully consulted with students about how they think they should or could learn best and be assessed. The introduction of choice with regard to assessment for this year's leaving certificate was brought about by accident. However, it is my hope that, going forward, we could retain this as an option for students who prefer this method of assessment, or find ways to empower students to have more of an active say in their education. Many students are 18 or 17, and some are even 16, when making decisions regarding college and other decisions that will impact their whole life. However, up to this point, they have only been very small stakeholders in their education. We have an opportunity to give students a bigger role in their education and, in doing so, make participation in it more urgent and important to them.

We have referenced the Citizens’ Assembly on education and I am looking forward to that, if and when it happens. Despite the conversation around the form of leaving certificate and the whole education system, we may only find a path forward if we get whole-of-society buy-in. Sometimes, the citizens' assemblies have been ahead of the curve, so I very much look forward to that happening and to working with the Minister to develop a system that meets the needs of contemporary Ireland in its reflection of learning styles and learning needs. I hope that some of the learnings from Covid-19 and this process are taken forward into the leaving certificate.

I again commend parents, teachers, school communities, the Minister and other leaders and particularly students for getting through the past 15 months. I certainly want to wish the very best to this year’s leaving certificate students. I look forward to working constructively with the Minister on this Bill.

It is very good to see the Minister in the Seanad for the second time in one day. We are very honoured. I thank her for addressing my question on multidenominational schools on Commencement matters earlier. It was very much appreciated.

With regard to this Bill, the Minister has been very open with us. Those of us present who are members of the education committee — there are several — are aware that briefings have been coming and that the Minister has engaged very well with us.

A year ago, or maybe a little over a year, there was a conversation on an education system that excluded the voice of students themselves. Teachers have done a huge amount of work and have moved mountains to ensure we could continue educating throughout the pandemic. Teachers' unions are important but so too is the voice of the service user, the student. Young people, through the system set up by themselves and the Minister, have advocated for themselves. I have always been a fan of the hybrid model for the students of 2021. I seriously could not be happier with the result, which has seen the vindication of those students who have advocated. It has also highlighted the Minister's ability to put them at the heart of decision-making. I am aware of her desire to have a leaving certificate examination that is as close as possible to that of previous years. That kind of examination is retained with this Bill. That 87% of students have opted for the dual model shows the Minister was right about this in many ways. There were those who advocated purely for an accredited grades system. I can understand where they were coming from but that system would disadvantage those who are disadvantaged most in some ways. However, it also creates opportunities for many. Having both approaches is a success. This Bill represents a fair balancing act. It protects students, offering them choice. It protects teachers, with penalties for improper communication with them by parents, and it also protects the leaving certificate examination so long as it is in place.

I have very strong views on the education system, which I will get to. We can sometimes forget things when we move on. There have been successes but the process has been fraught over the past year. The Minister has shown calm and tenacious commitment to ensuring the needs of young people were placed front and centre in the past year. Young people comprise the cohort most deeply impacted by the pandemic. At a time when they should be moving out into the world and learning how to communicate and to be valuable members of society beyond their families, their social education has been stymied by a pandemic. A social life is an education.

The advisory committee met as recently as last week and young people I have been in contact with, through the Irish Second-Level Students Union, have several questions, which I will now ask. I would appreciate it if the Minister could get back to me either today or sometime soon in respect of them. Where is the Department in terms of progress on a system for 2022? Teachers, parents and students would like some sense of the timescale for making progress on the plans. Second, is there a date in mind for the results for 2021? Will the appeals process be different this year? If so, how?

As a parent who has home-educated for quite a long time and who has advocated for a long time for students outside the school system, I believe there are many lessons to be learned from the past year on how homeschooled young people are respected and accommodated in our State. Homeschooling is a constitutional right. For too long, students, whether because of ill health, trauma, bullying or choice, have been disadvantaged in an education system that did not allow them to be accredited outside the school system. I really hope the experience over the past year will help to address this as we move into the future. For this year, is Deputy Foley, as Minister, satisfied that the definition of "tutor" and the accommodations made in section 8 of the Bill will cater for the accreditation of homeschooled young people, taking into account the most recent case in this regard?

This year is affording opportunities that did not exist last year and that potentially will not exist next year.

Unlike last year, this year we have complementary and invaluable data sets, including the accredited grades set and the examination results set. Both will be tabulated and the student granted the best grades. In this instance we have a golden opportunity to test the accredited grades system as to its performance relative to traditional examinations. Since 87% of students plan to avail of both systems, this represents a fantastic resource if broken down by student. It could be assessed to help us in further work reforming the senior cycle. We are undertaking that work at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and in designing systems of continuous assessment and for evaluation of examinations. Does the Minister intend to undertake this work? I believe it would be highly valuable to all of us. As the Minister knows, a citizens' assembly to address this was something for which those of us in the Green Party pushed. I am passionate about this issue, given my experiences outside the education system and from lecturing in this area and in pedagogy. I believe we have a golden opportunity to push forward with the proposed citizens' assembly in the programme for Government and to examine the mental health of young people. Are we really offering them the opportunity to be their best selves once they follow on beyond the education system? We also should look at what is good in this country's education system and should build on it.

One of the main legacies from the past year is one created by students themselves, which is that their voices have come to the fore like no time in the past. Those voices will be retained now and we will always have them to the fore. They cannot or should not be silenced. They should be right in the centre of a citizens' assembly from the youngest age to the oldest age. We need to look at the future of work and at what makes us all valuable members of society. We need to look at our well-being and how well-rounded we are as a society. We need to look at how our education system is feeding into that in terms of eliminating disadvantage and inequality and in affording us opportunities in future.

I commend the young people, especially those in the Irish Second-Level Students Union, which has been to the fore in ensuring that students had the choice to sit the leaving certificate examination or opt for accredited grading or both. The level of confident advocacy we have seen is heartening and bodes well for campaigns in the future. The ISSU has been central to the campaign to lower the voting age to 16 years. I believe the Minister could be an important part of that campaign.

