English Junior Certificate Examination: Discussion

I remind members, delegates and persons in the Visitors Gallery to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the sound system.

We will consider petition No. P000013/17 from Ms Tara O'Sullivan on how to make the new English junior certificate examination fairer by adding 30 extra minutes. I welcome Ms O'Sullivan and her colleagues. She submitted the petition in her own name but in so doing was assisted by three of her fellow students, Ms Adrianne Ward, Ms Ellen McKimm and Ms Faye Dolan who have accompanied her to present it. We are delighted to have them before the committee. This is a significant day for them as secondary school students in appearing before a parliamentary committee, as it is for members. They are the first petitioners to be invited to appear before the committee since it was established in July 2016. It is, therefore, a momentous occasion for those on both sides of the equation. We compliment them on taking the initiative and, as third year secondary school students, participating in the petitions process. They have submitted a petition on an issue about which they all feel passionately. It took great strength of character to have the confidence to engage in the petitions process. As Chairman of the committee, I want to see more engagement of this nature. The committee is absolutely delighted that we have four formidable young people who are blazing a trail and setting the benchmark. We also welcome their parents and members of the school community who are in the Visitors Gallery. I am sure they are all extremely proud in seeing four formidable young women presenting before a parliamentary committee.

Before I invite Ms O'Sullivan to make her submission, I wish to update her on a few developments. The committee deliberated once again on the petition in private session and agreed to further actions in it progression. It has agreed to forward to her a copy of the latest response received from the Department of Education and Skills. We will seek submissions from the Irish Second-Level Students Union and the Teaching Council of Ireland on their views on the duration of the English junior certificate examination and the importance of holding mock examinations. We will invite the State Examinations Commission to appear once again before the committee in early 2018 - because of the nature of the work programme, it will not happen before then - to provide an update on the progress made in its engagement with stakeholders and their feedback on the service it provides.

Ms O'Sullivan made a pertinent and appropriate point about the use of plain English. It was well made. The committee is acutely conscious of it and will have further discussions on how we can work through the issues involved. It is important that those who petition Parliament do not face impenetrable language. The language used has to be as accessible as possible to all people, regardless of who they are. The point was well made and we are working on the issue. I ask Ms O'Sullivan to address the petition and take at face value that we are working through the plain English element. In advance of her commencing her presentation, in accordance with procedure - this is where the language used gets at little legalistic - it is important that I read the note on privilege which is part of our protocols in Parliament.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. A copy of the petition has been circulated to them.

Without further ado, I invite Ms O'Sullivan to make her submission.

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

My name is Tara O'Sullivan. I am 15 years old, as I was in March last when I started this petition. I am from Glasnevin, Dublin and I attend Loreto College, St. Stephen's Green. I am accompanied today by Ms Ellen McKimm, Ms Faye Dolan and Ms Adrianne Ward. We are the main drivers of this petition but our English teacher, Ms Courtney, and the entire English class were on board with it from the beginning. This was not specifically intended to be a Loreto College petition but the core values that our school and headmistress, Ms Dempsey, promote are closely tied to social justice which is very relevant to a process such as this.

As it is a long time since members did their intermediate or junior certificate examination, I would like to explain some context.

There shall be no ageism before this committee.

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

Prior to this year, the English junior certificate examination consisted of two papers, each of which was two and a half hours long. These papers had a clear structure for which students could prepare. Unfortunately, modern examination style requires a certain level of technique in that students need to know how they are going to respond to questions. Previously, students knew the marking schemes, had the ability to look at past papers and had teachers who understood what the examiners were looking for. For June 2017, a new examination system was introduced. The only change this year was in respect of English. There was supposed to be a number of assessments during the year and a portfolio but that did not work out as planned. We have been hearing about a new examination since I was in fourth class in primary school, almost five years ago. Last year, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, released some sample papers. We welcomed these sample papers with open arms as they were supposed to clarify everything. However, they brought more confusion. There was no consistent structure, no consistent marking scheme and it was clear from the very beginning that there was not enough time to fill the booklet provided to the best of our ability.

