Education (Leaving Certificate 2021) (Accredited Grades) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

I welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, the House. It is good to have her with us again for Committee and Remaining Stages.

Section 1 agreed to.
SECTION 2

Amendments Nos. 1, 8, 9 and 11 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Government amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 4, to delete “necessarily”

I have tabled four amendments, each of which provides for minor textual amendments to reflect some points that were missed prior to publication. On the advice of Parliamentary Counsel, the amendments are necessary. The amendments do not alter the substance of the sections or the schedules where they arise, and they are only technical or clerical in nature.

Amendment No. 1 will delete the word "necessarily" from the second line of section 2(2), which is on page 5 at line 4. Amendment No. 8 proposes to delete “Examinations” and substitute “Examination” in section 9. Amendment No. 9 proposes to delete “of”, where it first occurs in section 9. Finally, the text of the opening sentence of the Schedule has also been revised.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, line 24, after “appropriate” to insert “(taken as a whole and not any one individual(’s)result)”.

This amendment seeks clarity on whether junior certificate results will be based on results' data from the year group or from the individual student's own results. It should only be the junior certificate data from the year group that is used. There is a significant difference between the two and a clear answer would be welcome from the Minister.

I welcome the intention behind this amendment. I can agree with it in principle and I thank the Senator for tabling it. Fundamentally, the process of standardisation will operate at national level. It is preferable to use aggregate or cohort data, as the evidence is that the use of junior cycle data in the regression model is of better predictive quality when done at a class group rather than individual level.

I cannot agree to the amendment, however, as in certain cases, it is necessary to rely on the individual junior cycle result of an individual student, where that student is typically an out-of-school learner or a student pursuing a subject out of school. This was the case in 2020 in respect of calculated grades and it is set out in the published national standardisation group report.

We were conscious of this from the outset. To ensure we were being clear about the junior cycle's potential use in standardisation, the February guide to State examinations and accredited grades for the leaving certificate 2021 stated, "Though the prior performance of the class group in Junior Cycle may be used in this process, the individual performance of the student at Junior Cycle would not be a determinant of their performance at Leaving Certificate, other than when the subject is being taken outside of school." However, the accredited grades system is, in the overall, subject to the determination of policy by myself. Specifically, section 2(2)(d) operates in accordance with such policy directions as the Minister may give. On that basis, and although I am rejecting the amendment, I am happy to include in my determination under section 2(1) a policy direction expressly stating the junior cycle and leaving certificate data used in the process of standardisation will be aggregated or cohort data subject to the flexibility referred to in limited cases, which is our intention in any event.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:

“(iv) be set out in writing and published by or on behalf of the Commission prior to the issuing of results to each candidate;”.

As we learned last year, a lack of clarity before the release of results will leave students questioning and doubting a greater number of results. It makes sense to release as much detail as possible so that students are better placed to interpret their results.

The principle behind this amendment - providing transparency in how the process of standardisation will operate - can be agreed with, but the amendment seeks to have the process of standardisation published in advance of results day. This is not something that can be agreed to because the final composition or application of the process will, or at least may, not be known right up to results day. I can commit to doing, at a minimum, what we did last year in having the technical details of the model and standardisation process published on results day. I am also happy to commit to doing so as early as possible.

We will be able to comment more on what we hope to publish on the 2021 standardisation process once it has been developed. However, it is an iterative process. Accordingly, I do not accept the amendment as drafted.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, to delete lines 10 to 12.

I will be brief because of the time. We want to remove this provision in the Bill, which narrows the grounds on which an appeal can be made. As matters stand, an appeal can only consider the technicalities of how estimated marks are transferred from the school to the State Examinations Commission, SEC. Since the system is relatively new, appeals should have a far wider scope.

I thank the Senator for his co-operation with the process.

It is important to point out that, as a matter of policy, the provision of estimated marks is grounded fundamentally in the professional judgment of teachers and an in-school alignment before submission to the SEC. The definition of "estimated mark" in the Bill provides clarity on what professional judgment is understood to encompass. The process through which professional judgment is exercised would make it impossible that another person unknown to the student could be expected to review the evidence as a candidate's teacher had done, acknowledging that some of it will have been based on observation over the course of the entire senior cycle, and then be asked to provide an estimated mark that could be compared with the one initially provided. This would make the design of such an appeal system, even if it were desired, difficult and potentially impossible. The appeal process would also be highly likely to last several weeks, if not longer, and impede the candidate's progression to further study, or at least not facilitate it in terms of later rounds of offers. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.