Students taking the leaving certificate examination in 2021 have had a horrid time during the past two years. We support anything that makes their final assessment fair and reduces the stress and strain many of them face. Some aspects of the Bill need to be tightened up, however, because any lack of detail will result in unnecessary anxiety. We welcome the publication of legislation that protects teachers from unwelcome or unwarranted pressure regarding assessment. Teachers live in our communities. They should be free to train football teams, go to the shops or spend time with their children and so on.

We want any penalties associated with any offences in the Bill to be proportionate. A parent who has a word in the ear of a teacher about accredited grades is more likely to do so without telling the child or student. It would be very unfair to punish a student for the actions of the parents carried out without his or her knowledge. The Department must develop more detailed guidelines for teachers, students and parents.

We have placed two specific amendments for discussion on Committee Stage. They seek to differentiate cases where both the parent and student are aware of an approach to a teacher and those cases where the parent is acting alone. We do not want a student who suspects the parent might be capable of making such an approach to a teacher to spend months worried sick about the possible consequences for his or her future.

We are disappointed with the lack of detail around the standardisation processes that will be used this year.

Section 2 is not detailed enough to reassure students that the mistakes made last year will not be repeated. My colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, asked that more detail on standardisation be released well in advance of the publication of results. Could the Minister indicate if it is still intended to do this and whether a date has been set?

The Bill refers to the use of previous junior certificate data during standardisation. We seek clarity on that. Will it be the collective junior certificate data of the year group and not any individual's previous performance at junior certificate level that will be used in determining the accredited grades?

I mentioned the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. I cannot let the opportunity pass without saying a bit more about that matter. Many students make decisions at 16 or 17 that will impact on the rest of their lives. I and many others present believe they should be allowed to vote. Young people are going to the polls in Wales and Scotland. There are two Bills relating to this matter before the House and there is a constitutional amendment Bill before the Dáil. We should make the move as soon as possible to ensure that young people can vote at least in local and European elections as a first step in order to prove that we can win the referendum and reduce the voting age for all elections to 16.

While we are discussing the leaving certificate, I want to raise the commitment in the programme for Government to develop inclusive and age-appropriate relationship and sexuality and social, personal and health education curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes if necessary. Does the Minister agree that it is now time to make appropriate legislative change, particularly as the door has been left open to do that in the programme for Government, in order to ensure that all children get inclusive sex education?

I thank the Minister for being present and for bringing the Bill through the House. It is strange the level of emotion that the leaving certificate evokes in me. I will try to control the anger and rage. One might think it is just an exam or it is a way for us to progress people through the education system, but it is really a huge bugbear for me in terms of how we measure the capabilities and abilities of children, how they are, who they are in the world and in life. Every year, politicians, celebrities and others tweet about how the leaving certificate does not define a person. Jaysus, if it does not define us why are we still forcing kids through the leaving certificate every year, putting so much emphasis on it and making it such a narrow requirement to be able to get into third level education? When they go to sit their exams, they are told it does not really matter. It feels very strange. The high percentage of people who apparently want to both sit the leaving certificate and get the predictive grades makes me wonder if it is a case of Stockholm syndrome. We have obviously drilled preparation for the leaving certificate into the heads of teenagers since they entered first year, so they do not really know what else to do or what else they could even imagine that education could look like.

When I read Pádraic Pearse's "The Murder Machine", it was the first time anything ever explained my feelings about the education system so accurately. How we bring people in is like a conveyor belt and then we just spit them back out. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was not sitting the leaving certificate.

I am aware of the opportunity the Minister has. Many people were not envious of the difficult position she found herself in when having to deal with such an important aspect of people's lives as the leaving certificate and education, but a part of me thought about the fact that we had been speaking about reform of the leaving certificate for years. I do not think any Minister for Education knew how to start, where to start, how to begin to dismantle it or what else it could look like. Sometimes it takes the bottom to fall out of something for us to be able to be imaginative and creative about how we address it. In some respects, the Minister has a brilliant opportunity - within harsh circumstances - to reimagine what education could look like and what way we assess people. The Minister could do that on the basis of having to start from nothing in the past year or two. The education system and the leaving certificate are so rigid in terms of imagination, critical thinking, creativity and what type of young people we produce and send to university.

I left school very young. I excelled in university. My daughter, Jordanne, is in her third year of studying film and English at Trinity College Dublin. She is excelling. Did she get the points she would have needed to do that course? No, she was able to go through the Access programme, which can only take a small sample of people. That is not enough. The Access programmes are a way in for kids who do not excel in the leaving certificate. The leaving certificate is in no way a reflection of my or Jordanne's capability. It is an absolute shame that so many kids do not get the opportunity to show what they are capable of at third level because they have been measured by the leaving certificate. People think we lose out from not being able to sit the leaving certificate, but society loses out by not being able to have us as part of universities and the sectors that require a particular degree. It is not necessarily only us that lose out.

The leaving certificate is a ruthless tool that reinforces inequality. I would love to know which parents lobby teachers. I cannot imagine that any of the parents in my area know how to advocate for themselves or are able to lobby teachers. I wonder about the backgrounds of those who are lobbying teachers. They are probably used to lobbying and having their own way.

When Senator Mullen spoke about the possibility of people gaming the system, I wondered how much anyone knows about how the system is already gamed given how much money we pump into private schools and grinds. My daughter sat her leaving certificate during my first year as a Senator, which meant I had access to a wage I never had previously. I spent thousands of euro desperately trying to get her up to the level she might need in Irish and maths, the subjects that might stop her getting into university. She would not need either subject for the degree she was going to study.

We drove from Dublin 24 to Alexandra College in Dublin 6 to avail of grinds. None of her classmates could ever afford to do this. In her final year in school, I could at least do that because I was a Member of this House. She came out of her mock exams very upset because, as she told me, her class had not even started the curriculum the kids in Alexander College were studying. They literally had not started it. Kids in the Easter and summer schools she attended were six or seven months ahead of her on the curriculum. When the kids in schools in our communities were sitting their leaving certificate some of them may have only started parts of the curriculum in the weeks leading up to the exams, giving them no time to absorb it. The kids at the grind school in Dublin 6 were saying they had been doing the curriculum since the end of fifth year and start of sixth year. There is a stark difference in the investment in children by the time they do the leaving certificate. Many people believe the leaving certificate is the most equal exam anybody could sit. It is only equal with regard to what is written on the paper. The investment in different children and schools and the resources available to those who come from a professional background make it the most unequal exam that anybody could sit.

