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Weekend Read: A potential solution to the Leaving Cert impasse as Laois primary school teachers highlight IT issues

Next week, the first set of students of 2021 will return to physical education after almost two months out of the classroom.

The Department of Education struck a deal with the various teaching unions that will see special schools reopen at 50% capacity from Thursday February 11.

While special classes in other schools are set reopen for all students from February 22 – it is still unclear when the remainder of children will return to physical learning in primary and secondary schools.

“This year’s Leaving Certs have actually been more adversely affected than those who were set to sit state exams in 2020.”

So says Laois County Councillor Aisling Moran – who is herself the mother of a Leaving Cert student.

And she has a point. They missed physical teaching from March of fifth year right up until the start of sixth year and have now been out of the classroom again for what will be at least another two months.

In the Leaving Cert cycle of fifth and sixth year, 18 months are spent in the classroom. And so far, this group of students have missed almost one third of that time.

Teachers in Laois and around the country have done trojan work with online classes – but they will be the first to tell you that it simply isn’t the same as physically teaching a student.

The 2020 Leaving Cert is currently scheduled to take place in four months time and a decision on what will actually happen is due sometime next week.

On Friday, Minister for Education Norma Foley released a statement where she indicated that students would have a choice between sitting the actual Leaving Cert or another measure – although what that measure is was not disclosed.

She said: “We will be actively planning both to hold the Leaving Certificate examinations, and to put in place a corresponding measure that can also be offered to students.

“Examinations need to be available to students. Given the impact on learning for students both last year and this year, there is also a need to explore a parallel approach which can be offered to students.

“Any corresponding measure should have the confidence of the education partners. Last year a process was put in place that involved schools generating estimated marks and the application of a national standardisation process.

“This allowed students to progress. Any corresponding measure this year would need to incorporate new features. In particular, the State Examinations Commission will need to be given the necessary legal powers to run the process.

“It will also need to provide more comprehensively for students studying outside school. Recognition of the skills and competences associated with orals, practicals and coursework should also form a clearer part of any such measure.

“There is no perfect answer to what is a very challenging situation. The situation is not identical to last year and so any solutions that we consider need to be appropriate for this year’s cohort.”

There is no perfect solution, but the aforementioned Cllr Aisling Moran believes she has one that might fit.

She raised the matter at last month’s Laois County Council meeting and revealed that since then, many parents and students have contacted her in agreement.

She said: “I have spoken to a lot of teachers over the last number of weeks and I have yet to meet one who wants their students to sit the Leaving Cert.

“They all say that while online learning is as good as it can be in the circumstances, it will never replicate class-based learning.

“And the uncertainty over what will happen is really not fair on these students – they are suffering enough like everyone else because of this pandemic and what they need is clarity.

“We have to learn from the mistakes of last year and offer clarity now.

“So my proposal is that we should flip things around and do the exam on the Third Level side of things.

“I know in other countries that you can apply to the college and a course and then they provide you with an entrance exam in order to get in.

“What we do currently is teach children to regurgitate information for Leaving Cert and that leaves many unprepared when they are faced with having to think critically at Third Level.

“So at least if students had this option now that they could select courses, sit entrance exams for them, it would give them a better indication if they are actually suited to this course in the first place.

“If for example I wanted to study marketing – I could apply to Galway, Limerick, Carlow, Cork etc. I would go and do the entrance exam and say they selected the top 100 students in each place and allocated them places.

“So if I get offered Cork and Carlow but I accept Carlow, then my Cork place would go back into the pot and be offered in Round 2 to someone who missed out on the top 100.

“It would be exactly like the CAO except the exam is on the course you want rather than on seven different and mostly unrelated subjects.

“It may also go some way towards stemming the high drop out rate that is present among college First Years.

“So I would call on the Department of Education to examine this and see if it could be workable – and if it did, perhaps it would be a way to reform the Leaving Cert itself.”

Primary School 

Meanwhile, Laois primary school teachers have highlighted a number of IT problems that they are experiencing.

A number of schools have reported incidents around the country whereby online classes have been hacked into by unscrupulous individuals that have gone on to show inappropriate material to very young children.

Incidents like this have been reported in Limerick, Meath and Dublin and a number of Laois teachers who contacted LaoisToday said they are now afraid that something like that could happen in their schools.

They called on the Department of Education to look at introducing their own platform for hosting online classes in order to make the process safer for children and teachers.

We put that to the Department and a spokesperson responded with the following statement.

They said: “A range of supports is provided to schools to assist them in supporting remote teaching and learning.

“Schools can select any communication and learning platform that best suits their needs and are expected to have a robust school policy in place which governs the use of digital technologies in the school setting.

“Extensive support and advice for teachers and schools to provide remote learning is available to through the Department-funded teacher support service, the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) available at this dedicated portal: https://www.pdst.ie/DistanceLearning.

“The information provided includes guidance on teacher/school communication with pupils/students through video conferencing and includes items such as scheduling and hosting a meeting; security settings; sharing and recording videos, sharing screen; teacher and student participation. More information available at https://www.pdst.ie/DistanceLearning/VideoConferencing

“The Department supports the provision of information on online safety available to schools, teachers, parents and young people through its webwise project on www.webwise.ie.

“Extensive supports on remote learning are available for schools at the links above.

“Following an incident reported recently to the Department, we understand that the relevant authority has taken appropriate steps to address this incident and prevent a recurrence.

“The Department has no plans to develop a platform of the nature described. There is already a range of educational platforms available to schools and schools can select any platform that best suits their own needs.

“Schools can use the ICT grant for this purpose. The platforms are available through industry provision and have typically been developed over a number of years with appropriate expertise and experience.

“They are regularly updated and technical support and training on their use is provided by the suppliers. Support guidance on the use of platforms is provided by the Department through the Professional Development Service for Teachers and is available on their website.”

But one Laois teacher, who spoke to us on the basis of anonymity, lambasted this response – saying that it ‘reeks of an attitude that the Department have done the minimum now go ask the schools why things are going wrong’.

The biggest issue, as they see it, is that it’s being left to individual schools to source online platforms and come up with policies on how they should use them.

Even though, they say, their expertise or knowledge of these platforms is, for the most part, basic enough

They said: “The Department of Education continues to bang on about the €50m pumped into school funding for ICT!

“This was always planned and has been invested by schools for the most part in ICT equipment for the school such as interactive whiteboards etc.

“The money released during pandemic last year allowed schools buy five or six laptops for the entire school – You can be sure there are more than that amount devices needed in most schools.

“So you can be certain that far more investment needed. If you remove the pandemic from this altogether, schools still aren’t properly equipped for ICT.

“Broadband, devices, platforms, technicians are all paid for out of money raised by the schools. It is not part of a capitation grant.

“Many rural school’s internet access is very limited too – through no fault of their own of course.

“The PDST are people who are specifically tasked with a certain aspect of schools.

“So all these people have to look after is technology in education. It’s by no means their fault but links don’t really cut it when students, parents and even some teachers aren’t that proficient with technology.

“Teachers have tried to equip themselves by doing continuous personal development in areas of technology, in an effort to prepare themselves for this lockdown.

“The department and inspectorate have done little to improve the situation with Friday evening press releases in the media continually adding further stress to the current situation.

“It’s like they never expected another wave.”

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Stradbally native Alan Hartnett is a graduate of Knockbeg College who has worked in the local and national media since 2008. Alan has a BA in Economics, Politics and Law and an MA in Journalism from DCU. His happiest moment was when Jody Dillon scored THAT goal in the Laois senior football final in 2016.