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Scramble to find 1,000 extra college places after Leaving Cert grades fiasco


Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

Frantic efforts are under way to open as many as 1,000 more college places as the Government battles to calm the latest storm to hit the Leaving Cert calculated grades process.

Tánaiste Leo Vardakar and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris told the Fine Gael parliamentary meeting last night that 1,000 more places may be needed on top of approximately 6,300 new ones already created this year.

Education Minister Norma Foley is at the centre of new controversy after it emerged two computer coding errors left about 6,500 Leaving Cert 2020 students with at least one lower grade than they should have been awarded.

The mistakes have denied an unknown number - but estimated at up to 1,000 or more - of CAO applicants a preferred college offer, and higher education chiefs are meeting today to see how that can be put right.

It could cost about €10m to fund the extra places and it also leaves the Government dealing with the political fall-out from another debacle.

Higher Education Authority chief executive Alan Wall is meeting registrars of the universities and institutes of technology today to work through the possibilities of more offers, and he said the feedback was "positive".

Meanwhile, Mr Harris said "any resources required to provide additional college places will be forthcoming".

Trinity College Dublin provost Dr Patrick Prendergast said: "We are prepared to do anything in our power to find places for them if those places are fully funded by Government." Overall, there are about 7,200 subject upgrades involved but it does not mean every student will have enough extra points for a higher offer - up to 1,000 or more are anticipated.

Further checks are under way - including by international experts, Educational Testing Services - and Ms Foley said work would be complete in coming days when she would make a Dáil statement. Students will be advised by text message whether they are affected.

The minister has offered "sincere apologies" for "errors that should not have occurred". She said she became aware last Wednesday and spoke directly to Taoiseach Micheal Martin about it.

Junior education minister Josepha Madigan told the Fine Gael meeting she only heard about it on the news at 1pm yesterday and was not contacted by Ms Foley until 3pm. A source said Ms Madigan was not "over the moon" about being informed so late on.

Senior party sources have said Mr Varadkar's office and Mr Harris were aware of the issue late last week. Mr Harris was told on Friday that hundreds of extra college places may be required, but the extent of the issue was not known. The three coalition party leaders discussed the issue on Monday, but other coalition ministers were not informed at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The Department of Education became aware of one error last Tuesday when the Canadian statistics company, Polymetrika International - which developed the software for processing the data - told them it had spotted a mistake.

"At that point, we know one line out of 50,000 lines of code had a mistake in it," said Ms Foley, adding it was important to find out as much as possible before making an announcement.

The error affected the way in which candidates' Junior Cycle results were included in the national standardisation process, which involved a series of checks and balances on estimated marks sent in by schools

It was intended the students' Junior Cycle results in Irish, English and Maths would be combined with their best two other subjects but instead, they were put together with their weakest two subjects.

The department found a second error in the same section of the code.

Junior Cycle Civic, Social and Political Education results were included in the calculations when they were supposed to have been disregarded. Polymetrika has been paid €160,000 to date.

The Irish Second Level Students' Union said it had particular concerns about the financial situation students may potentially face and said that those who had paid deposits/instalments for accommodation which would no longer be needed should be reimbursed.

Teachers' Union of Ireland general secretary Michael Gillespie said when viewed against alternatives, "the value of the traditional, independent Leaving Certificate and the public trust it enjoys should be apparent to all".

Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland president Ann Piggott said that teachers were assured the calculated grades process was "robust and fair" for students and they were now "shocked and disappointed".

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