I speak as an educator of 20-odd years in a classroom. The Minister is right that no one is questioning the professionalism of the teacher. This is about ensuring the student receives due regard for his or her work, but we must be careful to ensure that, in a new model of education delivery, the appeal system is wide ranging, open and transparent and is not confined within the prisons of certain operations.

I understand where the Minister is coming from, but look at how operations have changed in terms of how people can appeal marks and view scripts after the publication of leaving certificate results. There is an opportunity we need to grasp now where the leaving certificate is concerned. In the context of this section, is there any willingness on the part of the SEC or the Department's bureaucracy to consider how to make the accredited grades system part of the leaving certificate in future? I come from a generation that had to learn off poetry and read Peig Sayers. The Leas-Chathaoirleach is probably of the same generation.

I loved reading Peig. I am probably in a minority of one in saying that. I did not like other aspects of the leaving certificate, though, such as rote learning. We are on a section that deals with reviews. We should not adopt a straitjacket approach to reviews. We have changed the model of education. We have empowered more people, there is more engagement and there are more consultative processes. We have a wider variety of activities for parents, pupils and boards of management. My concern has to do with the qualification a student leaves school with after the leaving certificate. If a student is dissatisfied for some reason, we have an obligation to ensure he or she can appeal the final determination or have his or her performance examined further.

I admire the work that has been done by the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy McHugh. In one way, changes were foisted upon us and have led to a different type of exam process. We want to consider the welfare of the student. I am a big believer in the Maslow concept of reaching the point of self-actualisation. We should allow a student to exhaust all avenues by the end of the process.

I understand where the Minister is coming from, but I am worried the SEC or the Department is not prepared for a more thorough approach to the end game. I support the Minister in what she is doing. "Candidate" is the awful word that is used in the Bill, but it should be "student". That student is a person and that person is in a family. We all know what the stresses and strains of doing an ordinary leaving certificate were prior to Covid-19. Add to that blended learning, an on-off presence in school and now exams.

I hope the Minister, as an tAire, will at the end of her tenure, whenever that will be, leave a legacy of real reform. I urge her, as the Minister for Education, to be that innovative and progressive Minister, and abandon the shackles, if any exist, and make the education system a different type - more innovative and more student-centred.

The Minister is right that the professionalism of teachers and those who educate young people is absolutely unbelievable. I refer to their quality, dedication and concern. I have seen all that work as a former educator, as someone who is married to an educator and an uncle of a leaving certificate student but I hope that we can go to the end of the bridge to make it a really different leaving certificate in 2022.

I thank the Senator for his professional insights.

I thank Senator Buttimer and appreciate his particular interest, and ongoing engagement, on matters of education.

I suggest that many of the points he made are outside the scope of this Bill. Be that as it may, I acknowledge that, and I said previously and last Friday, there are learnings in everything from Covid and I am in no doubt that there are learnings in terms of all that we have achieved in respect of calculated grades and now the accredited grades process.

The Senator will be aware that we have the senior cycle review and an advisory report is due imminently. I very much believe that the advisory report will be the catalyst to afford us the opportunity to look root and branch at all of the aspects of senior cycle provision, look at the very many positives and perhaps look at the shortcomings. The report will allow us an opportunity, in consultation and in partnership with everyone within the education sector, to have a view and opinion on how we can chart our way forward in the very best interests of those whom we serve within the education sector, which is the students, as highlighted by the Senator. I would also point to the fact that the Citizens' Assembly will have an opportunity to debate this issue going forward. There is significant provision going forward, although it is not within the gift of this Bill, to address senior cycle issues.

Specifically on the provision of an appeal, I want to make it very clear that the provision of the estimated marks is grounded fundamentally on the professional judgment of teachers and an in-school alignment process that includes a group of professional teachers and the involvement of the school principal. Significant guidelines on the process have also been offered. The amendment, as it stands, is not acceptable for the reasons that I have given.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2, as amended, agreed to.
Section 3 agreed to.
SECTION 4

Amendments Nos. 5 and 7 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 7, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:

“(b) Where a review is carried out, the Commission shall afford the candidate an opportunity to be heard. ”.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 7 are the same. The word "candidate" is used in the Bill. Indeed, that is an unusual term for students and perhaps they will all stand for election after the campaigned that has occurred. The amendments seek to give students a chance for their case to be heard. I know that issues of capacity will be referred to but it is important to bear in mind that only a small number of students will look to present their case and not every student will wish to present in person at an appeal. Given the impact and lifelong implications, the amendment is important. Some candidates will have to quickly decide about applying to the Central Applications Office, CAO, or whether to take other CAO offers. Therefore, my colleagues and I believe that it is important for candidates to get a chance to make their case at an appeal before making any decisions.

