Michael Clifford: Fairness never a feature of the points race

Michael Clifford: Fairness never a feature of the points race

This year, so far, it would appear that a small cohort of high-aspiring pupils, mainly from fee-paying schools, have been the victims of the calculated Leaving Certificate results scheme, due to Covid-19. 

The publication of the Leaving Cert results last Monday was always going to be met with cries of “unfair” from those who didn’t make it to the summit of their expectations. Some have gone as far as to posit the notion that an injustice has been visited on this cohort.

How could it be any other way? Over 60,000 students were marked on the exam in a manner that was unique and strange because of the prevailing health emergency. There was no way that everybody was going to be happy. It was inevitable that when expectations were not met by the calculated results scheme, there would be claims that the system was simply unfair on some.

We had advance warning of this. Last month in the UK, the cohort that were left most unhappy were those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The algorithm used by the UK education authorities placed an emphasis on a school’s previous results. This, in turn, meant that those most negatively impacted by this “Covid exam” were high achievers in disadvantaged areas.

In response to that political and social fallout, the Government in this country recalibrated their approach to a horrendously difficult task. The result has been that a small, but vocal constituency, is now claiming that the system has been unfair to prospective high-achieving students, particularly those who attend private, fee-paying schools.

“They see themselves as victims of standardisation”.

One headline in the Irish Times this week asked 'Have private schools lost out in the calculated grades process?' It has been reported that some parents of pupils in private and grind schools are already consulting their legal people.

Barrister John Temple told the Irish Independentthat he has had solicitors contacting him directly. “It seems to be more private students that have been impacted,” he said. “They see themselves as victims of standardisation”. He said the issue has the potential to “affect them greatly and cause an injustice”.

That word “injustice” is set to feature even more in the coming days following the publication yesterday of the first round of college place offers.

Any discourse on the fallout from results must in the first instance take account of personal disappointment or even devastation felt by anyone whose expectations weren’t met. These pupils have seen a dream formulated over the last few years of their short lives simply disappear. They will believe a future has been swiped from them. For most, it will be the first time they have been assailed by life’s slings and arrows.

 This year's Leaving Cert students celebrated their results at Rathdown Senior School in Glenageary, Co. Dublin pictured were Sophie Brassington and Svetlana Sarapulova. Picture Jason Clarke
This year's Leaving Cert students celebrated their results at Rathdown Senior School in Glenageary, Co. Dublin pictured were Sophie Brassington and Svetlana Sarapulova. Picture Jason Clarke

Their pain is real and it will take time for perspective to ease it. On a human level this applies as much to the pupil from the fee-paying schools committed to following a parent into law or medicine as it does the pupil who has beaten all the odds to be the first in a family to have the ambition and opportunity to attend third level.

It applies to the pupil who desperately just wanted to pass the damn thing but couldn’t manage it, or the applicant for a post Leaving Cert course who has fallen short.

But to suggest that the system used this year was unjust or unfair to any real extent is to infer that the normal system is fair. Does anybody really believe that?

For instance, the kind of parents who have already consulted legal people have direct access to the courts. They may even personally know their barrister who will feel their pain. There is a good chance the judge in any case will also feel their pain as a disproportionate number of the judiciary attended private schools. These things matter when one is looking to right what is perceived as an injustice.

For the disappointed but highly capable kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the legal system as a means of redress is out there in a galaxy, far, far away. Is that fair?

Is it fair and just that the advantage enjoyed by those attending fee-paying schools is boosted with the donation of nearly €100m annually from the Department of Education budget? How much of a head start does that confer on the pupils attending these schools?

Then there are the wider socio-economic disparities that ensure the Leaving Cert system is more equal for some than others. Grinds have become an industry over the years as greater emphasis is put on results and the pressure ramped up.

There are pupils whose parents can afford grinds, see the need for them and determine to invest, even when it may curtail spending in other areas. And then there are the pupils for whom grinds are simply not an option as the money isn’t there.

Precious few among the high aspirers in the 200 or so Deis post-primary schools throughout the State get a leg-up with grinds. For pupils in those schools, the minority who aspire to run the points race, fairness is not worth thinking about, because it doesn’t exist.

What of the pupils with disabilities of one sort or another? Where lies their hopes and aspirations for adulthood in a system incapable of addressing their needs?

Every parent wants the best for their offspring. The blow rendered to the pupil who doesn’t meet his or her expectations is keenly felt all round. It is entirely understandable that anybody who finds themselves in that position, in a year where all the rules had to change, believes they have been treated unfairly.

This year, so far, it would appear that a small cohort of high-aspiring pupils, mainly from fee-paying schools, are in that position. Their plight deserves sympathy, but a repeat of what happened in the UK would have been far worse.

It’s one thing to receive a blow to your expectations when the odds are stacked in your favour. Being subjected to another, unexpected blow when you’re already coming from a position of relative handicap makes a mockery of even the most basic interpretation of fairness.

One final word on the Leaving Cert and how it can deceive the disappointed pupil. I was awarded a D in English in my Leaving Cert, and that was after two years attending a fee-paying school. Over the years I have managed to con a number of people about my command of English, including successive editors of national newspapers and book publishers.

This just goes to show one of two things. Either the result you get means next to nothing in determining how you will earn your living or attain some measure of fulfilment though work. Or else, far more important than the result you achieve will be your ability to fool some of the people all of the time.

Take it handy.

More in this section