Fianna Fáil rightly basks in the historical glory of Donogh O'Malley's decision to introduce free education for children. That was a massive change but free does not always mean fair. The Minister has an amazing opportunity to build on Fianna Fáil's historical role in delivering free second level education and to make education as fair as possible. When free education was introduced, the most important issue was to get kids to do the leaving certificate because many were leaving school at the age of 12 or 13 years to help out at home or get jobs. The goalposts have moved and we now need to change from free education at the point of access by asking how we make education fair at every possible point along the way. I ask the Minister to build on the free education system to make it the fairest possible route for everybody so that we produce children who are 21st century learners and 21st century students. Let us move away from the 19th century education system.

I will table an amendment next week aimed at keeping the choice that exists in this Bill going forward. While most people do not envy the Minister's position, I swear to God, I envy it because I would love to be in the position to try to rebuild a system that I know has failed so many young people.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I agree with what Senator Ruane has said. We should be ambitious in these Houses, in this country and in the Department of Education. We should make this the best little country in the world in which to be a young person and a student and to provide those opportunities. From the Minister’s own experience as a teacher and as a Minister, she can achieve that ambition.

Speaking to Senator Ruane’s point I have no doubt that if one looks at the Minister’s record to date, that she can become a Donogh O’Malley or a Patrick Hillery and I believe she has that ambition. In this House there is a real passion for education on a cross-party basis and we will support her in that.

A number of colleagues have mentioned how the Minister has been so committed to the process of consultation. I praise all of the stakeholders in education who have been involved. I praise in particular those in the Irish Second-Level Students Union, including Reuban Murray, Alicia O’Sullivan, Luke Casserly and all of those nationwide who got involved and engaged constructively with Deputies and Senators.

During my own political involvement as a student, I lobbied in order that the Education Act would include statutory recognition of student councils. Now is the time to also look at how we can strengthen that. Student councils vary from school to school in how effectively they perform. In reviewing of the Education Act, I ask the Minister that we look at ways of strengthening that.

Along with colleagues, having seen the level of maturity that has been shown, I ask the Minister to support the principle of allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, at least at the local and European elections in 2024. I ask the Minister that she might indicate her views on that.

Referring specifically to the legislation, the crucial question we need to tease out is on section 2 and the process of standardisation. I am glad that school profiles are excluded and I am aware that the Minister was firm on that point. We must stick with that position. We will need to examine in more detail the audit of the standardisation process, which I welcome. The use of any algorithm needs to be explained clearly and must be understood by the wider education community. As part of this process, which is not just about the legislation and the audit of the algorithm, we need to explain how the standardisation process operates.

I am aware that others have already spoken about the homeschooling situation. I refer to students who have been enrolled in schools over the past two years but who, for particular Covid-19-related reasons, have been absent from school. Either they themselves are vulnerable or a member of their family is vulnerable but it means they have not had much class contact time in school itself, which raises the issue of how they will be assessed by their teachers. Some assurance on that point is needed.

Some lessons have been learned from the past year. We saw grade inflation last year where the average leaving certificate results increased by approximately 4.4%. That caused a difficulty for the students of the leaving certificate class of 2019. There still needs to be some answers for those in that 2019 class and I would be concerned were we to see grade inflation again this year. We need to get some explanation in this regard in the standardisation process.

Others have referred to those who are in fifth year and who have missed much of their time in school. They have not been able to sit a junior certificate examination and the question of what supports will be put in place there has been raised. I welcome the provision of additional higher and further education places.

On the question of reform, the leaving certificate model has existed in the same essential way since 1925 with minimal changes since then by way of assessment. Reform is important. I held a webinar that involved the then national secretary of the ISSU, Matthew Colgan, who suggested that as part of curriculum reform, we should look at issues around taxation because it is something that is never discovered until one starts working part-time. That debate is crucial and it should involve as many people as possible. It should be a national conversation about what we learn and assess.

Finally, I appreciate that this Bill concerns an examination and an accredited grades process. The choice has been really good and the Minister is responding to young people.

However, young people have lost out on so much over this period. We need a new deal. Consider those who are facing the leaving certificate this year. They have lost out on their leaving certificate year and are losing out on all the end-of-year celebrations. It was the same for students last year. They lost out on their first year in college, the debs, graduation and the chance to go to a nightclub. I am sure the Minister thinks of her students who did not get to go to nightclubs in Tralee. We must have a new deal for young people. There must be leaving certificate reform. I am confident the Minister will deliver on that.

I welcome the Minister and thank her for the excellent work she and her Department have done throughout the year, especially in the past number of months. No matter who one talks to in any sector of society, people seek clarity. The fact that students this year have got that clarity - and that they got it quite early - is greatly appreciated. When I have spoken to any student or teacher in the last few months the one thing they have pointed out is that, compared to last year, they now have clarity going into the leaving certificate. It is greatly welcomed.

This year is incredibly difficult for students. This time last year, we thought that the students of 2020 would be under great pressure, like no other year before or after. Little did we know that the students of 2021 would have an even more difficult experience and lose so much time over the two-year leaving certificate cycle. However, it must be said that they are a resilient group. The fact that 80% of the students have decided they want to sit the leaving certificate examination shows their resilience and commitment to education. The clarity the Minister provided at the start helped students in the context of the decision they had to make.

I welcome the fact that there is no ranking system in place this year. It was unnecessary; it was not necessary for students to know where they ranked in their class. It was very unfair on teachers to have to do that. It is important as well to welcome the fact that there can be no canvassing this year. I listened to previous speakers refer to different groups that might have canvassed. It is very dangerous to speak in those terms when we have no facts about who canvasses and who does not. To throw out comments about which sectors of society might canvass in the absence of facts is very dangerous. There are different types of canvassing. There is a short word and there is also the teacher feeling intimidated, so we must be careful on that front. It is welcome that it cannot be done now. I am aware that Members who spoke on it said that the punishment should not be to the student, but if people, and certainly parents, are aware that it is the student who suffers as a result of that, it will discourage most reasonable parents from getting into that way of thinking.