I will explain further. These sample papers were supposed to help us prepare for our mocks. The first sample paper had three sections, the second had two and the third had four. Within these sections, the questions followed no clear order and they seemed to ramble on in varying lengths with different marking values. When I learned that we were to do this English paper in two hours, I was shocked. Without any consistency, working out how much time to spend on each question was practically a guessing game. I know several students who brought calculators to their English examination. There was no way for students who cannot write at a phenomenal speed to plan beforehand. When we did the mock examination, the papers were different again from the sample papers. This is when I started seriously thinking about the petition. I was not the only one feeling stressed about the exam. Like me, nobody could believe the number of questions they were supposed to answer in such a short time. It was like a competition to see how fast one could write instead of an actual test of one's knowledge and ability. Those who managed to finish the paper did not have any time to read over it. For students to have the opportunity to express their thoughts and analysis as eloquently as expected, I truly believe more time is necessary. Trying to squeeze three years of learning into a two-hour examination for a subject like English seems ridiculous. Furthermore, this dramatic decrease in time only serves to widen the gap between the junior and leaving certificate cycles, when we will be back to two long exams of more than six hours in total.

One key element of the new junior cycle is to carefully plan, draft and redraft everything we write. This new English examination directly contradicts this philosophy. None of it makes sense. One Friday night, I set up the petition from home. In less than a day it had 3,000 signatories and currently it has over 12,000. These supporters are from all across the county and include parents, teachers and students. Many of them have left comments agreeing that there just was not enough time. Many have talked about the stress students are under already being in an examination year and how this added to it. This showed how social media can really give young people power. The petition got its fuel from being shared on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. It also shows the level of pressure these examinations put on young people at one of the most stressful times of their lives, their first ever State examination, as English is the first State examination the majority of students in this country undertake. While we were stating clearly that this was an issue, who was listening? I started making phone calls only to be directed from one place to another. The Department of Education and Skills said this was a matter for the State Examinations Commission and the State Examinations Commission said only the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Department of Education and Skills could change things. The State Examinations Commission also said it was not responsible for the quality of the mock examinations papers, which left me wondering who was. While the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was very helpful, it is not responsible for examinations. No Government organisation seemed to be taking responsibility for the mock examinations.

To be honest, I felt like little serious consideration was being given to the request to add time or change the examination in any way. However, I later learned from this committee that there may have been changes. Despite what I was led to believe at the time, the examination had not been finalised. In addition, while we had studied two novels, which are a huge part of the course, neither came up on the day. I know that in the future, other subject examinations will be changed and that it will be difficult for the Department to get every examination right. However, if it is not listening to the experience and concerns of students and teachers, then creating a fair means of assessment becomes even more difficult.

I still feel that the situation with mock examinations is a major issue. The objective of the mock examinations is to make life less stressful for students by giving them an idea of what is to come. It is widely accepted, and proven by the geographical spread of responders to the petition, that the majority of secondary schools in Ireland undergo mock examinations of some form. The schools either buy their mock papers from commercial companies or have teachers in the school draft them. With new examinations, this current system will become even more ineffective. As mentioned previously in respect of the English paper, only a few samples were made by the SEC with little to no pattern and no marking scheme. Both teachers and private companies were therefore unable to make mock papers that were reflective of the examination in June. If the mocks are set on the basis of inconsistent papers they will not fulfil their purpose, rather they will do the opposite and create more stress. Unless something is done this will continue to be the case for junior and leaving certificate examinations. The State needs to introduce guidelines for situations like this as otherwise, this will become a bigger issue in the coming years as all subjects in the junior certificate cycle will potentially change. We do not know if that is the case. It was especially important for this year's students to be prepared for English as it was their first ever State examination. However, many students entered the exam centre very stressed and feeling unprepared as they were expecting a very difficult paper. With a mock paper that stretched over 25 pages it was nearly impossible to finish in the allocated time.

I hope that this situation is being reviewed in terms of the actual examinations and the mocks for all subjects. This Joint Committee on Public Petitions is an excellent initiative. As mentioned earlier, I had hoped to discuss the issue of plain English but I understand that the committee is dealing with that issue, which is amazing. As a democratic society that needs its people to be able to think and vote for themselves I believe disregarding the opinions of its youth, particularly in respect of education, is a terrible mistake. As a future young voter, I am disappointed by how little effect the dissatisfaction of students, parents and teachers nationwide had on the decisions made by the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and within Dáil Éireann. It is great that these changes will be made but our examination took place last June. I understand that is hard for these things to happen quickly and while we care about future students, we regret the changes were not in effect when our examination took place in June. I am glad this petition is before the committee, even though it is after our examinations, as I hope it will improve matters for future students. I again thank the committee for inviting us here today and for giving us the opportunity to voice our concerns. As mentioned previously, Ellen, Adrianne, Faye and I are happy to answer questions.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan for her very comprehensive submission. I will now open up the discussion to members who want to interact with the witnesses by way of questions and answers.

