Exam body failed to budget for rise in student numbers

A failure to budget for a growing number of students sitting exams has been blamed for mounting losses at the State body which oversees the Leaving and Junior Certificate tests.

The State Examinations Commission has reported that the size of its annual deficit more than tripled last year to over €2.2m.

The SEC attributed its deteriorating financial position on insufficient provision within its budget for the increasing number of students sitting the two exams.

The number of students sitting Leaving Certificate exams has risen steadily in recent years up from 55,577 in 2013 to 58,543 this year — an increase of 5.3%.

The rate of change is slower at Junior Certificate level with the numbers sitting the exams over the same period up 2.2% – going from 60,327 in 2013 to 61,654 in 2017, Concern raised by the SEC about its finances could pave the way for increases in the standard exam fees of €116 for the Leaving Certificate and €109 for the Junior Certificate.

The SEC also blamed its growling losses on an increase in the number and scale of special arrangements it provides for students with disabilities to sit tests.

Last year, the SEC granted 20,209 reasonable accommodations to 16,674 candidates in various forms such as tape recorders, scribes, word processors and grammar and writing waivers.

Administering the concessions required the SEC to establish 10,685 special centres.

The annual deficit at the SEC has now grown from €356,808 in 2014 to €722,729 in 2015 to €2,206,642 last year.

The latest accounts filed by SEC show accumulated losses at the Athlone-based body stood at over €3.6m at the end of 2016.

The sharp deterioration in its losses arose despite increases in the SEC’s two mains sources of funding last year — the Oireachtas grant increased by 1.3% to €55m and exam fee income was up 1.8% to €9.2m.

According to the SEC financial statement for 2016, such increases were offset by increases in staff costs to €58m which was mostly due to external staff hired to oversee the exams as well as administrative expenses.

In the report, the SEC chairman, Patrick Burke, also acknowledged that measures taken to address weaknesses in its fixed asset register, which had been identified in recent audits, were not fully complete by the end of 2016.

As a result of a review into the factors causing a deficit between 2014 and 2016, the SEC has recommended it should improve its budget estimate process as well as its financial reporting arrangements.

“The Commission is satisfied that the measures adopted will address the accumulated deficit over time,” said Mr Burke.

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