'Back to school' – just not as we know it

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Among a raft of new measures being introduced to ensure Leaving Cert assessments can go ahead this year, students sitting oral exams can be questioned and recorded by their own teacher.

n addition, the staging of written exams will be tweaked in order to minimise potential spread of Covid-19.

“The traditional idea of all the students coming together in a big room or a hall is gone,” a source told the Sunday Independent. “Many schools can’t do that and implement the public health guidance, so students and examiners will be spread out.”

As a result, exam students will be seated at least two metres apart and spread across schools.

The changes mean many students will effectively be in pods, similar to current classroom settings, making it easier for tracking and tracing in the event of an outbreak but also limiting spread of the virus.

The length of exams is also a factor, with some more than three hours long.

Public health advice suggests risk assessments must be carried out where people are congregated in a space for more than two hours.

But spreading students out across school buildings, with greater distances between desks, will help safely run the longer exams.

“This was done for last year’s Leaving Cert exams in November and worked well then. Something similar will happen in June, too,” said a government source.

Another said this extra space requirement was a significant factor in the cancellation of Junior Cert exams.

It is felt that many schools would have been unable to run two sets of exams simultaneously, given the extra space needed to run the Leaving Cert safely.

Under measures to rearrange second component assessments, such as practical and oral language exams following two months of school closures, schools will be responsible for sourcing qualified language teachers to conduct orals over the Easter holidays and shortly after the break. Traditionally, an external examiner would be brought to schools for such exams, but arranging this at short notice is seen as a logistical challenge that may be too difficult for some schools to meet.

It is thought some nearby schools will operate a type of “teacher exchange”, but the State Examinations Commission (SEC) is happy for a student’s own teacher to conduct and record oral exams.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said it was important to note the teacher would not be grading the student.

“The arrangements being put in place for the Leaving Certificate oral examinations take account of the particular challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, with schools being asked to source teachers in the school or locally if needed to administer the oral examinations,” she said.

“It is important to note, however, that the examinations will be recorded and marked externally by SEC-contacted staff, as is the case in other years.”

Other practical assessments will also see changes.

A life drawing assessment in art, for example, is unlikely to happen and instead students will be able to include this element in the portfolio of work submitted for grading.

Engineering and construction studies will see similar adjustments, where project work will continue and students will sit a written exam in June. However, a third assessment where students are graded for displaying practical skills is expected to fall foul of public health rules.

It is thought many of these skills will be on display in students’ project work and can be graded there. In music, students will not be able to perform as a group. These assessments are also likely to take place over Easter and in large rooms as mitigation for any aerosols produced by wind instruments.

The practical changes will only apply to students who opt in to sit written exams, as second component assessments will not be run for students who only choose to receive a new accredited grade.

Students can opt in from March 8, but there is some concern that pupils can “game the system” by opting to only sit an exam in a subject where they expect a poor grade from their teacher.

“This could lead to huge grade inflation,” said a source.

“Students can take the good marks they know are coming to focus their efforts on a weaker subject with the hope of nailing that exam. Effectively they would be gaming the system to try get a big bump in points for college.”

A standardisation process is going to be used by the Department of Education for the accredited grades process, but this will work on a subject-by-subject basis and will not consider how many exams a student has opted to sit.

There will also be a form of “in school alignment” for the accredited grades process, and the department insists this “will not include the provision by schools of a rank order of students”.

Special schools began reopening 10 days ago, but the return of special education will ramp up tomorrow when classes in mainstream schools return.

Sixth years are expected to return to school on March 1, following a formal announcement by Education Minister Norma Foley this week. Primary school pupils at junior and senior infants, first and second class are also expected to be among the first to return before a review in mid-March.

No formal agreement has been reached between the Department of Education and the ASTI on accredited grades or a return to school, but government sources have indicated a willingness to press ahead with or without the union’s support.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie expressed “concern and disappointment” with the Leaving Cert plans but said members would be happy to return to classrooms from tomorrow.

Teachers are also said to be keen to see fifth years back soon to minimise disruption to learning for the 2022 Leaving Cert. Mr Gillespie said this year’s plan should not be a precedent for future exams.

“Our engagement with this process is only on the basis of necessity due to the national health emergency. Public health advice permitting, we envisage the Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate running in the established manner in 2022,” he added.

Separately, officials are urgently drafting new legislation needed to give the SEC oversight of the new accredited grades process, saying it is hoped to come before the Dáil within weeks.

Source: Irish News