I have two questions about the running of the leaving certificate examination which the Minister might be able to answer. Most schools are closing on 28 May, and the leaving certificate examination starts on 9 June. If one is unlucky enough to contract Covid-19, one must self-isolate for 14 days. Would it make sense, perhaps, to let sixth-year leaving certificate students finish a couple of days earlier than 28 May so there is no possibility that they might get Covid-19 in an environment with a large number of people? Perhaps schools could close on 24 or 25 May. That would give rise to a 14-day grace period whereby students cannot contract Covid-19 in school settings and then miss the examinations as a result. It is only a few days but it has huge implications in terms of missing one or two examinations. Given that 80% of students want to sit their examinations, we should do everything we can to ensure they do not miss out on one or two of their examinations at the early stages through no fault of their own because they might be in a classroom and be a close contact. Perhaps the Minister would consider that.

If a student has Covid-19 or ends up being a close contact of somebody who has Covid-19 during the examinations, what are the options for that student? There seems to be some confusion among teachers and students and even in the media as to whether there might be a possibility of having a second sitting of the examinations or they might have to revert to the calculated grades.

Students want to sit the exams and get the grade they deserve. If, halfway through doing their leaving cert exams, they are a close contact or have Covid-19, do they revert to the calculated grades or will there be an option to sit?

I wish all students and teachers well, particularly in Tipperary, and commend them for the work they have done throughout the year. I thank the Minister for the work she has done this year. It is much appreciated.

Other than Order of Business, this is my first opportunity since being re-elected to speak, so I am delighted to speak on education and that the Minister of Education is here to listen. I do not want to repeat many valid points made by other contributors. There is very little, if anything, I disagree with from any of the contributors.

It is important we acknowledge how far we have come. I am in my 18th year on school boards of management and my 12th year as a chair of a board of management. A huge amount of work has been done. This time last year, this Minister was not in the Cabinet. This Government had not been formed. She inherited what was there before and has taken it and had to deal with the system of the leaving cert calculated grades, as it was called at the time. It has worked out much better than people thought it would, though there were certainly anomalies and little blips along the way. Credit has to be given to the Department of Education, particularly to the Minister and her team, and to everyone in the education sector, including the school community, teachers, principals, patrons, boards and particularly students and parents. They have had so much uncertainty and have not been sure what would happen and how they would do it.

I regard the system we have inherited now of accredited grades as being like an insurance policy. That is the baseline one can have, but it is reassuring to see all these people coming in saying they want to do the leaving cert. They want to sit an exam, show off how much they have learned and be assessed independently, as was done before. The easy option would be not to sit the exam and take whatever is given. However, 80%-plus of people are signing up to do the exams and show off all they have learned in difficult circumstances. It is only recently that schools came back fully. Learning remotely is difficult in any household. Learning remotely in a house that might have one digital device for three or four students trying to study and look at classes on a shared phone, and which might not have great broadband, is very difficult.

We must be cognisant of all that and of people's mental health. People are returning and there is anecdotal, if not more, evidence that, after people were cooped up in their houses for so long, there is a level of aggression and tension in secondary and perhaps even in primary schools because people have not forgotten how to socialise but have lost the skillset involved in mixing with people all the time.

I support the idea that historical data should not be used to disadvantage anybody but there was an example in my area in St. Kilian's German school, the Deutsche schule in Clonskeagh. They felt that typically more than half their year would get an A in German. Many are native speakers; many are German. The algorithms seemed to be saying it was not possible, that half of the class could not have an A and that the top 20% could get an A but no more than that. I do not say a disadvantaged school should have the historical record used against its pupils, but there may be a need to look at the system. If a school has a brilliant Latin teacher, only seven or eight do Latin and, typically, four or five of them have always got an A, the system should not say that only two out of eight can get an A because that is the max the system allows. There was an element of that in the system last year. The system should be able to go back and look and say a certain school always did well in accountancy, chemistry, physics or whatever subject it happens to be and maybe that explains why the school outperforms the national average in a significant way.

This issue caused a great deal of frustration among people. They felt that because they happened to be in a class of many high achievers and there were a few who are even better than them, they were effectively downgraded whereas if they had been in a different school and cohort of people, they would probably have got an A. I am not sure whether this issue has been addressed totally, but I welcome the Bill. I also welcome the commitment of the Department and, in particular, the Minister to allow the accredited grades system. It is effectively an insurance policy that gives people a safety net, yet they still want to take their chance, prove themselves on the day, show how much they know and excel. I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill.

I thank the Minister for attending.

The champions in the face of adversity are the leaving certificate students of 2020 and 2021. They will go down in our State's history as being the group that faced adversity and the most unprecedented circumstances.

I welcome the dual assessment and that the Bill will place it on a statutory footing. We must prepare for every eventuality and the Bill certainly does that. Although 80% of students are opting for the traditional exam, having the second option as a back door, support or safety net is important and wise and they deserve it. What Covid disruption planning have we in place? In November, a number of students were ready to go in on a Saturday morning for their exams but, on Friday night, a family member was classified as a close contact of an infected person, meaning the students could not go. We need some sort of contingency. While we are a long way down the road, there is the vaccination roll-out and so on, we must ensure that such devastation does not occur for a student at the height of the exams.

I wonder about the legacy of 2020. I see in the Bill that it has been learned from. Without question, many decisions were made while we were in the grip of the pandemic. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy McHugh, did a valiant job when everything was being experienced for the first time. We not only have a bit more space and time now, but also our learning from last year to build upon.

The algorithm error certainly benefited a particular cohort of students who got opportunities and into courses on the back of the erroneous grades. I would be interested in an analysis of how they performed in their first year, bearing in mind the context, which has been horrendous for first year students in third level. If there has not been attrition, it reinforces the use of ongoing assessment and supports being in place for the people who benefited from calculated grades. Quality assurance is built into the Bill, which I appreciate. That was a good decision on the Minister's part. It is important that we see its benefit.

