Leaving Cert may not go ahead unless students return to school, Education Minister says

The Minister was forced into a U-turn on the partial re-opening of schools from Monday to allow 60,000 students continue face to face teaching in the crucial run up to the exams.

Education Minister Norma Foley said it is still the "firm objective" to hold a traditional Leaving Cert this summer. Photo: Frank McGrath

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Norma Foley is casting doubt over whether Leaving Cert exams can go ahead after a three day week for sixth years was ruled out by teacher unions.

The minister was forced into a U-turn on the partial re-opening of schools from Monday to allow 60,000 students continue face to face teaching in the crucial run up to the exams.

Teacher unions pulled the plug on a plan agreed by Government earlier this week because they had not been consulted and said they had concerns about health and safety.

But in a meeting with union leaders today, the minister raised the question about what that meant for the Leaving Cert.

Effectively, the minister’s message is that if exam candidates don’t get back to school soon, there needs to be discussion about a Plan B for the Leaving Cert.

Last year, the traditional June exams were replaced by a system of calculated grades, which proved highly controversial and is the subject of about 50 High Court actions.

This year’s Leaving Cert candidates have already suffered serious disruption to their senior cycle education, having been out of schools from March to June last year.

Although the Government has been committed to returning to traditional exams this year, the uncertainty posed by Covid created doubts in the classrooms, adding to normal sixth year stress levels.

When schools re-opened in September, many teachers and students took the view that the 2021 exams might not go ahead, and have treated every assignment as one that could count for a calculated grade.

There is less than 22 weeks to go to the scheduled start of the written exams, but orals and practicals take place even earlier, in the spring.

Under current plans, school are closed for three of those weeks, and, at this stage, there is no guarantee that they will reopen on February 1.

If an indefinite closure is on the cards, it raises the issue about whether, and when, teacher unions would be happy to instruct their members to attend school.

After a difficult week, Minister Foley was meeting unions – separate meetings at primary and post-primary - today with all sides keen to get relations back on track and work through solutions to the impasse.

Ms Foley had also proposed that special schools and special classes in mainstream schools open from Monday for pupils with special needs, but that has also been shelved because of union objections.

Three leading advocacy organisations representing students with additional needs, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and AsIAm, have said that u-turn over the re-opening of special schools had left families of children with special educational needs “devastated”, and immediate supports must be put in place for them.

The groups have sought an urgent meeting with Ms Foley.

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