Exam support reform could spare students stress
Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30
The mother of a student with dyslexia says her daughter's psychological assessment qualifies her for entry to college through the special Dare scheme for applicants with a disability, but it didn't get her the support she needed in the Leaving Cert in recent weeks.
A place in college doesn't arise for the student this year because she didn't apply, telling her mother: "I cannot worry about any more this year", the mother told the Irish Independent.
Her daughter had been refused supports known as reasonable accommodations - in her case, a grammar and spelling waiver and a reader - to allow her overcome her disadvantage while sitting the exams. She was diagnosed as dyslexic in 2009 and received these supports for the Junior Cert.
There has been an ongoing rise in the number of students qualifying for a support under the scheme, known as Race (reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations). Last year 16,000 Leaving and Junior Cert students qualified, a 50pc rise since 2007. Some get more than one support, so a total of 20,051 different accommodations were granted. In all, 14pc of students who sat the exams received a support - the figures are probably similar this year - which compares with 8.3pc of GCSE/A-level candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The problem that arises is the disparity between the number of supports awarded for Junior Cert and those granted for Leaving Cert, and the disappointment, never mind upset, it causes. That is compounded when the decision-making process runs into the months, even weeks, before the students sit the exams.
While the focus of the Race scheme is to assist students with a disadvantage, it has to ensure that in doing so it is not unfair to students who don't get such supports.
That is why, when it comes to the "high stakes" Leaving Cert, the decision-making powers transfer from schools to the State Examinations Commission (SEC), which takes a closer look at applicants, through the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). The criteria don't change, but the outcomes do.
It has been the subject of much controversy, with eve-of-exam appeals in the High Court, as well as complaints both to the Ombudsman for Children (up to the age of 18) and the Ombudsman.
The SEC itself announced a review of Race a year ago - focusing on the same problems identified by Children's Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon in his report. The exam chiefs say they want to address the "expectation gap" between Junior and Leaving Cert and are working on "changes" to the scheme to be rolled out in the next school year.
Those changes must be fair and transparent, and give certainty to Leaving Cert students long before the June exams.