Daniel McConnell: 'The right thing has been done on Leaving Cert — but should never have come to this'

Daniel McConnell: 'The right thing has been done on Leaving Cert — but should never have come to this'

On Thursday, April 2, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took to the podium in the Government Press Centre to provide an update on the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Only a small number of reporters were present because strict social distancing rules prevented the normal large number of journalists from attending.

When it came to my question, I pressed him about the concern growing around the lack of clarity relating to the State exams.

He was speaking following a meeting of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Covid-19, and said that Minister for Education Joe McHugh and the State Examinations Commission were drawing up options to allow the State exams to be held.

Mr Varadkar said there were a "number of options" and Minister McHugh was working to ensure that "by hook or by crook" the exams took place.

The Taoiseach said the Government did not want people who were hoping to enter third-level education later this year "to lose a year ... or half a year" of their lives.

Despite his promise, yesterday Varadkar and his embattled education minister bowed to the inevitable and cancelled the Leaving Certificate.

The climb-down from the promise to hold the examinations no matter what, is, of course, being driven by the public health medical advice, but it does represent a major political failure by McHugh, a man who is about to lose his job as minister whenever a new government is formed.

Normally, I am loath to run with the mob and criticise the government or a particular minister for the sake of it. And for the record, I like Joe McHugh personally. He is a gentleman and a decent fellow.

But in this instance, the Government’s mishandling and McHugh’s role in how this debacle was allowed to play out is absolutely fair game.

There were concerns being expressed about the fate of the State examinations from the moment Varadkar announced the commencement of restrictions on the steps of Blair House in Washington DC in mid-March.

By the time I asked that question of the Taoiseach in early April, the confusion and the anxiety over the exams among the 60,000 pupils affected — and their teachers and their parents — had well and truly taken hold.

While the cancellation of the State examinations is not ideal, what has occurred over the past seven to eight weeks has been a nightmare of uncertainty and confusion unnecessarily caused by a minister and his officials.

On foot of the Taoiseach’s comments and McHugh’s failure to provide clarity as to what was happening, a major information vacuum opened up as to what might or might not happen.

Pupils were told to keep studying but the whole time a maelstrom of speculation and rumour swirled over their heads as they tried to work from home.

On April 10, we were told that the Leaving Cert exams scheduled in June were to be postponed and would instead run from late July until August.

In a sign of things to come, we were told on that day too that the Junior Cycle, meanwhile, was cancelled and was set to be replaced by school-based exams in the new academic year.

Rather than bring clarity to the issue, the new start date of April 29 brought only more questions?

When would pupils be allowed back into class?

What would happen with practical elements of the exam which were due to take place at the end of May?

Most importantly, would the powerful teachers’ unions play ball?

All of these questions played themselves out over the following weeks to the palpable agony of the pupils who now faced having their summers ruined.

Any time McHugh did appear in public, it was the same old guff.

The utterances were rehashed over and over again: ’’We will be guided by the advice ... we will have a plan... any time now we will tell you what the plan is and so on and so on.’’

The truth is that McHugh, a former teacher himself, and those around him abandoned that key skill necessary to make it at the top of politics — basic cop on.

He, like many before him, allowed himself to become captured by officialdom. Rather than owning the process and leading from the front, McHugh became a reactionary player in the whole saga. A slave to the advice.

Then last weekend, amid visible signs of strain relating to the nationwide lockdown, Varadkar in dubious circumstances, announced the Government’s roadmap to unlocking the country.

The absence of any mention of the Leaving Cert in last weekend’s roadmap was the glaring omission from the comprehensive document.

Such an omission merely fuelled the sense of bewilderment and concern throughout the country and prompted Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman, Thomas Byrne, to call for the cancellation of the examinations.

Such a call had a dramatic impact because students who had diligently being doing their work amid such confusion stopped working, sensing their efforts would come to nothing.

During the week, it was clear a plan was afoot but even at that point, the Government and McHugh decided to drag it out unnecessarily.

On Thursday in the Dáil, came justified stinging criticism.

Fianna Fáil leader, Michéal Martin, said the position regarding the leaving certificate was unacceptable: “Every single Government in Europe has been confronted with how to complete school leaving examinations and prepare for a new higher education year. Nowhere has there been such a lack of clarity and confusion."

“The fact that the reopening document published last week failed to address it is remarkable. We are now beyond the stage where clarity must be provided and the Government must be honest about the ability to complete the leaving certificate in the coming months,” he added.

Labour leader, Alan Kelly, described the handling of the Leaving Certificate as an “unmitigated disaster”.

He said: “I put it to the Taoiseach that the handling of the leaving certificate has been an unmitigated disaster and I ask that he would please intervene. The stress these students have been put under is intolerable. This needs to be finished. We need a plan B and it needs to be out there this week. It needs to be agreed. This situation cannot go beyond this seek. It is unfair and completely wrong. The handling of it, from the Department of Education and Skills, shows a dysfunctionality that has not been seen in some while."

In response, Varadkar said he “totally appreciates” that the uncertainty was causing enormous stress for sixth years.

“It is an issue we want to resolve. We know it is possible to carry out the leaving certificate within existing public health guidelines but it would not be the leaving certificate as we know it,” he said.

“It is an issue we want to bring to a conclusion this week", Varadkar said.

Several hours later, the news broke that the Cabinet was to be asked yesterday to approve the cancellation of the exams.

The relief was instant and palpable.

One student, Molly Gordon-Boles, writing in today’s Irish Examiner, said: “When I read the news of the expected cancellation of the Leaving Certificate exams, I felt a wave of immense relief. For weeks, students have been left in the dark. The uncertainty has been detrimental to the mental health of 61,000 Leaving Cert students, their teachers and their families. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, ups and downs, during a time when the nation’s mental health and wellbeing is already at a fragile state.”

At last, the right thing has been done — but it never should have come to this.

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