'Put yourselves in our shoes': Leaving Cert students on their exam concerns

'Put yourselves in our shoes': Leaving Cert students on their exam concerns

'I want to know how this Government can say Leaving Certificate students are immune from Covid.'

We asked Leaving Cert students how they felt about the Government's announcement on school closures and the impact they feel it will have on their exams Here are some of their responses.

My name is Niamh Walsh and I am currently a sixth-year student attending Sacred Heart School, Tullamore, Co Offaly. I am emailing you on behalf of the sixth year class of 2021 in order to raise the universal concerns we currently hold in relation to our Leaving Certificate Examinations.

Last year's fifth years were among the groups of students forced to navigate the unknown roads of online learning. I wish to point out that there are three months of our Leaving Certificate course that many were unable to complete or retain to the best of their ability. 

For argument's sake, let’s presume that schools are able to stay open for all the upcoming months. In this 'ideal' scenario, we will still have spent approximately 20% of our course online.

I ask you to put yourselves in our shoes. Imagine you have taught yourself 20% of the Leaving Certificate course in all subjects, have witnessed the disastrous implications the pandemic has had on our country, have lost a loved one or multiple loved ones, and have been told by your Government to continue on like nothing has changed since March 12 last year.

Taoiseach Michaél Martin said on January 5 that it is his full intention to hold a 'traditional' Leaving Certificate. I ask you Taoiseach, how can a traditional Leaving Certificate be held for a year group that has faced the most extraordinary of years? 

I also ask you why you and other members of your party were calling for these same examinations to be called off for the Class of 2020 when case numbers were lower and they had not missed the same number of classes as we have? Why are we any different?

We feel let down. We feel emotionally drained. We feel alone. To say you have helped us and listened to us is a blatant and utter lie. If you really have listened to us in these recent days, you would realise that we do not feel heard by our Government at all.

On the issue of reopening the school for sixth years: we are being asked to put our education before our health for the sake of a ‘traditional’ Leaving Certificate. We are vulnerable too. 

We have sick and susceptible loved ones too. Is a 'tradition' worth adding to the shocking death toll of Covid-19 victims in this country? Are we somehow immune to this disease? You know the answer to these questions is no. 

Consider the gravity of this decision. You are not only asking 60,000 plus students to enter the lion’s den, but you are also asking 60,000 plus families, bus drivers, and teachers to do the same when community transmission is at an all-time high.

We, like you, are terrified. However, unlike any other group in this country, excluding healthcare workers, we have been told to sacrifice our health. Never in the history of our country has a greater and more impactful decision been expected of students.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said four months ago to the class of 2020 that ‘these results do not define you’. I ask you, Minister Foley, with all due respect, if the Leaving Certificate does not define us, why are you ignoring our cries for help? Why are you prioritising it over our health? 

We understand that there were issues with predicted grades last year. However, we are in January right now. There is time to solve these issues. There is time to assess what worked and what didn’t for the class of 2020. Why are we being punished for the Government’s mistake in the calculated grades system? 

We aren’t being lazy or asking to be treated specially. We are asking to be treated fairly and like adults, which the majority of us are. We need clarity. We need answers. We need to be listened to. Above all, our health needs to be prioritised, both mentally and physically.

Niamh Walsh, Co Offaly

I'm a Leaving Certificate student and I feel that this year should be optional between doing the traditional Leaving Certificate and predicted grades. There are plenty of students out there that want predicted grades and plenty that want the traditional exams to go ahead. It's roughly 50/50.

If I want to study in the UK, I'm disadvantaged if these exams go ahead because the exams in the UK are cancelled and predicted grades show better results than exams. An exam doesn't measure how much you know, it measures your ability under pressure and stress.

You could be the best performer in your class for two years and you could come out the worst in an exam situation. Let the ones that do better in exams do the exams. For the rest, at least allow predicted grades to be an option. It's a fairer system. Learn from last year and change the issues, improve the system. 

An exam shouldn't be what defines you as a person, it should be your full two years' work. If you were in a job under a two-year contract, you go to get the contract renewed, your renewal isn't going to depend on one day's performance or your ability on that day, it would be your performance over the two years and your ability over the two years. The same should apply in this instance.

The other issue I have is with the Government's announcement that Leaving Certs can attend three days of school a week. What does that mean? Is it compulsory for us to attend? If we feel safer at home can we stay at home? 

We still don't know and I want to know how this Government can say Leaving Certificate students are immune from Covid. It's pretty much what they are saying. 

