MORE than 50,000 Leaving Cert students will have to sit their English exams on Saturday after a massive blunder forced education authorities to cancel today's papers.
Their preparations were thrown into chaos after an exam superintendent in one school accidentally leaked the wrong paper yesterday.
The embarrassing security breach was made as more than 115,000 second level students began their Leaving and Junior Certificate exams yesterday.
It will cause severe disruption and upset to Leaving Cert English candidates, who will now have to sit an alternative exam on Saturday morning.
The superintendent at the centre of the fiasco was immediately suspended.
The State Examinations Commission (SEC) only learned of the blunder late yesterday afternoon. It was forced to cancel today's higher and ordinary level Leaving Certificate English second papers on literature, after students at St Oliver's Community College, Drogheda, Co Louth, saw the paper 24 hours prematurely.
The error was quickly spotted, and the proper paper was then handed out.
But some students had seen enough and by early afternoon texts were flying around the country. The names of some poets were soon being discussed on internet chatlines and sites, including Twitter.
The SEC became aware of the internet traffic and held emergency discussions to decide what steps to take.
Officials got in touch with school managers to ask them to make schools available on Saturday morning for a new exam.
Fallback papers are always available but there was insufficient time to deliver them and allow the exam, involving 94pc of Leaving Cert students, to go ahead as scheduled today.
The SEC said in order to protect the integrity of the exam, and in fairness to all candidates, it had no alternative but to defer today's sitting.
It said it had detailed contingency arrangements in place to cope with unforeseen circumstances.
Saturday was the earliest opportunity that the papers could be re-scheduled because of the significant logistical difficulties in getting alternative papers to over 2,000 examination centres in about 800 schools and examination halls nationwide, the SEC said
The Department of Education and Science is making arrangements with Bus Eireann to ensure the provision of the regular week-day post-primary school transport service on Saturday.
The SEC consulted with all the education partners, including school managers to arrange for the opening of schools on Saturday.
It also contacted An Post to organise the immediate delivery of the alternative papers to 2,000 exam centres around the country.
The fiasco has angered parents and students.
"Mistakes like this should not happen in this day and age. It's very upsetting for students and will only add to the tension and stress they are already experiencing," Rose Tully, PRO for the National Parents Council (post primary) said.
Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe said he very much regretted the "unfortunately unavoidable" change in the exam timetable.
While not unprecedented, it is exactly 40 years since the Leaving Certificate was hit by a such a serious leak.
Labour Party education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn said it was hard to believe how this could have happened. "I would have assumed that there would have been failsafe procedures in place," he said.
Fine Gael's Brian Hayes described the blunder as "outrageous".
Mr O'Keeffe must now seek a full explanation from the examinations board and a commitment that procedures will be put in place to ensure that this can never happen again.
A helpline number is available for students affected by the cancellation of today's Leaving Cert English Higher and Ordinary level paper -- 1800 713913.
The website is www.examinations.ie