The Bill already indicates that there will be due process so candidates will have an opportunity to present before the State Examinations Commission. Therefore, I do not believe that there is any need for the amendment.

Sections 4 and 5 will operate in accordance with the procedures as may be prescribed. In that regard, regulations are currently being drafted that give effect to the provisions concerned. I indicated during the Second Stage debate and I, again, confirm here today, as did Senator Dolan, that there will be a robust review process in place that will not lead to decisions being made without considering individual circumstances.

While the consideration of the provision is always subject to the constitutional protection of fair procedures and natural justice, and that regulations are in development, section 7(2) expressly requires that the regulations provide for what the amendment seeks. Section 7(2)(a) specifies that the candidate will be notified should a report in regard to a communication under section 4 be made, what has been referred to as canvassing, or under section 5 if false and misleading may be given. The candidate then has the opportunity to make representations to the commission. In this way, the candidate is afforded the opportunity to be heard as the amendment intends.

In addition, before any decision to withhold accredited grades is made, a review is carried out and any decision arising to withhold results must be accompanied with reasons for withholding. That is subject to appeal so there is a second opportunity for the candidate's views to be taken into account. Therefore, I cannot agree to the amendment, as presented.

I have listened to Senator Dolan and the Minister and concur with what has been said. I am a small bit concerned about the language we are using. The Minister used the phrase "robust review", which is fantastic. We have migrated in two areas. For example, An Bord Pleanála holds oral in-person hearings and the Department of Social Protection has an in-person physical appeals system. The Minister used the phrases "make representations", "the candidate is afforded the opportunity to be heard", and "there is a second opportunity for the candidate". She is 100% right that the review will be robust and provide a pathway.

Again, to return to my other point, and I suppose maybe I am getting older, more mature in my old age and becoming more reflective, but we need to cast aside some of the ways in which we have operated before. I wonder, notwithstanding the remarks made by the Minister, instead of her saying "make representations" can we allow for the in-person opportunity to be heard? We have an opportunity now. We have democratised education beyond where it was when I started teaching. We have student councils. Plus students can make representations and effect change in a whole variety of ways, which is to be welcomed. We have given, and rightly so, parental involvement in education a key place and a part, as a stakeholder. I fear that the one area that we have not continued is in the exam system per se even though we have changed to the State Examinations Commission running exams and so on. Can the Minister explain the robustness a bit more? There is a part of me that likes the idea of giving the student or candidate the opportunity to be heard.

I support where the Minister is coming from because I know what will happen and integrity is important. Why can we not go that little step further?

I thank the Senator. I want to be clear that the candidate is afforded an opportunity to make his or her case. The threshold is very high. It will not be easy to find against a student for canvassing. It is right and proper that it be vigorous and robust and that there be significant engagement around this.

On the legal requirements, we have been clear that legal advice was sought and it confirms that the strong review that is afforded to everyone concerned in anything of this nature is a proportionate response. I am happy that it is a proportionate response and that has been supported.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 7, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:

“(7) The Commission shall not decide to withhold all or any of the accredited

grades as provided for by subsection (5), where it can be shown that the candidate had no knowledge of the communication that was made for his or her benefit by the first-mentioned person.

(8) Where a communication is made without the candidate’s knowledge as

prescribed for in subsection (7)#, the Minister shall make regulations providing for the first-mentioned person to be liable to a fine.”.

We touched on this on Second Stage. I take on board the views of Senator Ruane on this issue but students should not be made to feel responsible for the actions of others, such as parents or guardians, in the weeks ahead. As it stands, there is no distinction between a joint venture of student and parent and the lone actions of a parent. When the consequences for canvassing are so serious, there is no room for ambiguity. Students should be given peace of mind over the coming weeks.

I confirm that the procedure under which a review is conducted will seek the views of the candidate in respect of any report made of canvassing. Section 7(2)(a) expressly provides that the candidate will have the opportunity to submit representations. If the student was unaware of any canvassing, the candidate has the opportunity to make that case in the representations. If the candidate does make the case, the review must take this into account in reaching a decision. The candidate enjoys the protection that any decision following the review must be reasonable based on the information available to the review. As the intent of the amendment is already provided for, including by virtue of legal principles, the amendment does not improve the Bill.

In regard to the drafting of the amendment, it could have unintended consequences and does not develop or elaborate on the policies or principles to be applied in determining how a candidate would show he or she had no knowledge of a communication or how a person making a communication would be afforded fair procedures. Therefore, I will not agree to the amendment.

