Billy Ryle: All’s Well That Ends Well, But The Minister Messed Up

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Billy Ryle says it was a case of relief at last for Junior Cert candidates as Minister McHugh abandoned his plan for token September exams…

Clarity has finally emerged for the 63,000 anxious Junior Cert candidates, who were in limbo since the official Junior Cert exam was cancelled on Good Friday and was set to be replaced with a school-based assessment next September.

There was a universal sigh of relief when the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh announced on Wednesday that the token back-up exam has been scrapped.

The Minister’s plan for the September assessment had been widely opposed as unworkable and valueless.

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A number of schools had already opted out of the Minister’s backup exam and were preparing to make their own in-house assessment arrangements for their Junior Cert students before the end of the current academic year.

It was highly likely that more schools would distance themselves from a meaningless and ill-conceived backup exam, which had no credibility or validity, thus leaving the Minister with egg on his face.

Minister McHugh has belatedly accepted that the young students have already suffered enough anxiety and stress this academic year without meaningless exams hanging over their heads during the long hot summer months.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) had already confirmed that it would not conduct, correct or certify the proposed September exams, thereby rendering them worthless and a complete waste of time and resources.

Regardless, the staging of these exams would still have caused a great deal of distress to thousands of mentally and emotionally drained young people.

The Minister has done the right thing by making a complete U-turn and aborting a doomed project before it caused any further confusion and stress.

By cancelling the September token exam Minister McHugh is allowing the young people to enjoy the summer free from exam anxiety so that they can return to school refreshed and ready for senior cycle.

All schools are now free, if they wish, to carry out their own assessment before the end of the current year. The schools will have total autonomy over the assessments they will undertake.

The Department of Education said that school-designed exams, tasks, projects, assignments, essay style questions, presentations or other tasks agreed at a local level will fulfil the definition of ‘assessment.’

At this late stage of the year and with the schools unlikely to reopen, any further ‘assessments’ will not be very comprehensive or over demanding on the students.

Each Junior Cert candidate will be now awarded a ‘certificate of completion’ by the Department of Education and Skills confirming her/his successful engagement with the three-year Junior Cycle.

This certificate will be particularly important for about 4,000 young people who normally drop out of formal education at the end of the three-year Junior Cycle.

Many of these students will apply for Craft Apprenticeships, for which a Junior Certificate is the minimum entry requirement. The candidates will also receive a written school report on their learning achievements in each subject, short courses and activities during the three-year Junior Cycle.

All’s well that ends well. If Minister McHugh had cancelled the Junior Cert exam on Good Friday and left it at that, he would have been applauded for a sensible decision based on sound health and safety advice.

Instead, he second guessed himself and walked headlong into a logistical nightmare of his own making. He put the young candidates and their parents through weeks of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

When leadership was required, he was marked absent. His end of term report will say he ‘could have done better.’

• Billy Ryle is a Career Guidance Counsellor and Educational Commentator

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