In my home constituency of Dublin South-Central, we had a tale of two leaving certificates last year. We had schools that historically did not have large numbers going to third level but got many more into third level or, indeed, got students into third level for the first time. That was fantastic and supported the idea of having ongoing assessment as a means of assessment and providing equal opportunities. We also had people who made sacrifices and put their children through grind schools or into private schools. Maybe only one of their children had an aspiration to do medicine and went to a fee-paying school to work the system as it had been presented to them for their entire lives. They found themselves disadvantaged just as the German school was. That was disappointing. I would like to see a red circling of them because they have been thrown back into the lottery that will be the CAO results system next August. It is important that we do or consider doing something for them. I appreciate that this may be more a matter for the Minister, Deputy Harris.

I wish to return to some of the points made by Senator Ruane. I have a problem with aspiration. When a student who comes from a particular community attends a particular school, the narrative for the rest of that student's life is that if he or she gets to Trinity College University he or she will, probably, do so through the access programme, which is a fantastic programme. I have worked with numerous young people in that regard. My problem is that for a student from a different community who attends a different school, the assumption is that he or she will go on third level. I want that narrative to change in communities. It should not be the case that based on a lottery in terms of where a person is born and educated, his or her ambition and the assessment of his or her future and what his or her capacity and competence could be, is limited. We have DEIS schools which this year did not have IT supports or home systems, which mean that students had to share phones and so on. We need to assess that situation and make sure that those schools have those supports and every opportunity, and that the language spoken at those schools is that students can be whatever they want to be and the supports will be put in behind them to make sure they get here.

I may not need all of my time, as most Senators are making the same points and asking the same questions. I pay tribute to the Minister and her officials for the manner in which they handled the process leading up to this year's leaving certificate. The Minister has given hope to students and parents. One of my children will sit the leaving certificate this year. That the Minister has managed to remain calm in all of this is wonderful. The Minister will never know what that meant to students. Students engaged with the Minister and her officials and they listened to them. It is important that happened. I note that the Minister has on numerous occasions acknowledged the students' unions and the many good points they brought forward. We were in uncharted waters. We were in new territory. Education is a huge challenge. Dealing with the future livelihood of thousands of our young people was, I am sure the Minister will agree, a serious burden on her shoulders but all times she remained calm and cool and, along with her officials, she worked on this and when she got it right she brought forward her decision and it has meant an awful lot to students.

I know from talking to my son and some of his friends that there is a great deal of anxiety among students, but they say it is not a mental health issue, that it is just that some of them are anxious about things. This is caused by a lack of contact with people and no access to sports and their friends. Those who did not like going to school realised after a number of weeks that school was not the bad place they thought it was. Some people just do not like schoolwork or school. In that regard, if there are students who need support in that way now, it would be important that the system recognises that and puts in place additional supports for them.

A number of questions have been already asked and I do not propose to repeat what others have said. The question I would like answered is where do we stand with the review of the leaving certificate? I am aware that this is an issue in which the Minister has taken a keen interest so I would appreciate it if she could update the House in that regard. I know nobody wants to talk about this time next year and the possibility that we might still be dealing with Covid-19, but if we are, will we have a plan? I note that the Minister acknowledged in her opening statement that next year's leaving certificate students have been partly affected as well and that account has been taken of that. It is extremely important that we know where we are going and that if we have to live with Covid and restrictions and so on, we are well prepared for it. I have no doubt the Minister has taken that into account but I would welcome an update from her in that regard.

It is important to mention the many heroes in relation to this matter. Without doubt, our students have been heroes. We should be really proud of students across the country. In general, they have been fantastic. At this stage, they have lost almost a year and half of their youth. Can anyone imagine if that had happened to us in our youth?

How would we face into the lack of contact, games and school? All of this was just taken away from them in one fell swoop. They have been remarkable and adults should acknowledge that. I think we do.

We must also acknowledge principals. I spoke with the principal of a local secondary school recently. Principals have done tremendous work. From speaking to those principals, I can say that everyone of them are so concerned to do their very best for every student and get them through this, particularly this year. Again, school committees and parents will play their part as well. Those young people gave us the chance to deal with it. The Minister came out with a very good package. The choice was so important. Students have recognised that we do listen to and care about them and will do our best for them. They will recognise that and pay society back in their own way. I again thank the Minister and call on her and her officials to keep up the good work. I look forward to engaging with her over the coming months and will bring forward any ideas I have.

I also welcome the Minister to the House and commend her on her work because it is certainly not easy. She is dealing with unions and officials and is trying to do the right thing. Sometimes people do not agree with you when you are trying to do the right thing but you just have to stick to your guns and hope it works out on the day. It is a big challenge.

This group of leaving certificate students have been much more impacted by Covid than last year's group. There is no doubt that last year's students were impacted but the cohort of students this year have been even more impacted because they have gone through fifth year and the leaving certificate cycle essentially under the cloud of Covid. We are doing the right thing by giving students the option of having a leaving certificate. I wish the young people who are preparing for the leaving certificate who are anxious, as we all were when we were doing the leaving certificate, well. We did not do the leaving certificate under these circumstances. For those 60,000 students or whatever number of students are doing the leaving certificate, we must bear in mind the anxiety and challenges they face and wish them well in the final days of their preparation for what is the most important examination in their lives.

I believe we need to look at an overall root-and-branch reform of the leaving certificate. It is a very fair examination because it is very equitable. The points system and the CAO are very fair and equitable. The problem is that society and life have changed. I welcome much of the work done by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on apprenticeships. We need a more holistic approach to the final examination at second level and this approach needs a good bit of consideration and thought. When the pandemic comes to a conclusion, there is a logic to the Department of Education reviewing the leaving certificate to see if there is potential for a continuous assessment approach akin to what is done in other countries because anything can go wrong for a family or a young person when it comes to doing the leaving certificate and he or she may not perform at his or her best during that particular period. If there was a properly constituted and managed continuous assessment approach, that would be worth looking at.

A lot has been achieved with regard to young people with disabilities doing the leaving certificate. There are many special needs assistants and resource teachers to support young people along with visiting teachers for the visually impaired who do good work. I recall when I was in school that I attended integrated education in County Clare. I had a visit once a year from a visiting teacher for the visually impaired. I know things have improved since then.