We are being asked to go back to education, to learn in packed rooms, sitting one metre apart and expected to absorb information and learn. It's nonsense and it's only being done so the Government can hold a traditional Leaving Cert, so they can say in May ‘these students didn't miss any week of school this year, they can sit the exams’.

I've lost full faith in this Government and its ability to handle crises and come up with the necessary solutions, they are trying to fix a problem with the same problem. I don't think this Government realises that the Leaving Certificate students will be voting next time and we won't forget how we've been treated by this Government.

Aodhán McCrudden, Donegal

Daniel Sealy: 'We’ve watched the Taoiseach and Minister for Health come out and address the nation day after day bearing bad news. No one wants this, but it’s necessary.'
Daniel Sealy: 'We’ve watched the Taoiseach and Minister for Health come out and address the nation day after day bearing bad news. No one wants this, but it’s necessary.'

An open letter to the Minister for Education: I hope you’re safe at home, able to restrict your movements and keep your family safe. After all, everyone in this country should be able to do so as we see the infection rate skyrocket. Unfortunately, as a result of the actions of this Government and your department, this is not the case for every single sixth-year student in Ireland today.

We have had to sit by this past week watching governments in England and Northern Ireland cancel equivalent exams in order to close schools to protect students’ and teachers’ wellbeing. 

Surely the same would be the case here where a new strain has infiltrated the population at a similar pattern as seen across the United Kingdom where, I repeat, end-of-year exams have been cancelled in the interest of preserving the health of students and teachers.

No, sixth years don’t just want a month off. No one wants the Leaving Cert to be cancelled, we would all have preferred to have a normal fifth and sixth year, exams and all, but we also don’t want to be living through a pandemic. 

No one wants hospitals to be overcrowded, no one wants to worry about potentially passing on a fatal virus to a loved one, no one wants to be isolated socially, but that's the time we’re living in. We’ve heard since March, ‘we are living through unprecedented times’ over and over again. 

We’ve watched the Taoiseach and Minister for Health come out and address the nation day after day bearing bad news. No one wants this, but it’s necessary.

The disruption to our education has been far too great to be remedied. Unprecedented action is needed during this ‘unprecedented time’, if that means cancelling the Leaving Cert in order to allow everyone to stay home as best as possible for the months to come, so be it. 

I, for one, would gladly surrender my Leaving Cert if it meant I may prevent Covid-19 from entering my house, infecting my parents, sisters and, potentially, grandmother. I can guarantee no other student wants this, but we all worry it may happen to us.

The predicted grading system was not perfect in any way but, it allowed students and teachers to stay at home, potentially saving lives. That is the priority here, saving lives. We shouldn’t get hung up on there being a greatly diminished 2021 Leaving Cert just in order to say the Leaving Cert happened. Following this course of action benefits no one. Not students, not teachers, no one. 

Students should not have worry coming into school, catching a pandemic-causing virus and bringing it home on top of the heavy stress the Leaving Cert already causes. Government advice is to stay at home, not to socialise, not to mix households, not to leave your house. 

I am baffled that the Government appears unable to follow its own advice. I am beyond frustrated as many of my classmates are.

If our schools are so safe, why aren’t first to fifth years coming in on Monday? Are sixth years immune three days a week? Does Covid-19 realise how important this year is and, as a result, has agreed to stay away from sixth years and teachers? 

Your failure to not design an adequate system to assess sixth years in the case there were over 5,000 new daily infections is not our fault. 

We should not have to go to school, in the worst stages of a pandemic, for your mistake. That is not acceptable and we will not accept it. 

The right thing to do is to keep all students and teachers at home this month, maximise protection of everyone, use this time to design a system that will adequately assess sixth years and produce a fair final result. 

Prepare to run the Leaving Cert in November, as was the case in 2020, in case people would rather sit it when it is safe to do so. It is impossible to please everyone, predicted grades won't please everyone but, it would ensure the safety of our teachers and sixth-year students as we traverse this difficult period of the pandemic, this most deadly wave of the pandemic.

Daniel Sealy, sixth-year student at St Paul’s College in Raheny, Dublin

Head students at Colaiste Bhaile Chláir, from left: Shane Farragher, Kaitlyn Moran, Hannah Walsh, Sean Connaire
Head students at Colaiste Bhaile Chláir, from left: Shane Farragher, Kaitlyn Moran, Hannah Walsh, Sean Connaire

We, as head boys, head girls, and student council representatives of Coláiste Bhaile Chláir are writing this letter on Wednesday the 6th of January, the day the Department of Health was notified of 7,836 new Coronavirus cases, 17 further deaths and 88 people in ICU.

