Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (525)

Emer Higgins

Question:

525. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Education if concessions are being considered for the leaving certificate class of 2021; if there will be allowances for the loss of teaching hours in 2020 that affected student class time; if there will be allowances made for students many of whom are self-isolating on multiple occasions and missing class time as Covid-19 cases are detected in their schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38793/20]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

My Department is acutely aware of the disruption caused to students as a result of school closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and which led the decision not to run the state examinations this summer.

In the context of the return to schools of students for the 2020/21 academic year my Department published a range of documentation and support material as part of the Roadmap for the Full Return to School, which is available at www.gov.ie/backtoschool.

On 21 August, I announced a series of changes that would be made to assessment arrangements for both Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate examinations for 2021. This announcement was accompanied by a published document detailing these changes, Assessment Arrangements for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate Examinations 2021, and forms part of the Roadmap for the Full Return to School.

These arrangements are designed to take account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during the 2019/20 school year and to factor in for some further possible loss of learning time in the 2020/21 school year as a contingency measure. As the loss of learning through school closures will have affected students’ engagement with their course of study in different ways, the adjustments put in place will play to students’ strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the examinations, while incorporating additional choice. The adjustments were arrived at through discussions between my Department, the State Examinations Commission (SEC),the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and key stakeholders.

As schools have significant autonomy in determining how to sequence and pace learning for students in their schools, no centrally prescribed adjustment of the curriculum and courses of study would have been effective for students taking the certificate examinations in 2021. Consequently, the most appropriate way to reflect and take account of the challenges for students that have occurred in 2019/20 and may occur in 2020/21 was to incorporate adjustments to the certificate examinations in 2021.

These changes to the national assessment arrangements have been made with due regard for the principles of equity, fairness and integrity, as these principles apply to assessment and examinations and refer to student to-student, subject-to-subject, and year-to-year comparisons over time. The changes provide reassurance to students, their parents/guardians, teachers and schools.

The SEC, which has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the certificate examinations, intends to operate the 2021 state examinations as normally as possible, with appropriate contingency built in, in line with prevailing public health advice. This is my firm intention also. It is not intended that there would be any change to the length of the written examinations. For subjects where the SEC issues project briefs during the 2020/21 school year, the intention is to issue these at least four weeks earlier than normal. For subjects with course work completion dates typically late in the school year, schools will be asked to submit this coursework two weeks earlier than normal as a contingency measure. In this context teachers are being encouraged to plan and undertake these projects as early as possible in the programme of study.

Other documents published by my Department to support the return to school include Guidance for Practical Subjects in Post-Primary Schools and Centres for Education and Returning to school: Guidance on learning and school programmes for post primary school leaders and teachers. These documents provide guidance for teachers and schools that is specific to each practical subject area, so that students can be facilitated to actively engage with their learning. All documentation published is available on www.gov.ie/backtoschool.

The www.gov.ie/backtoschool site also contains information on wellbeing supports for Leaving Certificate students. This includes a series of supports on managing wellbeing, coping with uncertainty and managing stress and anxiety, developed by the National Educational Psychological Service, to support students. The webpage has links to more individualised support for students to access, should these be needed. My Department worked with the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure the most appropriate services and resources are clearly signposted for students.

Promoting the wellbeing of school communities has been a fundamental element of my Department’s overall plan to support a successful return to school as we continue to manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. We know that most students have been happy and relieved to get back to school, reconnect and prepare to re-engage with learning. My Department is providing for approximately 120 extra posts for guidance to support student wellbeing, recognising the particular importance for this support in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic challenges.

It remains the Government’s and my Department’s key objective for schools to remain open and to continue to operate as normally as possible. However, I recognise that despite the best efforts of all stakeholders, there will be situations where individual pupils or groups of pupils, teachers, or possibly entire school communities, are requested by Public Health HSE to self-isolate or restrict their movements because of a case or cases of Covid-19.

There is an absolute necessity for schools to be prepared for these situations, for them to continue to support their pupils and to provide for continuity of learning. This is particularly important in the context of pupils with special educational needs, pupils at risk of educational disadvantage and pupils at risk of early school leaving.

Schools are aware of the need to be agile in providing for continuity of schooling in the future. Contingency planning is required to support continuity of pupils/students’ learning and the use of digital technology, where possible, will be used to facilitate this. It is important that planning and the adoption of approaches are based on a whole-school approach. Given the fluidity of requirements to meet the various potential scenarios that living with Covid-19 entails, it is important that schools review and adapt their plans over the coming weeks and months as the situation evolves and as the experience of schools in providing for continuity of learning increases.

Extensive guidance and supports have been and continue to be made available by my Department and its support services to support schools to plan for a transition to online and remote learning and this guidance is all available at

www.gov.ie/en/campaigns/a128d-back-to-school/?referrer=http://www.gov.ie/backtoschool/.

The guidance includes links to a range of materials and supports developed by the Digital Technologies team of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), such as learning platforms and online tools which can be used to support remote learning. Those resources continue to be available to schools.

In addition, my Department has issued ICT grant funding to schools to address ICT needs including digital devices, communication/learning platforms, software and other ICT solutions to support the provision of remote learning. Additional grant aid will issue during the current school year.

My Department’s Inspectorate is supporting school communities to provide effectively for the learning and progression of all learners during the first term of the 2020/21 school year.

The situation we find ourselves in is evolving all the time. My Department, in working with the whole of Government, will keep the situation under review and update any advices to schools as required. It is with the work of all our stakeholders together that we will continue to provide the best education for all our pupils/students.