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) and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and key stakeholders.
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 State Examinations Commission (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. 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 well-being supports for Leaving Certificate students. This includes a series of supports on managing well-being, 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.