I welcome Ms O'Sullivan and her colleagues. Without sounding too patronising, I compliment them on taking this initiative, which I am sure has taken up a lot of their time and energy. This is my first experience in my seven years as a parliamentarian to engage with people who are below the voting age, the issue of whether 16 year olds should have the right to vote being another area of discussion. There are two separate elements to today's presentation and petition, namely, the extension of time for the examination and the pre-examination or mock examination process. Ms O'Sullivan is correct that it has been a number of years since some members sat their intermediate or junior certificate examinations - Deputy Cassells was particularly upset in this regard. In may case, it was the intermediate certificate examination. I have three daughters who in the past five years have done between them three junior certificate examinations and two leaving certificate examinations. The pre-junior certificate examinations are the preparation for the junior certificate examination and the junior certificate and pre-leaving certificate examinations are preparation for the leaving certificate examinations.

I have always been struck by the fact that the State plays a very small role in the mock examinations process and that preparation and marking of these papers is paid for by the schools and parents, respectively. I accept Ms O'Sullivan's point that the new curriculum made the mock examinations very difficult for her but does she accept that next year's junior certificate students will at least have the benefit of this year's junior certification examination papers? Does she still believe schools can organise mock or pre-examinations or does she believe the Department should have a role because it did not have a role in the past?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

I believe it does need a role because in terms of the nature of this examination, it has not provided a structure or a marking scheme so no matter how many years pass, it will still be a surprise because examinations such as history and geography have a very clear number of sections and structures and it is beneficial to practice with past papers but from now on it will no longer be beneficial because there is no set structure or consistency. As I mentioned, with the sample papers, our examination had four sections but one of the sample papers had two, another had three and another had four so the idea of more past papers will not be very beneficial, and I believe that guidelines need to be introduced.

Does the Deputy have any supplementary questions on that issue?

The only comment I would add is that guidelines would be fine but, to date, the Department has kept a fairly distant approach to letting schools organise their own preparation examinations. There is an element of self-policing in terms of trying to give some guidance. I certainly believe the marking structure should be based on the marking structure of what we know of the examinations. We have all seen the preparation of pre-papers and the booklets that are provided on a commercial basis for pre-examinations but if I was to give advice on manoeuvring through the Departments we have here, I would suggest it might be a welcome development to separate the two "asks" and look in a focused way for the extension of time. The witness makes a strong point that to have two long papers for the leaving certificate and one shorter paper for the junior certificate is a big difference. Watching my children doing examinations I see that there are two very different elements to English. There is the literary side - poetry, prose and plays - and the linguistic element. My own sense, and we must sometimes defer to the greater knowledge in the Department, is that the witnesses make a strong case for an extra 30 minutes and it might be good to focus on that "ask". That is just one person's point of view.

I compliment Ms O'Sullivan on her response to my question. She has a clear understanding and focus. We do listen to the experts, the teachers, the parents and the civil servants but we should not forget that the witnesses are the people who have to sit down, take out the pen and start answering these questions. I hope future generations will benefit from the work they have done.

I welcome Tara O'Sullivan, Ellen McKimm, Faye Dolan and Adrianne Ward to the committee. Their campaign struck a chord with students across the State. I have a few questions. Do the witnesses believe there is any value in continuing the mock examinations?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

No, absolutely.

Is there anything about the mock examinations they would like to see changed, apart from the allocation of time? Are there any other difficulties?

To be helpful, all four witnesses should feel free to respond. We want to hear all four voices.

Ms Adrianne Ward

The time extension was our main focus but there was a lot of confusion around the structure of the examination. When going into many other examinations such as my home economics examination I knew I had a section for short questions, a section for long questions and I had my time allocated beforehand, but going into my English junior certificate examination and my mock examination I had no idea how many sections there would be or how to allocate my time. As Ms O'Sullivan said in her contribution, I had to bring a calculator into my English examination and it was a strange way of multiplying the marks to work out the time, which took away even more time. Essentially, we want the extra time but we also believe the structure needs to be clarified because it leads to a very stressful situation that all students are facing nationwide going into these examinations, which has what we see as an easy fix. They manage to clarify the structure for all the other examinations so we do not understand why they cannot clarify it for English.

