Students with special needs 'treated unfairly'
State exam chiefs are under fire from the Ombudsman for Children over the treatment of Leaving Certificate candidates with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
About 16,000 leaving and junior cert candidates with a special educational need receive exam support every year, but they are much more likely to get it for the Junior Cert than the Leaving Cert.
According to latest figures, about 1,000 Leaving Cert students are refused assistance such as a reader or a scribe to help them to overcome their disability in an exam setting. The comparable figure at Junior Cert level is five.
It increases stress levels for Leaving Cert candidates to be refused a support that they received for the Junior Cert - and often the battle goes on to the eve of the exams.
Now, a stinging report from Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon, seen by the Irish Independent, questions the fairness of the process.
As Dr Muldoon's hard-hitting findings emerge, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) has announced that it is planning changes for next year.
The SEC told the Irish Independent that their aim was to see supports granted at Junior Cert being carried through to Leaving Cert.
That would eliminate the problem of disappointed Leaving Cert candidates, but it is likely to mean more rigorous assessment at Junior Cert level.
Students with special educational needs may apply for exam supports through a scheme known as Reasonable Accommodations for Certificate Examinations (RACE), operated by the SEC.
Supports may be awarded for a variety of reasons, but overwhelmingly demand is from students with a Specific Learning Difficulty (SLD), including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.
Someone with an SLD can have significant difficulties in areas such as reading and spelling, written language or co-ordination, although they may excel in other areas.
Such students may be granted a reader or scribe or be allowed to use a laptop, or may qualify for a spelling or grammar waiver, to help them overcome their disadvantage.
But there is a crucial difference in how RACE works for the two exams - schools make the decision at Junior Cert level while for the Leaving Cert, SEC makes the decision, based on advice from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS).
Two main issues arise for Leaving Cert applicants - the lack of certainty about getting the same support as they got for the Junior Cert, and the timing of decisions by the SEC.
The annual controversy over refusals to grant exams support to some Leaving Cert candidates surfaced again this year in the High Court in the weeks before the exams started.
Dr Muldoon questions the fairness of the process, calls for "plain English" to be used in communications with students, and is critical of the timing of some refusals.
He says while applications should not be granted indiscriminately, withholding allowances such as a scribe or a reader can have "a catastrophic effect on a young person".