The canals in Venice are getting cleaner and clearer. The education waters in Ireland are getting muddier by the day. When the minister decided to abandon the Leaving Cert in June with no other plan in place, there was utter confusion among parents, students and teachers. I was bombarded by people looking for answers. When will the exams begin? What is the story about classes in July? Will school reopen in May or even September? What is happening with the Junior Cert? Will teachers off in June or July or be expected to teach in class or online? What is the plan?
The short answer is there was no plan. Now we are told that the starting gun for the Leaving Cert is being fired on July 29. Nothing about how it will work, supervision, correction, school reopening or anything else. There should have been no announcements without a properly explained plan.
Last week, the confusion continued. The schools will get the Junior Cert papers in September and can do what they like with them but there is not going to be any State certification. It means schools can timetable these exams if they want, and their own teachers can correct them. Two schools beside each other could do the same subject on different days. How long would it take for another school to have the full paper in advance? About 10 minutes. The latest word seems to be that the Junior Cert may not take place at all.
Alan Mongey, who is a principal in Claregalway, decided that enough was enough and said his school would not be doing these tests. A bit like Roberto Duran who said "no mas" when he was fighting Sugar Ray Leonard. He just stopped and said no more. A lot of principals are feeling like Mongey. People need clarity, otherwise there is chaos. The opt-out group will get bigger.
The Junior Cert is of limited value anyway. Doing it in September and taking up valuable tuition time from the Leaving Cert course is probably a waste of time, especially as so much class contact time will be lost by then.
Minister Joe McHugh is a decent man but he would be much better off not thinking out loud and leaving confusion in his wake. Nor should he and other ministers be running departments on the basis of social media. It does appear that the announcement on Good Friday to postpone the Leaving Cert was due to activity and speculation on Twitter. The only announcement needed then was that a decision would be made in May.
Now what we have is a disengaged and disillusioned Leaving Cert group, apart from the most motivated students, while third years have completely switched off. So the minister, in one fell swoop, has made school much more difficult for teachers and parents. The third years are on their holidays as far as they are concerned. Happy days.
What many schools will do now is have some type of end-of-year assessments for third-year students, as we all need to set up honours and pass classes for September when they come back for the Leaving Cert cycle. It would be much better to do that and let them off for the summer without any worries about exams when they come back. The downside is that a group of students may leave school at the end of three years without any State certification. That needs to be addressed.
In contrast to the Department of Education, the GAA has taken the right approach. Say nothing until you hear more. The announcement that there will be no events for crowds over 5,000 until September does not necessarily mean no football. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, the GAA should be planning for a return to club football sooner rather than later with county football in August. Of course there have to be safeguards.
We must all be guided by the health experts, but they don't run the country, and there comes a time when a balance must be achieved between safety and living. Now is the test of leadership. The decisions have been easy up to now but the hard part is only starting. Every captain can sail a ship in calm waters; the good captains excel in storms.
We cannot expect all the decisions to be correct and, in fairness to the HSE, a body which would not have inspired confidence previously, it seems to have done a good job. However, until such time as test results are immediately available, nobody really knows what is going on.
On top of that, the health minister is giving mixed messages. Social distancing on the one hand and school reopening on the other. The two are mutually incompatible. The idea of bringing in Leaving Cert classes is very challenging. In fact, it is far more difficult than doing the Leaving Cert where classes could be spread out into any number of rooms.
How could a school run a series of maths classes at the same time for example? The answer in most cases is that you can't. Unless a school has very big rooms. That is very rare.
The option would be to bring a class into a gym or similar setting where there is a lot of room and do a class for honours maths, vacate the room, clean it up and then run a class for pass students. It would mean each group would have to leave the school after each class. It might mean only one class per day for each student on some days. The logistics of doing this are difficult - not impossible - but the value of school in this way is quite limited. That is not to talk about use of toilets, staffrooms and so on.
The other difficulty arises where a teacher may have an underlying health condition and refuses to teach. Or someone who lives with an elderly parent with a health issue - where do they stand? So the idea of having a couple of weeks of class in July is beginning to look a bit daft and the unions are going to cotton on to this soon.
If this current thinking is pursued then all principals and teachers will do their best for the students. However, the bottom line is that the minister should have stuck with the Leaving Cert in June or cancelled it altogether and gone for predictive grades, even if that would also cause difficulties.
As for the Junior Cert, it should have been completely abandoned, with schools having their own tests for third years at the end of May.
There is nothing easy about these big education decisions at the moment but what we are left with now is more uncertainty. It's a bit of a dog's dinner.