As future young voters, do the witnesses believe that submitting this petition has given them a voice? Can they give us feedback on the petitions? Did they feel empowered by-----

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

I thought it was an amazing law in that when I was researching how to submit a petition - and I got an email from the committee about officially submitting it, which was great - I found that 1,000 signatures were required in America and 10,000 in England. In Ireland we only need one, which is an amazing facility that not many people know about. It suits Ireland very well in that we have such a small population but it is amazing that we are able to give such a direct input. Voting is amazing and it has all these knock-on effects but sometimes it is difficult, especially for young people, to see the direct effect of voting for a certain person and how that plays out. However, a petition is very specific and we were able to ask for help on an issue that directly affected us.

How did the witnesses find out about the petitions? Was it through their teachers?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

Through Google.

Obviously, we were not able to increase the time as the witnesses have stressed but I would like some feedback from them on the examination. How did it go for them?

Ms Ellen McKimm

It was 32 pages long for a two-hour examination so it was a race against the clock from the get-go. We did not believe it was a fair assessment in that it did not assess all areas of the English curriculum and it was very much a case of thinking while writing. We did not have time to formulate a view or an opinion. We had to pick up the pen and write. Otherwise, we would not finish the paper. It needs to be more of an examination, particularly in a subject like English where one can make one's point well and have time to think through one's answers. We would have benefited from the extra 30 minutes because I know some people did not finish the examination in June.

The consensus would be that more time should have been added on to the examination.

I am glad I met the witnesses before they came in because I had to leave. I want to congratulate them on their petition and the support they got. As they said, they only needed one signature but they managed to get 12,000 supporters. That told us as a committee and as Members of the Oireachtas that this is a live issue with regard to what they brought to our attention and perhaps highlighted a disconnect between those who are setting examinations and people like the witnesses who have to sit them. I was looking at the governance structure of the State Examinations Commission and there are no representatives such as the witnesses on its board. That might be something we could look into. How satisfied are the witnesses now with the response from the State Examinations Commission to their petition?

Ms Adrianne Ward

We are not exactly satisfied. We believe our claims were just passed from Department to Department and not directly addressed. Our main claim, which we stated several times, was the additional 30 minutes. We were given different excuses as to why they could not add the 30 minutes but, generally, we believe our direct issue was not fully addressed.

The witnesses felt they were passed around and that no clear answer was given to the question they posed. What would they like us, as a petitions committee, to do to address those shortfalls they have outlined? What would they like us to do in terms of taking further action?

Ms Ellen McKimm

We would like the additional 30 minutes to be added, a clear structure to be given and for it to be ensured that an English examination assesses all aspects of the English curriculum. For example, the novel did not come up in our examination but poetry might not come up next year. It is vitally important to the English curriculum that students have a wide knowledge of English as a subject so the additional 30 minutes and a clearer structure should be hugely beneficial to teachers and students. It would definitely help.

The witnesses are clear that the additional 30 minutes is a valid proposition and concern.

Should the committee press that issue with the State Examinations Commission?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

Yes.

As the intrepid witnesses found out about the committee by using Google, have they any ideas on how we might promote knowledge of the committee, given that it provides quite an effective process?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

Information about the committee should be included on the CSPE syllabus. We learn a lot in CSPE, mostly relating to the Government. The syllabus explains what the Dáil and Seanad are and so on but it does not contain information on the Committee on Public Petitions. As members said, it is a relatively new committee but it and other committees should be dealt with in the CSPE syllabus. I do not remember learning of any Oireachtas committees in CSPE. It would be very valuable and relevant to do so.

I congratulate the families of the witnesses, who must be very proud. The four young women will be on this side of the fence one day. I was given a badge to commemorate next year's centenary of women having the right to vote. Our democracy and the voice of women is safe when we have young women such as the witnesses who are so clear and articulate about something that is very close to their hearts. I congratulate them, their families and their school and thank them for engaging with us.

I welcome the witnesses to the committee and congratulate them on their initiative and impressive presentation.

Some questions I intended to put have been asked by other members. The witnesses' opening statement said that one of the key elements of the new junior cycle is that students carefully plan, draft and redraft everything they write but that the new English exam directly contradicts that philosophy. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on that and explain what they mean.

