Daniel McConnell: Students pay the price for Department of Education's floundering failures

Botched manner of the school closures debacle shows the major lessons of last year have not been learnt, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Students pay the price for Department of Education's floundering failures

No one asked whether Norma Foley had checked with the teachers’ groups to make sure the proposal to have Leaving Cert students in class three days a week was tenable. File Picture

Just how many cock-ups can the Department of Education be allowed to make?

As Minister Norma Foley was confirming her latest U-turn on her plan to open schools for Leaving Certificate students on Thursday evening, recrimination within the Government had already begun.

How was this mess allowed to happen? 

Why had a proposal that had gotten through a Cabinet sub-committee meeting of no less than nine ministers including the three-party leaders in Government — Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, and Eamon Ryan — not been properly squared off with the teacher unions, some asked.

It seems that because of that meeting, the matter was essentially rubber-stamped through full Cabinet on Wednesday, with some ministers assuming that the five-and-a-half hour meeting the day before had done all the due diligence.

No one asked whether Norma Foley had checked with the teachers’ groups to make sure the proposal to have Leaving Cert students in class three days a week was tenable.

She hadn’t and so within 24 hours of announcing the plan, amid significant rancour and criticism, the inevitable U-turn was confirmed and Ms Foley cut a significantly weakened figure that night.

Less than convincing interviews on radio and Primetime by her did little to detract from the sense of chaos and shambles.

After a decidedly rocky start as minister last year, Norma Foley had appeared to settle into her role. Getting the country’s schools open in September was a major achievement.

Given this latest plan had the backing of the three leaders and Government as a whole, it would be unfair to lay all the blame at her door. 

Indeed, some of her ministerial colleagues have argued that Ms Foley has been “badly let down by her officials”.

This latest U-turn has both the minister and her department back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Suspicions about the dysfunctionality at the heart of the education department have swept throughout government for many years but its poor performance has been tolerated in more benign times.

A caustic joke swirling around government circles goes: “If Education was in charge of handling the pandemic, we’d all be dead.” 

That may be a bit harsh, but the rap sheet against the Department of Education since the arrival of Covid-19 is sizeable.

Last year, when Fine Gael’s Joe McHugh was in the minister’s office, the department made a cataclysmic cock-up of the Leaving Cert and the Junior Cert at several points.

From the moment then taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the start of lockdown restrictions to the point when the Leaving Cert was cancelled, Mr McHugh and his officials put the 60,000 students sitting the exams through months of unnecessary panic, worry, and stress.

Forgetting the old adage that there is nothing worse than a slow no, they bungled and botched their way through the subsequent period managing to annoy parents, teachers, and most importantly students while continuing to insist the exams were going ahead.

In mid-April, Mr Varadkar said there were a "number of options" and Mr McHugh was working to ensure that "by hook or by crook" the exams would take place even though the country was in the grips of the first devastating wave of the pandemic.

Under increasing fire, Mr Varadkar said he “totally appreciated” that the uncertainty was causing enormous stress for sixth years.

“It is an issue we want to resolve. It is an issue we want to bring to a conclusion this week", he said in April.

Minister for Education, Norma Foley confirmed the Government U-turn on Thursday. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

Minister for Education, Norma Foley confirmed the Government U-turn on Thursday. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

It wasn't resolved, which placed the kids involved in the disgraceful on-and-off again saga involving their oral examinations. It was not until May that a decision was taken to cancel the traditional exams in favour of a predicted grade system.

In June, the new government took office and Ms Foley was a surprise appointment and got off to a decidedly rocky start.

She confirmed that there would be a three-week delay to the Leaving Cert results coming out, so students would not get them until September 7, which would have significant knock-on impacts for college applications, students trying to sort grants, and accommodation.

Even then after all that, the pain for those students involved was not over.

At the end of September, Ms Foley was forced to apologise for errors which resulted in at least 6,500 students receiving a lower grade than they ought to have received.

She said any students affected would be upgraded and every effort would be made to ensure those affected would not miss out on college places which they qualified for in light of upgrades.

She said the errors may have resulted in some students receiving higher grades than they were supposed to. However, their grades would stand.

"These are errors which should not have occurred. However, the error will not disadvantage any student," she said.

Two errors in the coding process in calculating grades were identified by a Canadian firm which was involved in the grading process, Polymetrika International Inc.

To make matters worse, Polymetrika was paid approximately €193,000 up until the end of September, more than €121,000 more than their original contract allowed for

The Department of Education also confirmed that after the decision was made that the Leaving Certificate would not be taking place, there was “insufficient time in which to run a normal, full procurement process”.

Instead, the department availed of the procurement process known as the Negotiated Procedure without Prior Publication, which is used in circumstances “where it is a case of extreme urgency”.

More sloppy practice which we as taxpayers ended up paying for.

Now, coding errors of this nature could hardly be the direct fault of Norma Foley as minister and it again had people within government saying she had been badly let down by her officials and as a result, the children of Ireland were failed and failed utterly.

Several senior government sources have said there was deep resistance from senior officials in the department in revealing the details of the error at the time, arguing for a delay, but they were overruled by their political masters.

To some, it appeared the approach of protecting the institution of the department still holds sway.

The upshot of the whole mess was a worrying level of grade inflation and a need for the third-level sector to squeeze the extra student numbers in to avoid anyone being disenfranchised.

The one success on the education front was getting schools back open in September and even this took direct input from the Taoiseach’s office and a shed load of cash, namely €400m.

I applauded the priority given to getting more than 1 million children back to school and I have strongly backed schools staying open.

I dread the thoughts of another prolonged period of home with my three kids, simply because the negative impact it had on them was significant and worrying first time around.

But once the decision was taken to further restrict movements of the people this week, then the Government should have not tried to undermine its own mantra.

Micheál Martin’s ‘Stay At Home’ message was a powerful one and the attempt to keep the Leaving Cert and special needs children in the class only diluted that message.

It was never going to work in the absence of proper consultation, and the botched manner of the debacle this week goes to show that the major lessons of last year, particularly in education, have not yet been learnt.

We cannot have another repeat of the chaos of last year and there is now merit in deciding as soon as possible that if the lockdown does extend beyond the end of January, then the State exams should be cancelled this year.

The students who were so unfairly disrupted last year and now again deserve to be put first, for once.

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