News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Don't give up, only by challenging the system can you make it work

The lengthy process of having a Leaving Cert paper rechecked has been an education in itself, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00

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AS OF last Wednesday, it was exactly 138 days since my daughter Emer sat down to take her Leaving Cert Classical Studies paper, and 85 days since she received the result telling her that she had received a B3, thereby dashing her hopes of studying at Cambridge. Last week she finally got the A grade that she wanted and deserved. In between was one of the biggest battles of our lives as we struggled to prove that she was the victim of a huge error.

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It seems absurd, in this day and age, that the mess couldn't have been sorted out sooner. By the time the rechecks come back in October, universities have already begun their new terms, too late for many students awaiting the new results to start in college. In my daughter's case, she took up an offer of a place at St Andrews University in the meantime, because she didn't want to put her life on hold with no guarantee that the grade would go up. So many people told us that it wouldn't. Now her original offer from Cambridge kicks back in, meaning she has to leave St Andrew's.

She's made great friends. She's having a lovely time, enjoying her freedom. The stress and upheaval involved for her in leaving it behind is immense. And don't even get me started on the unnecessary expense.

Now she has a whole year to fill at home before she can start all over again. Twelve months is a long time when you're 18. With luck, she can find a job to keep her busy and save up some money for next year, but jobs aren't exactly falling off the trees like apples these days either.

The State Examinations Commission insisted all along that every student had to be treated equally, but it seemed sometimes as if this was fetishising equality for equality's sake rather than for any higher purpose.

Many students have already met the requirements for their preferred third-level course and are merely having the papers rechecked for their own satisfaction. Some take up different courses at the same university and can switch smoothly between them based on the rechecked

results. For others, like my daughter, not getting a result quicker affects them hugely. There's nothing unfair about prioritising students based on their different needs, just as we do in health and social services. Come into A&E with a gushing wound and they don't tell you to get in line behind the stubbed toes.

The process has certainly been an education in itself. By the time it was finished, I was more knowledgeable about the Classical Studies syllabus and the marking scheme imposed by the Leaving Cert examiners than I ever thought I would be. I continue to have massive doubts about the system as it stands. A question will ask, for example: "What were the main faults of Alexander the Great?" The marking scheme which is applied to the answer will then insist that the candidate should list three faults – even though it didn't say so in the question.

Students who mention two, however knowledgeable and in-depth their answers, will be automatically excluded from one third of the available marks. Students who mention four will have wasted valuable exam time because the fourth point won't be counted. It would be much simpler and fairer to operate on the rule: If you want three, ask for three. Don't expect Leaving Cert students to play guessing games. They're not mind readers.

I'm also not convinced that the system of marking papers is as "consistent and fair" as it aims to be. Ultimately, four examiners on separate occasions marked my daughter's paper. In one question – divided into four parts – each examiner has at some stage given each of the four sections a mark of 100 per cent.

They just never seemed to agree which one. Out of a total mark of 50 for another question, my daughter's score went from 28 to 44 and back down to 40. It was like watching a yoyo.

There were numerous other inconsistencies. Parents would be appalled if they realised that marking can be so apparently arbitrary. There were times when I looked at my daughter's paper and couldn't help feeling that there was something niggardly about the way it was being marked.

Ultimately, though, I have to accentuate the positives. Staff at the SEC with whom I interacted were all helpful and professional, and the fact that my daughter's paper was seen in the end by four separate examiners, right up to chief examiner level, is worth applauding. That couldn't happen under many other systems. The facility to see her Leaving Cert script at all – on two separate occasions, firstly at the end of August and then again a few weeks ago at the main centre in Athlone – was even better. In few other countries do candidates, parents and teachers have the chance to scrutinise in detail how papers have been marked. It was only because of this that we could all be so confident that she had achieved an A grade.

If there's a lesson here, it is surely that the system works. Or, rather, can be made to work with stubborn persistence. And I do mean stubborn persistence. It's not for the faint-hearted. For all the maddening frustration as the gears grind slowly, when it came to the crunch, the system was forced to correct itself.

We had to put in plenty of hours to get the right result, but no one ever said life should be easy. Many people would have given up. Understandably so. Dealing with institutions can be overwhelming. You feel outnumbered and outgunned. People told me repeatedly that the SEC would never raise my daughter's grade to an A, because to do so would be to admit that a huge error had

been made originally. Sometimes a sense of futility got me down and made me wonder why I was sticking at this uphill task.

But when you're fighting for something that your child wants so badly, it spurs you on. A place at Cambridge was too good a prize to let go. In the end, persistence paid off. Whether it's in education or social services or health or housing, you have to fight frequently to get what is yours by right; but if you're willing to take the bruises, then it's well worth it, if only to stop feeling so powerless.

Of course, most 18 year olds wouldn't have the confidence to do that alone. They need supportive parents and teachers. Being articulate and able to make a case also helps. If you want the system to respond to your concerns, you have to be able to set out what they are and how they can be fixed. But even for those who wouldn't know where to begin in pursuing a complaint against officialdom, there's help available.

The outgoing Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, recently urged people to use her office if they had complaints and concerns about how particular issues have been handled by government departments and civil servants. As she pointed out, it's all entirely free of charge too.

The point is: don't give up. You can't dismiss the system until you've given it a chance to correct its mistakes.

Sunday Independent

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