Leaving Cert uncertainty as demands for a decision grow

The Class of 2021 is again shouldering the anxiety of the uncertainty hanging over this year’s Leaving Cert.  

They’ve already had to deal with months out of school, along with remote learning and now there’s a question mark over the exam itself. 

In the face of pressure to make a call, the Minister for Education Norma Foley seems to be opting for the approach of blind allegiance to the traditional sit-down tests.

Clearly a decision to call off the Leaving Cert would be an enormous one. There is no simple option and there are ramifications and unfairness on every path. 

But less comprehensible is the adoption of last year’s approach of hurtling onwards without publicly countenancing the alternative. 

There’s been a political clamour this week for a clearly articulated plan – one that sets out when and how a final decision will be made along with clarity on alternatives. 

Education Minister Norma Foley has repeatedly said the exams are going ahead

This would allow everyone affected to have a clear view of what’s ahead. 

And while it would not please everyone, it would mitigate the stress for students in particular. 

Yet, the Government’s thinking seems to be that the admission of the existence of contingency arrangements might somehow lead to the traditional exam not going ahead as usual in June. 

The Minister has repeatedly said the exam is going ahead and she is consulting with all the stakeholders including students on how that might happen. 

Her stance has been backed by teacher representatives who have also pointed to some of the problems experienced with calculated grades. 

However, it seems inconceivable that a solid Plan B would not be ready to go but the Minister rebuffed repeated efforts to press her on this in the Dáil this week. 

That debate was also notable because both opposition and government backbenchers united in calling for clarity in the form of an early decision. 

Speaker after speaker urged the Minister to say when she would make a call and to publish contingency plans. 

Sinn Féin’s Pauline Tully said students were in limbo, while Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the situation was intolerable. 

People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett said that while students needed certainty, the Minister was giving them “fake certainty to the effect that come hell or high water, there will be a Leaving Certificate”.

Fianna Fáil TDs joined in the demands with John Lahart asking simple direct questions.

And yet the Minister stuck rigidly to the mantra that she was talking to students and stakeholders while refusing to give any direction as to when a decision might be made. 

Later, on RTÉ’s Six One News, David McCullagh asked Norma Foley four times to specify when she would make a definitive call.

And four times the Minister dodged the question, instead reaching for the cover of the advisory group and a blanket insistence that the exam is going ahead. 

Last year, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also insisted the Leaving Cert would happen – memorably adding that it would take place “by hook or by crook”. 

Then Education Minister Joe McHugh seemed reluctant to make the necessary big call that the exams simply could not happen. 

This left students in the invidious position of preparing for exams that were eventually called off. 

And so, the uncertainty dragged on. Incredibly, the government didn’t face up to the obvious until the month before the Leaving Cert was due to take place.

In the Dáil this week, Aontú’s Peadar Toibín slammed last year’s political management as a “lesson in chaos with decisions made and reversed on a weekly basis”. 

But he added that it felt this year like “we are back to square one”. 

However, this year is different.

The pandemic is not new and the Department has had a lot of time to prepare contingency plans.

Compare this with the situation in England where Prime Minister Boris Johnson grasped the nettle early, by this month announcing the cancellation of the big state exams. 

TDs here have been inundated with queries from concerned parents and students. 

Some are conducting surveys indicating the level of interest amongst the public. 

And many have called for the option of predicted grades alongside the traditional exam in a hybrid model. 

As of now, it remains to be seen just what is in store for the Class of 2021.