Technology has improved and the Department is not behind the curve in supporting students going to integrated education who have disabilities such as the one I have. That is welcome, appropriate and right.

On the health challenges, I do not know if the Minister and her officials have considered introducing antigen testing for leaving certificate students. Our concern is that as many students as possible should be facilitated in sitting the leaving certificate. I believe that there is logic in introducing antigen testing for the cohort of students who are doing the leaving certificate. I know it is not the same as PCR testing and that there is divided opinion on its effectiveness, but it would be another tool that could be used to help to ensure that as many as students as possible actually sit the leaving certificate examinations. Have the Minister or her Department considered introducing antigen testing? If they have not, would they consider doing so? It is being used extensively in the private sector and it seems to be achieving results, so why not use it to facilitate as many as possible to do the leaving certificate examinations? I wish the Minister well with her challenging portfolio.

I thank the Minister for joining us. I also thank her for the tremendous work she has done as Minister since taking office. She has brought new energy, creativity, resilience and professionalism to the role and to her Department. It has certainly been noticed by the schools and the education community in the Dublin Central constituency in which I live and across the country. I commend the Minister for that and thank her for making time to come to the Seanad today. We appreciate that the Minister's time is precious.

No other leaving certificate class in modern times has faced a greater challenge than that of 2021 in view of the fact that students have missed so much classroom learning, etc. It has been challenging for them from a formal education perspective and also from the point of view of informal education and the social development that comes with that, not just for the students but also for their parents, teachers and the whole school community. Those students felt very alone. They had tremendous pressure on them. The leaving certificate has importance for us all in different ways. It is a rite of passage. It allows people to move on and to progress as young adults and take up further education or training opportunities or choose other path they choose to take.

Historically, leaving certificate students have had very little opportunity to voice their concerns. The leaving certificate substantially determines their futures. When all of this uncertainty was engulfing them, their families and school communities, the Minister recognised that. Students themselves advocated and made their voices heard. They made reasonable requests. They wanted choice, certainty and fairness. The Minister heard and listened to what they had to say and recognised, respected and valued them. She brought them in to the process. That was a real achievement which, I think, all leaving certificate students of 2021 recognise and greatly appreciate.

That said, written exams start on 9 June, which is just over a month from now. The clock is ticking. I wish all the students well. I wish everybody involved in the State examinations well. We all hope that all of the investment that has been made in our educational infrastructure and all the investment of time, energy and expertise that has gone in to preparing our students and the exams will work out for everyone. The fact that the students have both certainty and choice is key. They value both immensely. As we move forward, I know the Minister will take the lessons from last year and this year into next year. The students who have endured what happened in the past year or so want to know that others will benefit from their experience. I think they will. It is down to the Minister and everybody involved, including teachers, unions, school communities and school management.

It is good to acknowledge the positives from all these challenges and take hope from them for the future.

I will finish with two questions and it is important that the Minister clarify these matters on the record of the House. Some 87% of students opted for the examination, which is important. It is crucial that the legislation protects the exam, the teachers and students. Students have two burning questions. Assuming they get all of this behind them, when will they get the results? My understanding of the final determination of results, which I believe the Minister will confirm, is that the higher grade will be counted. Of which grade will it be the higher? Some students seem to have questions about this. Who will make the determination? Will it be the accredited grade or the written examination grade? How will that determination be made and by whom? When will the results be made public?

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I am delighted she is here. I also welcome the Bill and her personal interest in education.

Having been removed from politics for the past year but having still heard from people who had issues with the leaving certificate last year, I am delighted that a review is being carried out and the Minister is bringing forward legislation to put everything in place for the benefit of students. I pay tribute to teachers and students, not only last year's students but also those who are facing into the leaving certificate this year under very difficult circumstances.

Most of the issues I wanted to raise have been mentioned. Reference was made to grade inflation but a number of schools felt there was also grade deflation. I know some students believed that was the case when they looked at the assessments they had done for several years while going through the system. They were getting A or B grades but were knocked back maybe five or ten points. Some students were highly aggrieved by this and felt they had nowhere to go to appeal the decision. Perhaps the Minister could take that into account. I pay tribute to the Minister for putting everything together under very difficult circumstances last year but this matter needs to be examined. Students deserve to be able to appeal and have their voices heard.

This is an opportune time to review the leaving certificate. I spoke to a student with quite bad dyslexia, who is very intelligent in many ways but finds it difficult to do written exams and finds them an ordeal. The student is delighted to be able to opt for predicted grades in some subjects and the written exam in others because this person finds some subjects a little easier than others. This is an opportune time to examine that going forward. It is time to prioritise reform. I acknowledge the Minister's personal interest in that regard.

It would be nice to have the opinions of the students. I know the Minister has done some work on that and has spoken to the teaching unions. Perhaps this issue could be looked at. Many schools now have student councils through which they could survey students on their views. It is important that their voices be heard.

I welcome the Bill. Once it has been enhanced, I would like it to become the permanent template for moving forward.

The Minister is very welcome. I acknowledge the work she has done in the Department. It has been a difficult year and she has been a steady pair of hands. Well done to her. I also acknowledge the difficult years students throughout the school system experienced in 2020 and 2021, especially those for whom the leaving certificate has been their primary focus for most of their lives.

It is important that this year we were able to offer them a choice of sitting the examination, opting for accredited grades, or both. It is important that we learned from the mistakes we made last year. Offering a choice was the correct decision.

The Bill provides statutory indemnity for all teachers providing marks as part of the process and sanctions for those canvassing for increased marks or providing false information. Importantly, it will regularise the results for those who chose to take the written examinations in November 2020. However, there is a group of students who, unfortunately, suffered. I refer to the students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 and did not take up a place in college. Many of them lost out on their choices due to the large increase in points. I wish all students sitting exams well. I thank the teachers for their work and support in recent months.

I thank the Minister for meeting me, Deputy Flaherty and the principal of St. Mel's College about infrastructural improvements. We were seeking additional classrooms for the old school building. It was a very positive meeting and I thank the Minister for facilitating it.

I wish to raise with the Minister a number of projects that are important for September 2021 and I ask her to take note of them. Cnoc Mhuire Secondary School in Granard, which has 450 pupils, made an application for additional accommodation to be provided for September 2021. I urge the Minister to examine this matter as there has been a significant increase in enrolment at the school and it is experiencing difficulties.