I have contacted the Department of Education to confirm that candidates have been notified through this whole year and through this process about the regulations around canvassing. This process has to be fair for all students. It is heartening to hear, as the Minister has pointed out, that the candidate will be able to make his or her case, if it comes to that. It is positive that notification has been given out to candidates all this year regarding canvassing over these exams.

I do not agree with the criticisms of the amendment. I think it strengthens the Bill and gives peace of mind to students over the coming weeks.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 10; Níl, 26.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Garvey, Róisín.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Martin, Vincent P.
  • McGahon, John.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Fintan Warfield and Lynn Boylan; Níl, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 4 agreed to.
SECTION 5

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 7, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:

“(b) Where a review is carried out, the Commission shall afford the candidate an opportunity to be heard.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 5 agreed to.
Sections 6 to 8, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 9
Government amendment No. 8:
In page 12, line 32, to delete “Examinations” and substitute “Examination”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 9:
In page 13, line 3, to delete “of” where it firstly occurs.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 9, as amended, agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 13, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:

“Legislative review

10. (1) The Minister shall, not later than six months after the Leaving Certificate 2021 takes place, carry out a review of the operation of this Act.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the Minister shall consider—

(a) the introduction of a system of accredited grades for the Leaving Certificate Examinations on an ongoing, annual basis following the 2021 examinations,

(b) the degree to which such a system may improve educational progression and outcomes for students of a lower socio-economic status,

(c) whether such an accredited grade system could run concurrently with the traditional Leaving Certificate or eventually supplant the current model, and

(d) potential structural reforms for the current Leaving Certificate model that could be made, drawing on insights gained from the operation of the Leaving Certificate Examinations in 2020 and 2021.

(3) The Minister shall, not later than three months after the commencement of the review under subsection (1), make a report to each House of the Oireachtas on the findings of that review, including proposals for policy and legislative reform.”.

I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber again this afternoon. The amendment is pretty self-explanatory. It proposes a review, to be put on a statutory footing under this legislation, to ensure that we do not go back to business as normal with regard to leaving certificate reform after the Covid-19 pandemic. As I said last week, the Minister is in a really great position to bring about real change in this area. What does it mean to be a teacher? I do not believe anyone setting out to be a teacher wants to work within very tight parameters or to have to have a push-pull relationship with students to get through a curriculum quickly. The leaving certificate does not just begin at the age of 15, 16 or 17. Many kids are streamed into classes at the age of 11 and the futures of many are determined at the age of 12 when they enter secondary school based on an entrance examination. They may not get to take on a language or they may miss out on certain subjects as their choices are narrowed down by the time they reach second year or third year.

With regard to creating diversity in certain sectors, to be a garda or a teacher, one needs particular things at leaving certificate level which, as it stands, are sometimes just not provided for. I was a lecturer in Maynooth University a number of years ago, working on the first Turn to Teaching programme. This was aimed at young people who had experienced disadvantage due to a disability, their class or another issue but who really wanted to be teachers. They would not have been able to do that without the Turn to Teaching programme. For many of them it was almost impossible to get the adequate level of Irish when so many schools are so far behind on the curriculum, even after studying and trying and even with being able to study for Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge, TEG, as part of the access programme and being allowed to fail over and over again. Such young people are not given routes. Although no one would think that I would aspire to being a garda, I looked into what is required to do so. Even if one studies Irish and maths at foundation level in this country, one cannot become a garda. At another level, we talk about having diversity.

There is also a great deal of conversation around apprenticeships. I always get a little bit angry when I hear this conversation because they are put forward as a great thing. While they can be, one has to look at the demographic profile of those who end up being shoehorned into apprenticeships. They are not spread across society. Those from middle or higher classes do not encourage their children into apprenticeships. It furthers the class divide. Apprenticeships are often not transferable, which can create problems when economic issues arise. They reinforce a cycle of poverty as people can develop a lack of transferable skills. We need many options. People should have a choice as to what to do with their lives. They should not do carpentry or some other apprenticeship because they have no other option, but because they truly want to even though they know they could do anything else they wanted. For a great many students, however, that is not the case. They enter careers because they cannot choose another. My daughter said something to me a few years back. I have told this story previously. She said that she thought she would be an ice cream van driver when she grew up. I wondered whether she was for real. I had dragged myself through college to change my family's practice over generations with regard to going to third level. She said, however, that she was choosing to be an ice cream van driver even though she knew she could be something else if she wanted to be. That is the thing. It is about having choice. With the leaving certificate at present, there is no choice. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment which would give her and her Department an opportunity to come back to this Chamber with a full report and review as to how this year has gone in respect of the accredited grades system. I ask her to accept the amendment and to allow this conversation on leaving certificate reform to continue in this Chamber.