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

A graph was presented to us relating to the new curriculum. I cannot remember all the specific steps listed but it started with planning and then a first and second draft. There were approximately seven steps in total, ending with publication. One was to rewrite. It was all about taking time, redoing and fixing work but one does not have time to redraft anything during the two-hour exam. I am a relatively fast writer and did not stop writing during my English exam. If I did not have an idea right there and then, I moved on because there was not enough time for reflection. Two hours is insufficient for an exam on a subject such as English that fundamentally takes a large amount of time. We have been given several months to prepare for our presentation to the committee because we understand that in the real world it is important to come across in a certain way and have control over that but during the English exam students have to rush to get all of their answers written down. That contradicts not only what we are taught about the junior cycle, but also life in the real world at work and in college.

If the witnesses were to make a change in order to address the problem, would it be to the philosophy of the junior cycle or to the English paper?

Ms Adrianne Ward

I take issue with the exam philosophy and the shortening of the exam duration because, as mentioned, it widens the gap between the junior certificate and the leaving certificate. However, at the time of submitting the petition we felt that the State Examinations Commission was unlikely to change the entire paper because we compiled the petition in March and the exam was due to take place in June. We felt that extending the exam time might provide a solution through making the effects of such an exam less severe. Adding time would make it less difficult to deal with not having structure or a marking scheme. If 30 minutes were added, I am unsure we would be totally satisfied but it would greatly improve the situation.

In this week of full disclosure in the Dáil, I want to put on the record that I sat the junior certificate in 1993.

The witnesses are exceptionally welcome to the committee and the Parliament. I compliment them on their very well-formulated submission. They are here to discuss and argue their case. We have met with the Department and the State Examinations Board to tease out the proposals. The nature of the debate has evolved. When we received the petition, it dealt primarily with the time aspect but the witnesses have also focused on the structures. I wholeheartedly agree with them that it is very important for a student to have a structure when approaching an exam, and that is particularly so for the English paper. In my day, there was a very structured paper containing a creative writing section in paper one and questions on poetry and the remainder of the syllabus on paper two. A student knew he or she would have to hit certain time limits when compiling his or her thoughts. Deputy Dara Murphy asked a question regarding whether guidelines would be adequate and the witnesses seemed to suggest they would not. Does the entire paper have to be rethought?

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

Perhaps it should be. To add more time would be a short-term solution for many of the problems-----

The paper does not have to be fully rethought.

Ms Tara O'Sullivan

We thought that the State was unlikely to change everything at that stage. Looking back, we can see it could have done so. At the time, we thought it would not change everything at that stage for us and, therefore, we would ask for more time because that would alleviate the pressures we were under.

Time is not necessarily the issue but, rather, it is more to do with the nature of the paper. Ms McKimm touched on the fact that two novels did not turn up. Back in the 1990s, the same situation pertained: one would study for everything and look for a particular-----

And in the 1980s.

Or in the 1980s. I am glad the disclosures are being continued. The witnesses have approached the issue on the basis of an extension of the exam time and we will remain on that point for the moment. Ms McKimm said it was a race against the clock. We probed representatives of the Department on that issue. The witnesses said in their opening statement that they were disappointed with the time allocation. The representatives of the Department were very adamant that the time aspect should be maintained and they set out a rationale for that which I want to explore with the witnesses. We were all students at one stage. I remember time pressures not only in the English exam, but also in history, in which one had to answer five essay-style questions for the leaving certificate and one would get to question three and realise one would have to go hell for leather to complete the final two. I could never understand that. The representatives of the Department said the whole point of the exam is to elicit what it can from students in a very constrained period. The intention is not to let a student write flowing pieces ad infinitum but, rather, to test them under constraints. Deputy Ryan raised the issue of the philosophy of the exam. I would like to hear the arguments, perhaps those of Ms Dolan who has not yet had an opportunity to speak, on whether there is merit in the Department saying that it wants to test students under very tight time constraints, which I acknowledge many people feel is unfair.

Ms Faye Dolan

There could be merit in what the Department said but it contradicts the ethos of the new exam whereby it was shortened and perhaps made simpler in order to allow students to fully express themselves and recheck their answers. Both individually are potentially a sound ethos for an exam but the Department is trying to implement the two if that was its rationale for creating a shorter exam.

That hits the nail on the head. The Department had been under pressure to say it did not want the exam to be a pressure cooker situation for young students and that it wanted to elicit creativity. If it had maintained the time limit, students might have the opportunity to realise that ambition. The committee could revert to the Department on that point.

I apologise for my lateness. I was in the Seanad. I thank the witnesses for their attendance. As a former schoolteacher who was part of a group that tried to bring changes to the applied leaving certificate for young people who struggled with the mainstream leaving certificate and give them the option to stay in school, I commend the witnesses on being so proactive.