Will the Minister also consider meeting me, Deputy Flaherty and the principal of Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford town to discuss the school building, which has reached capacity? There is no play area for more than 500 pupils. Funding was provided for temporary classrooms in an adjoining printing works, but that is not a long-term solution. The pupils, parents and teaching body need certainty for the future. I ask the Minister to consider having a similar meeting to the one we had to progress the project for Meán Scoil Mhuire in Longford. I thank her very much.

I, too, welcome the Minister to the House. As a fellow teacher until I was elected to the House last year, I compliment her and her colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on the work they have done in the past 11 months in the Department in what have been the most challenging of times. The decision made on 17 February was most welcome and timely. It gave certainty to students, families, and the wider school community at a time when they were looking for it. I commend the Minister on that.

The hybrid option allowing students to take the accredited grade and-or sit the leaving certificate as normal and choose the best grade in each subject is a very good model in the context of 2021. I know some will call for it to continue beyond this year. The Minister will have to consider that difficult decision and I do not envy her the task. She might agree that allowing students to choose the better grade will more than likely have an inflationary impact on points this year. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is working exceptionally hard, in conjunction with the Minister, to try to increase the number of places available on third level courses for the next academic year.

Section 3 deals with statutory indemnity.

This is very important, particularly for those who have been providing tuition outside of the school setting. It is appropriate it has been inserted in the Bill. The protections in sections 4 and 5 with regard to canvassing are important for teachers. I do not anticipate them being used much, and I am sure the Minister will agree, but at the same time it is important to put them in place to safeguard the integrity of the entire process.

The removal of the rank order, which caused quite a lot of distress last year, is also very welcome. It demonstrates the Government has learned over the course of the pandemic. We need to implement what we have learned across the board. We need to have a deep dive after the pandemic, and many people have spoken about this in the Chamber, whereby we need to look at what we did right and what we did wrong and put in place measures in the event that we have another pandemic. It is to be hoped, please God and touch wood, we will not.

I would like to speak about the students of 2020 and 2021 and the wider school community that has been impacted drastically by the pandemic. I come from an educational setting and background and I am especially concerned about the impact and the levels of stress and anxiety, which had been rising before the pandemic ever came upon us. We have the growth of social media and outside influences on our young people. I am concerned for their well-being. We are doing a lot of work on reform of the junior certificate cycle with regard to well-being, but after the pandemic we need to look at putting in place particular measures and not just talking about understanding and knowing the impact it has on students.

We need tangible actions to be able to look after the students who have missed many milestones over the course of the pandemic. I am thinking about sixth class students who moved into first year and did not get to say goodbye to some friends who went to different secondary schools. People have missed out on debs and graduations. There are many milestones we all took for granted in our lives that are being missed by many students. We need to pause and reflect after the pandemic and put in place measures to address them. I commend the Minister on her work over the past 11 months and wish all of our students, staff and parents well in the coming weeks and months with regard to the leaving certificate.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire freisin as ucht teacht anseo don tarna uair. Taispeánann sé dúinn an tsuim atá aici san ábhar seo agus an tábhacht atá ceangailte leis an ábhar seo freisin. We all recognise how important this is. Earlier, when I was speaking to a colleague, I asked him what he thought about the leaving certificate and all he said was that he did not want to do it again. We recognise how stressful this has been for the students this year and last year. There may well be legacy issues for students next year also. Perhaps what is most important about the Bill is that it brings certainty to the issue. I welcome the Bill because it brings this certainty. It sets out the map we knew was coming and it gives that certainty to students which we know they need. I welcome this.

It is important to set down some other provisions in the Bill. Colleagues have mentioned the ban on canvassing. When we look at the assessment of grades other than by the examination that all of us went through and with which we are all familiar, it is a new realm and a difficult concept for a society as small as Ireland to come to terms with. I know from friends who were in school or college in the United States that it is de rigueur and part of the process there. However, it is a much larger society where there is very clear separation in a much bigger pool between the teacher and the student. Here that relationship is much closer. Teachers are very closely involved with their students. Particularly outside urban areas, teachers are very much involved in society and have much closer links to families and people in the community.

It places teachers in a very difficult position. For example, the provisions in the Bill that ban canvassing by parents or students are tremendously important. We all know it should not happen, but it is important to set that out on a clear footing to protect teachers as much as students and parents. I therefore welcome those provisions.

Regarding the hybrid option for this year's leaving certificate, where students get the opportunity to choose the grade that suits them, whether through an examination or an assessed process, I wonder if that is potentially showing us the future of education in Ireland. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the effect this will have on those students who are in fifth year and will do their leaving certificate next year. How we are going to plan for them? Are we going to afford them the same opportunities their colleagues will have in the coming months in respect of the hybrid option? It would be a good thing if that were the case, because we have seen that this system can work.

I echo what was said earlier concerning the Minister having been very much thrown in at the deep end and having had to deal with such immense issues, which would never have occurred were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic and the context of such an enormous sea change in the way we deal with assessing people's abilities as they come to the end of the secondary cycle. I welcome the Bill and its provisions. It is also a mark of the commitment to education by this Government that we have two Ministers specifically dedicated to this area. I recognise that the Minister's remit deals with the provision of education spanning from when children first go to school right up to the leaving certificate stage. That is very important.

It would be remiss of me if I did not use this opportunity while the Minister is in the Chamber to mention that I have been on the phone all day with parents of children at primary school level. While this issue does not directly relate to this Bill, the Minister will be aware of an issue concerning Gaelscoil Laighean in Deansgrange. It is a new Gaelscoil, and the newest school we have in the Dún Laoghaire area. There is some considerable confusion now about where the future of that school lies. It appears there was an announcement that it would be moving to a site in Dún Laoghaire, notwithstanding the fact that when I was a councillor in Blackrock, just a few years ago, we were directly involved in a public consultation for a school in the Blackrock-Booterstown area. Now, it seems there is a proposal to move the school to Dún Laoghaire.