I support the principle behind what Senator Ruane is trying to achieve.

The Senator used the phrase "generational change" and I will add "cultural change" in the context of education. I am not sure that we need to provide the legislative footing for it. In recognition of the world we now inhabit, we have embarked upon gargantuan change in education from this time last year up to now, whereby accredited grades have been accepted and we have delivered an opportunity which is different for students from what had been the case hitherto. I fundamentally believe, and I made the point earlier, that the Minister's legacy will be a positive one in many ways if we embrace the opportunity to bring meaningful change in education. Who would have thought that, in 2021, blended learning and accredited grades would be accepted, although maybe begrudgingly because of what was foisted upon u? We have moved from oral and aural, we have brought in practicals and we have changed maths at foundation and other levels. The Minister spoke about the Citizens’ Assembly. In the context of the legislative review, she can bring change in terms of educational progression and empowerment, and I hope she will do that.

It is very fitting today, as we celebrate the legacy of Seán Lemass and all he did for education, that we have the opportunity to discuss this legislation and to talk about what a future legacy can be. What Senator Ruane has raised and indicated in her amendment is certainly worthy of debate. It is a debate on which we need to have a full sitting and perhaps it is an issue on which we can invite the Minister back to our Chamber. There is nothing more important than education in terms of equipping our young people with all they need to find their way in today's world. While the leaving certificate is a measurement of attainment of a result that will enable a young person to go forward into the world of work, the world of further education or the world of apprenticeship, it should be about so much more. It should be about equipping our young people with everything they need to deal with all of the challenges and conflicts that life shows. While the world of the leaving certificate has certainly changed far more in the past 14 months than it had since it first came in, the reform of the leaving certificate is hugely important, and the education committee is taking this on as a piece of work, in conjunction with the Citizens’ Assembly. We are on the cusp of a great debate and I am very gratified it is the Minister, Deputy Foley, who is going to lead that debate. This amendment needs to be taken out of what we are dealing with now and brought to a wider and bigger forum.

I call Senator Aisling Dolan.

We only have one minute left and I wonder if there will be time for the Minister to come back on the amendment.

I call Senator Dolan.

I very much agree that we need to support the socioeconomic side. However, I believe the senior cycle review is the main focus of this Bill. We want to see continuous assessment and we also need to see measures such as hot school meals and a DEIS resource identification system being rolled out. That will support people to move through the school system.

I thank Senators for their contribution and, in particular, Senator Ruane for the amendment. I am not in a position to accept the amendment for a number of reasons. The matters outlined for consideration by the Senator are not provided for in this Bill, which is focused on leaving certificate 2021 only. This amendment, if accepted, would set aside the senior cycle review process, which is at a very advanced stage and the advisory report is imminent. As referenced earlier today, the Citizens’ Assembly is another vehicle for consideration of many of the points the Senator has raised. The amendment does not have regard to section 7 of the Education Act 1998, which, in respect of the determination of national educational policy, requires the Minister to make “all reasonable efforts to consult”, and that would be with the education partners - in other words, there would be wide consultation, which is very much part of senior cycle review.

I acknowledge that the Senator brings incredible passion and commitment to this. I am very aware of the body of work that needs to be done in ensuring curricula meet the needs of students and 21st-century learners. Equally, I am especially conscious, as I know the Senator is, that a considerable body of work remains to close the attainment gap, which is very important. However, there are two very definite vehicles, particularly the senior cycle review group, whose advisory report is imminent. There will be ample opportunity. I look forward to engaging directly with the Senator and with all the Members in that regard. As I said, we also have the Citizens’ Assembly. However, what the Senator has outlined is not for this Bill.

As it is now 12.45 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Seanad of this day: “That amendment No. 10 is hereby negatived in committee, that section 10 is hereby agreed to in committee, that the Government amendments undisposed of are hereby made to the Bill, in respect of each of the sections undisposed of that the section or, as appropriate, the section, as amended, is hereby agreed to in committee, the Schedule is hereby agreed to and the Title is agreed to in committee, the Bill, as amended, is accordingly reported to the House, Fourth Stage is hereby completed, the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and the Bill is hereby passed.”

Question put and agreed to.

I thank colleagues for their participation and the Minister for her very full answers to questions. When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. next Monday, 17 May 2021, in the Dáil Chamber.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.48 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 17 May 2021.