Considering the severity of this situation, we cannot help but feel a sense of indignation at the recent decision to disregard the idea of predicted grades, and the decision to put the Leaving Cert students at grave risk by returning them to school. 

According to statistics, the new mutation of coronavirus is contracted mostly by students of our general age group, and therefore we are most at risk.

While we understand that young people less likely to experience further complications from coronavirus, that is simply not the case for those living in our households. 

The danger of bringing the virus into our homes is all too real. There are many students, in our school and around the country, living with people who have underlying health conditions.

Any suggestion to return to school, to the detriment of their health and well-being, is completely disgraceful. Not only does the virus affect the physical health of a person, but the mental strain the virus has had on young people is also severe. 

The mental health of Leaving Certificate students has undoubtedly been ignored by the Department of Education and we, as student representatives, have been made aware of an increase in stress and anxiety among our fellow students, because of the recent announcements. 

While a return to school may seem well-intended, we, as students, completely disagree with this approach and encourage the department to consider the option of predicted grades.

Although exams have been altered to accommodate missed school hours last year, having a choice on an exam does not necessarily alleviate workload. 

The number of school hours missed since then is significant, especially considering Mock exams are scheduled to commence next month. Catching up on missed work and expecting students to study three days a week is unrealistic in such a distressing and distracting climate. Sadly, students are being asked to prioritise their education over their own mental and physical health and that of their families. 

We, as secondary school students, cannot help but feel betrayed by a Government we expect to consider our opinions and allow for our concerns.

We find ourselves in unsuitable circumstances to even begin to think about exams. All we ask of the department is the option of predicted grades, and an abolition of the government’s ‘Leaving Cert at all costs’ plan.

The Leaving Cert students of Colaiste Bhaile Chláir, ClareGalway

I am a Leaving Cert student and I have been under tremendous stress over these Christmas holidays. I have no faith in our current minister as she has shown no understanding or compassion towards Leaving Cert students.

It’s beyond unfair to expect us to study and keep motivated and concentrated on an exam during a horrific time like this. The upcoming mocks provide enough pressure, stress, and worry on students. 

However, when you add the disturbing numbers of cases and deaths in our country it is outrageous to expect students to deal with this without any consequences. 

The students of Ireland are being treated inhumanly and it’s not acceptable. Our surrounding neighbouring countries have decided that the health and wellbeing of its people are more important than an exam.

Amy Quirke

Hello. My name is Emily, and I am a Leaving Cert student who would like to share an opinion about the latest announcement.

I am stunned at the Minister for Education's decision to keep us in for three days while the country is in lockdown and cases have come to an all-time high. 

The Leaving Cert has always been unfair to students, but the pandemic has really worsened the inequality between privileged and less privileged students. Some students got lessons in video format during lockdown, while some students didn't even have access to the necessary devices for remote learning.

We started sixth year with a huge chunk of our course missing. And students have had to stay at home because of family members with Covid, myself included. This takes away valuable time from us, and due to added pressure, our mental health has been declining. 

No matter what we do, as long as we are not given clarity and fairness, we will continue to suffer. Many subjects have project deadlines looming, and this must be amended as some projects cannot be worked on at home. 

Going to school three days a week seems like a very transparent effort to make us sit the traditional Leaving Cert at all costs. It is simply not enough to cover the course and revise the work we missed. We are very scared of what is to come, and we feel excluded from every decision made.

It almost seems as if the fallout of 2020 predicted grades is the sole reason why we are being made to go to school during a time of thousands of cases per day. 

As we have missed three months of valuable school time and will miss more to come, we are in a worse position than the sixth year of 2020. I think there should be the option of predicted grades, and exams for anyone who wishes to sit them.

If there is no option for predicted grades, students with potential will end up being punished for something beyond their control. The pandemic has placed enormous strain on the mental health of young people, and teachers are rushing through the course because we do not know when the schools will suddenly close. We have not had a normal school experience since March of 2020.

It is simply unfair to expect the sixth years of 2021 to sit a Leaving Cert with changes that are not adequate to compensate for the time we missed. There is no perfect solution, but having students in for three days is simply not good enough. We are still missing two days every week, which will impact how quickly we will finish the course and get our projects done. This solution will do more harm than good to Leaving Cert students.

Yours, Emily

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