I did my leaving certificate in 1984, which is a long time ago, and the issue of stress was as relevant then as it is now.

I apologise if I missed this in the question and answer session. How could we help them as students to not feel as stressed? Obviously, one must have an examination of some description. As a school teacher, one must be able to grade and judge work and allow students to show their full potential. I am a great believer in Laszlo - one starts at the bottom and one gets to the top, and one reaches one's potential. One should be able to do that. On the issue of stress, how can we de-stress students?

Social media was mentioned in the presentation and the word "fuel" used in terms of social media. I have a different word for social media. Although it is a different topic, I would love to hear their views on how we can ensure people remain safe and secure on social media but that is another day's work.

On the mock examinations, the petitioners raised a good point in their presentation. In my time as a school teacher, there was no consistency in the mock examination in terms of the quality of the paper, the format and the type of questioning, which in some cases, as was stated, bore no relationship at all to the leaving certificate or junior certificate examination. There is merit in the point, although I do not know how we will do this. Deputy Shane Cassells spoke about the Department of Education and Skills examinations commission. Maybe we could look at how we could ensure a quality mock examination. For those who do not know what is meant by mock examinations, I refer to pre-examinations.

Of course, there is the other linked issue of correcting. In some schools, the teachers themselves do the correcting. In others, it goes outside. Do the petitioners have a view on that.

My final point is on the new junior certificate reform. I note there are different views on that. As a school teacher and somebody who spent a number of years in college and only had an end-of-term examination, I have come over to the view of there being continual assessment, project work and perhaps an essay as part of the examination process rather than the two-and-a-half hour end of term examination.

I am disappointed the petitioners did not get the response they were looking for to some of the questions from the different groups. The committee might re-engage with the Department or the State Examinations Commission.

I thank the petitioners for being here. It is great that they have the confidence and bravery to initiate a petition and to come in and make a presentation. Apologies for being late.

I will address one or two of the points made. The line committee, the committee that would have competence in relation to content, etc., would be the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. We are currently engaged with that committee on some of the issues highlighted.

One of the points that threw itself up in lights for me was the issue of how the content within the Civic, Social and Political Education, CSPE, subject relates to the role of the Joint Committee on Public Petitions of Parliament. That is a major takeaway for me.

The petition remains open. We will take on board some of the points the petitioners have made here today. We will engage further with the stakeholders involved. If the final outcome of this is that there is no change or the status quo remains, what is most important, both for me and for the members, is that the petitioners are here before an Oireachtas committee, they have taken the time to put forward a petition and they have impressed us with their depth of knowledge in terms of answers that they have given to questions. In the first instance, any of their cohort who are looking at this, anybody throughout the country, any teacher worth his or her salt, will use this segment of their submission as a teaching tool to educate their fellow students about what they, too, can do on issues of public concern and they now have the ability to come forward and make submissions to a petitions committee.

If they do not get the desired outcome, I would say: "That's life." One will accept the results, one way or the other. It may go your way and it may not. However, the fact that they have been here before us today is as, if not even more, important because it clearly signals to us that there are excellent young people out there. Like Deputy Dara Murphy, I do not want to patronise the petitioners in any way but I am not sure whether I would have had the confidence when I was going through my junior certificate if somebody had invited me in to the Committee on Public Petitions or any committee of the Dáil to make a submission. I am here as a Member of the House but on a personal level, I do not think I would have had the confidence to do what they have done.

We are very grateful to the petitioners for coming before the committee today. If I may say, the Loreto ethos, with which I have personal interaction in my own part of the world, is alive and well. The petitioners are fine examples, not only of that ethos but of the best what we have to offer, and what the future holds. If four articulate students such as these can come before us and hold themselves with dignity in front of an Oireachtas committee, they are up there with the best of them. I thank them very much for being here.

We wish the petitioners well in their continuing studies. I hope that everything went or will go well for them, in terms of the junior certificate examinations. I am hoping that in life everything will go well for them because they have been a fine example of the best that we have to offer in this country, and I mean that sincerely.

I will adjourn the meeting now. We will make refreshments available to the petitioners afterwards. We have a little pack to give them as well, just as a little gift. We hope that there are hundreds, and possibly thousands, of students who will look at this. We hope that teachers will look at this and use it in the best possible way as an example of what the Committee on Public Petitions is available to do for people. I thank our guests for being here. We are delighted to have them.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.27 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 December 2017.