The Minister will understand that parents are quite distressed about that, and also that it is very far away from where they envisaged the school. I spoke to several parents today who changed jobs and moved house to facilitate sending their children to school. Just before coming into the Chamber, I spoke to a parent who has one child in Gaelscoil Phádraig in Ballybrack and moved to a house in Cabinteely specifically to allow the child to attend the Blackrock-Booterstown Gaelscoil, which is closer to where she works. It appears, however, that the proposal now is to move the school to Dún Laoghaire. I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue as a Commencement matter on Monday, when I will deal with it further. It is an issue that is very important to the people of that area, and I hope the Minister will take cognisance of the importance of dealing with this matter and giving them some clarity.

Returning to the Bill, I congratulate the Minister. These provisions are important and they will bring clarity and hope to leaving certificate students facing examinations this year.

When I opened this debate, I set out the objectives and principles underpinning this Bill. At its simplest, it will be appreciated that the Bill is designed to help our leaving certificate classes of 2021 to complete their schooling and to progress to the next chapter of their lives. This progression and transition is one of the recognised milestones in the lives of so many students for many years now.

From our first days in office last summer, the Government has sought to honour our responsibility to students through prioritising the reopening of schools. In determining to do its absolute best for students, the Government depends on the assistance of the students themselves, wider school communities, including all school staff, and, in bringing this legislation to this House today, it depends now on the assistance of Members. I express my sincere gratitude for that assistance being so forthcoming in such a generous manner.

Once enacted, this Bill will confer new or additional powers on the SEC, the body that has managed and operated State examinations for almost 20 years in a very professional manner. The SEC enjoys the confidence of all the actors in the education system in that regard. Most important, however, through the legislation, the students undertaking their leaving certificate in 2021 will be treated in a very similar fashion to their predecessors.

The leaving certificate this year's students will receive will have, as I mentioned, the same look and feel as any other year. This is also true for the class of 2020, whose certificates will issue from the SEC by virtue of this Bill.

In conferring those additional powers on the SEC, the Bill allows me as Minister to ensure we can bring some normality to the lives of students in these most unusual and even unprecedented times. As a country we are now looking forward to reopening and returning to so much that we have had to pause since spring 2020, and so too can the students of the leaving certificate for 2021 now look forward positively.

I have been before this House on many occasions since my appointment and I know at first hand, with the contributions from Senators on each occasion, the commitment Senators have to leaving certificate students. That level of interest in and commitment to those students has been evident again throughout this long debate this afternoon. I can say we now have a shared objective in absolutely wanting the best for all our students, even if, on occasion, we might differ on how to achieve that. This afternoon a variety of different points have been raised but time will only allow me to refer to some, so I will speak to those that have had a common thread throughout the afternoon.

A point was raised by Senator Mullen about this country standing independently and recognising its ability to forge a path in education and I certainly agree with the Senator in that respect. I respect his genuine positive and good intention in making that point. It is important to acknowledge that in this instance we are almost unique in Ireland in offering the class of 2021 a chance to avail of an accredited grades system or the written exams in June. It is a remarkable achievement and statement by this country which shows we recognise we have the potential and the ability to deliver in a unique way to meet unique challenges to the competencies and abilities of our students. We will do what best serves our students at every opportunity. It is important to make that point.

Another common thread this afternoon referenced the leaving certificate for 2022. I am conscious that the students in that year have had their own significant challenges in being out of school and having limited opportunities for in-person learning. I have made it clear before that we will look to make suitable accommodation for those students, recognising the time when they were not in a position to avail of in-person teaching and learning. I want to be very clear about that.

A number of speakers raised the question of canvassing and it is very important the Bill contains a provision on the prohibition of canvassing. It is a very important reassurance for everyone involved in the process, so it is only right and proper for it to be there. Various speakers have raised genuine concerns about students being inadvertently discommoded because of the actions of somebody else. It is important that such a consideration could be addressed, so I want to be very clear that that part of the Bill has a very clear acknowledgement that there will be a robust and significant review process of individual cases, including individual circumstances or information pertaining to a case. They will be robustly examined and adjudicated upon, which should give assurance that a decision will not be made in a single fell swoop. This will be a very considered and involved review process.

A final point relates to the senior cycle review, as the topic featured extensively this afternoon. Senators are aware of the senior cycle review and we are awaiting the advisory report, which will come in the not-too-distant future. It will be a significant step forward for the entire senior cycle review.

The review will be looking at all areas, including transition year, the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and the leaving certificate established.

It is important to acknowledge, as previous speakers stated, that there are incredible learnings from this past year. These are learnings from developments we would never have envisaged we would have been capable of achieving two years ago. It is important that all that we have learned in this present climate will feed into the process. Equally, there is an acknowledgement that there is much that is positive about the present senior cycle. Like any experience of education, or indeed any experience of life, there is always room to do things differently, better and in a more visionary manner.

Members made strong contributions today about the importance of ensuring every child is benefited by his or her experience of the senior cycle, feels included and has a place in it as he or she would experience it in school. That will be underpinning all of my judgment and involvement going forward in terms of what we can achieve for students at senior cycle. I look forward to strong consultation and inclusive debate in terms of how we move forward with the senior cycle.

It is important also to emphasise we have achieved an awful lot in the education sector in difficult and challenging circumstances over these past 18 months. This has been on the back of positive and proactive engagement from the widest possible consultative process that included parents, teachers, students, school management bodies and everybody invested in the education sector. The senior cycle review will be in a similar vein. It will be strongly based on consultative and collaborative engagement. Much has been made of the voices of particular sectors being heard. A system can only be strengthened when all the voices of those involved are equally heard. That is the strength of what we are achieving with this Bill. It is my intention going forward that this strength will be used in the debate and the process which will evolve around the senior cycle.

Today's debate has ensured many points made by Senators have been brought into the public domain. I will give further consideration to these points. I look forward to returning to the House next week and engaging with Senators further. I thank them for their genuine engagement and enthusiasm, along with their positive and proactive engagement with all that happens in the education sector. We are enriched because of it. I welcome that collaboration and engagement continuing.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 10 May 2021.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. next Monday, 10 May 2021, in the Dáil Chamber.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.28 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 10 May 2021.