I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an am agus an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt anseo 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. As Members will be aware, the Bill has already passed through Seanad Éireann. On Second Stage in that House, many contributions were made that demonstrated the importance Senators attach to education. I am sure that will also be a feature of this afternoon's debate in this House.
When I was appointed as Minister for Education on 27 June last year, I had three immediate priorities. The first was the implementation of a summer programme, which was ultimately shown to be very successful and upon which we built the 2021 summer programme. The latter was announced on Tuesday, with a doubling of available funding. The second priority was to prepare for the reopening of schools last autumn and to recognise how it was vital to support leaving certificate students because, even under normal circumstances, completing the leaving certificate and transitioning to the next phase of life can be a challenging time for all students and their families. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this challenge has been heightened for students. The students 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 an important source of routine and stability. 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, which provided an important social outlet for them, ensured they received the academic support they needed and, in some cases, provided respite from challenging personal circumstances.
Regrettably, in January, amid very high levels of Covid-19 and the increased challenges associated with new variants of concern, 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, 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. Amid this considerable uncertainty and in the context of the loss of in-person learning, the Government took the decision to provide leaving certificate students with a choice between accredited grades and sitting examinations in a safe manner or availing of a combination of both.
Last year, the decision on calculated grades was made at a time when legislation to empower the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to operate the process 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 SEC. The SEC's powers are as set out in the establishment order of 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.
In 2020, the approach taken to calculated grades was debated in this House on many occasions, and there are lessons to learn and to be applied from the 2020 experience. The approach the Government is taking to leaving certificate 2021 seeks to apply those lessons. The Government has listened to the views and reflections of the advisory group on the State examinations, which was established in 2020 and reconvened in recent months. Many have paid tribute to the role played by students in that group. I add my voice in acknowledging the role played by the issue representatives and, indeed, all the partners in education who contributed to the process.
It is important to set out the difference between accredited grades in 2021 and the calculated grates process in 2020. First, subject to the enactment of this Bill, the system will be operated by the SEC. Second, and perhaps most important, and subject to public health advice and considerations, written leaving certificate examinations will proceed according to the normal timetable this summer, with the main schedule of examinations commencing on 9 June. This is designed to ensure that the choice afforded to students is real.
A clear process has been put in place to facilitate students who are studying outside 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 and which were ultimately excluded from the 2020 system, will also be excluded from the accredited grades system in 2021. A point of concern for some teachers in 2020 related to student rank order data being released. This year, teachers are not being asked to generate class rankings.
The Department of Education has engaged Educational Testing Service, 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 Deputies have had the opportunity to consider the Bill, I will now summarise its principal provisions. Section 1 sets out the definitions to be used in the Bill. The definition of "Leaving Certificate 2021" comprehends the conventional examinations and the accredited grades process, and also confirms that this legislation applies only to the 2021 leaving certificate examinations. Section 2 sets out the main elements of the system of accredited grades, in respect of which I will make a formal determination, having taken the advice of the SEC, once the Bill is enacted. Section 3 provides for the indemnity, previously approved by the Government, that is written comprehensively to include any person who performs a function in relation to the provision of estimated marks. This puts the 2020 position on a statutory footing for 2021.
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 will be provided for in regulations which are being prepared.
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 should be read in conjunction with section 2. 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 to students and ensures that the leaving certificate of 2020 will have the same look and feel as it would have in 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. This section has been the subject of consultation with the Data Protection Commission. 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.
In outlining the details of the various sections, I indicated that regulations will be required in some instances and their drafting will proceed in parallel with the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas. 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 done 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 candidate self-service portal allows candidates to make choices in each of their subjects about whether to sit written exams, receive accredited grades, or both, for the 2021 leaving certificate. The SEC is continuing its engagement with schools and candidates that have not yet registered or, having registered, have not confirmed their options.
The various strands of preparatory works for the leaving certificate are well under way, with the oral and practical examinations for the vast majority of students having taken place, while last Saturday, leaving certificate vocational programme students sat link modules and those seeking accredited grades in non-curricular languages undertook proficiency assessments. From tomorrow, 14 May, teachers may proceed to generate estimated marks in the period until 28 May, with the school alignment phase and submission of data following immediately after that. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.