Examination errors attributed to staffing difficulties

Long delays in filling vacancies may have added to staffing difficulties that the State Examinations Commission claim contributed to the unusually high number of mistakes in this year’s Junior and Leaving Certificate.

Students have called for the SEC to be properly staffed to ensure continued confidence in the system after a range of mistakes in the exams that were the subject of a report to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn published yesterday.

Department of Education funding for the SEC has been cut from €71m to €52m since 2008, and the total staff it is allowed under public service employment controls have fallen 7% from 161 to 150 since 2010.

However, the exams body told the Irish Examiner it has prioritised the filling of posts regarded as critical to delivering exams, including jobs in its examinations and assessments division.

The SEC report to Mr Quinn said there has been a 15% reduction in staff in that division. More crucially, it said almost one-third of subject examination and assessment managers (EAMs), who oversee the setting of exams, are in the job less than a year.

In response to questions about efforts to counteract the increased risk of errors due to staffing issues, the SEC said it has been supported by the Department of Education when making the case to the Department of Public Expenditure for approval to fill critical posts.

“Requests for sanction to fill posts were only made within the approved staffing complement. While sanction was granted to fill critical posts, it must be noted that the recruitment processes were often lengthy,” said a spokesperson.

The Irish Examiner asked the Department of Education if Mr Quinn would look at relaxing staff restrictions at the SEC, in light of the report. A spokesperson said he will be briefed again on the issue by the SEC in October and “all matters will be fully considered”.

Irish Second-level Students’ Union president Mark Caffrey said the exams are normally run very professionally, but mistakes can have a major impact.

“I’d like to see staff numbers at the SEC being kept, and they should keep the amount of work they are able to do preparing exams and scrutinising them to make sure there are no mistakes,” he said. “If we are going to provide an education service, it should be one of quality, otherwise the whole system is undermined. The Junior and Leaving Certificate as we know them probably won’t be around much longer but, while they are here, we have to make sure they keep their integrity.”

The report sent to Mr Quinn a week ago said human error was behind the mistakes identified in 11 exams. It said most were minor, but the SEC has apologised to students for the impact. Many issues were in maths, with the biggest focus on a higher level maths question estimated by the SEC to have affected more than 500 students.

The number of maths exams to be set has almost trebled since 2007 to 92 this year, because of the phased introduction of the Project Maths syllabus in schools. However, the workload which was to have been overseen by two senior subject examination managers had only one this year.

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