Policy fail? Insistence that state exams go ahead is glib and ignorant

Policy fail? Insistence that state exams go ahead is glib and ignorant
STRESS TEST: The Government’s determination that the Junior and Leaving Certificates will go ahead, despite the coronavirus lockdown, is blind to the inequalities that studying from home imposes on lower-income students.

The Government’s insistence that the state exams will go ahead, despite the coronavirus lockdown, is glib and ignorant. Teenagers from lower-income families are at a disadvantage in studying from home, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

AS a parent, I was incredulous last week watching Taoiseach Leo Varadkar say that the Government intended to press ahead with state examinations.

It is flippant to call on Junior Cert and Leaving Cert students who are trying to study for exams to “continue to do so.” 

That disregards the challenges all teens and parents are facing because of the coronavirus outbreak, and is doubly blind to the impact the lockdown is having on students in low-income families.

Teenagers are not mini adults; they are still developing their identities, and socialisation, which has been removed for now, plays a key role in that.

They’re also being told by the adults that no-one knows what’s going to happen. If adults are struggling to concentrate and battling inner crises, teenagers are, too. 

As parents, our job must be to teach resilience and adaptability and optimism, not to force them to, as one friend put it, “memorise ox-bow lake formations.” Varadkar urging teenagers to continue studying shows a blindness to social inequality and the urban/rural divide. 

And it speaks to a lack of any evidence for his belief that online learning and ‘home-schooling’ are a replacement for the classroom.

Middle-class students who live in houses with a spare room to study, access to a laptop or desktop with adequate broadband, and, possibly, a parent with a good education to help with study could well give the exams a solid attempt.

But what about children in crowded conditions, working from mobile phones or fighting younger siblings for computer access, with parents who are absent because they are ‘essential’ (often low-paid) workers in sectors like transport and retail? They don’t stand a chance.

There are teens looking after siblings. There are teens whose parents are amongst the 513,000 now unemployed. There are teens in isolated rural locations, where broadband access is patchy.

These students were already at a disadvantage. But the dice is additionally loaded against them when their study is reliant on their home environment and their ability to afford access to technology.

Many studies doubt that online learning is a sufficient replacement for the classroom, and many studies also observe this inequality.

Policy fail? Insistence that state exams go ahead is glib and ignorant

“Even when overall outcomes are similar for classroom and online courses, students with weak academic preparation, and those from low-income and under-represented backgrounds, consistently underperform in fully-online environments,” researchers from George Mason University, in the US, concluded.

Sure, online learning programmes can be developed by experts to mitigate against inequalities, but we’re working with cobbled together resources that vary hugely school to school and teacher to teacher.

Only one of my Junior Cert daughter’s teachers is delivering live classes online. Of the rest, most are regularly emailing work, but some are incommunicado. 

Some of those are aging luddites, but some are struggling with their own families.

And how will the exams be held?

If social-distancing measures were still in place in June, students would have to cope not only with exam stress, but with the emotional overload of examination halls full of signs warning of Covid-19 infection, while not being allowed to talk to friends they won’t have seen in months.

It’s time for the Department of Education to stop “doing all it can” to ensure State Examinations go ahead and come up with a Plan B.

And students think so, too.

The Irish Second-level Students’ Union conducted a survey of 46,000 students last week, asking them what they wanted to happen: 77% of Junior Cert students wanted to cancel the exams and for predicted grades, along with already-completed coursework, to decide their final marks.

There’s no reason not to. The Junior Cert is only a ‘dry run’ for the Leaving Cert anyway. 

Policy fail? Insistence that state exams go ahead is glib and ignorant

And they’ve done their pre’s. The ‘predicted grade’ could easily be based on their pre’s result, with a hefty additional percentage to account for study they would have done in the meantime.

49% of Leaving Certificate students wanted cancelled exams and predicted grades, but a larger group, presumably concerned about their entry to third-level, were in favour of a postponed exam or some other arrangement.

Even here, Varadakar’s assertion that state exams would go ahead to ensure third-level places could be picked up next September is unimaginative. 

Resources saved by cancelling the Junior Cert could be put towards interviews or SAT-style tests for college entry.

Between now and summer, we could focus on empowering teens. There are loads of practical skills that Leaving Cert students could be picking up if they weren’t trying to swot up on the Aimsir Gnathcaite. 

We could make the driver theory test free for 17-19 year-olds until summer, and waive the fee on provisional licences. 

We could make practical qualifications, such as HACCP training, available to the same age-group for free. The lockdown protects our elderly, but the next generation needs protecting, too.

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