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Topical Issue debate on mistake in Leaving Certificate Honours Maths Paper II (Tuesday 11th June)

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: While I welcome the Minister of State, I am disappointed that the Minister is not present to answer Members’ questions on this and the last Topical Issue. I look forward to some form of Dáil reform which I hope will include a requirement that the senior Minister attend the House to deal with Topical Issues.

As we are dealing with the examinations issue, the Minister is fully aware that 50,000 students are sitting the leaving certificate examinations this year. I wish them all the best in the rest of their examinations. There was an increase in the number sitting the higher level maths paper from 11,000 last year to 15,000 this year, which was extremely welcome. Members have spoken to the Minister at the committee about the STEM subjects which I am also pushing strongly. We are trying to change the dynamic of the workforce and it is only through STEM subjects that we can lay the foundations for a sustainable working environment in the future. I want the Minister of State to relay to the Minister that one must be able to assure the students who sat the higher level maths paper and the CSPE paper at junior certificate level that they will be treated fairly. I studied higher level maths virtually until the leaving certificate examination and know how much pressure students are under in taking that subject. They should be given fair treatment in the marking of examination papers.

Will the Minister of State provide the House with an assurance that there will be no repeat of these issues during the rest of the examinations period? When the examinations are over, the State Examinations Commission must be brought before the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and thoroughly grilled about the way in which it let students down. It is all about trust. We trust students to work hard and deliver on subjects. Can the commission be trusted to deliver on examination papers?

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Context is everything and the overall examinations infrastructure in Ireland stands up to international scrutiny in terms of the level of educational attainment, etc. I acknowledge the validity of the points made by the Deputies that the number of errors in the examinations is a cause for concern. The State Examinations Commission has expressed its regret for the errors made. In response to Deputy Anthony Lawlor, I have a delegated function as Minister of State and have responsibility for the project maths curriculum, for example. As such, one could say the Deputy is addressing the line Minister in relation to this issue. I take the point he is making which is important.

As we are in the midst of the examinations process, it is important to reassure pupils who went through this issue yesterday that the errors will be taken into account in the marking scheme. The State Examinations Commission sets the papers in an independent process, which is very much at arm’s length from the Department. Issues arose yesterday, however, for which there must be a degree of accountability to the parent Department in the resolution of such issues into the future. As the Deputies said, what we must do now is ensure we get pupils through the rest of their examinationss. We must ensure the remaining examination papers are robustly checked to avoid errors and that there is a reporting mechanism and a degree of accountability by the State Examinations Commission to the Department about what occurred in the papers referred to by the Deputies.

From a logistical point of view, in a typical year the examinations involve over 116,500 candidates in over 4,900 main examination centres and 10,000 special centres, over 250 test instruments, 90 curricular and 15 non-curricular subjects, over 6,000 examiners, 3 million individual exam papers comprising over 34 million pages and just under 2 million test items. Notwithstanding that, errors still took place. If we acknowledge the errors took place, all we must do is ensure there is a degree of accountability. There must be accountability for why the errors took place and the reparations in terms of how we ensure it does not happen again.

I do not agree with the analysis that we should sack members of the State Examinations Commission, which has been an independent agency since 2003. I strongly believe there should be full accountability in a transparent way with regard to what happened to the papers. I am confident we will get the answers to the questions in due course. While the leaving certificate and junior certificate are ongoing, we should ensure students and parents are assured and remain confident the State Examinations Commission will take into account the errors made. The errors will be recorded and reflected in the marking scheme and no one will be at a disadvantage as a result of the errors. From the initial statement of the State Examinations Commission, I am confident that will take place.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Minister of State for his reassurance with regard to the students who have taken the two exam papers. It is all about trust, which is something the State Examinations Commission must rebuild and part of that involves accountability. The best place for accountability is in the committee and I urge the commission to come before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection so that it can explain clearly how it will introduce checks and balances so that something like this does not happen again. I wish students the best in the days ahead.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: If we are sending a message from the House, the important thing is that we give the assurance that no student can be disadvantaged as a result of an error on the examination paper. I doubt any student is watching these proceedings but if their parents are watching or if this debate is reported, it is important to give them a sense of confidence that whatever errors occurred will be reflected in the marking scheme in a way that ensures students are not put at a disadvantage. I am confident that will be the case vis-à-vis how the State Examinations Commission will handle this matter. I have confidence in it in that sense.

I take on board what is being said in respect of a review. We need to get the students over the line for the remaining exams and give them a sense that this will be sorted out. There must be a degree of accountability and whether that involves an entire review is not something to go into at this stage. One must allow for some margin of error in anything one does in life. That is not to justify anything that happened but we must ensure that errors such as those in question 8 and in the CSPE exam, for example, do not happen again. Where fundamental errors occur, checks and balances should be put in place to ensure they are weeded out at an early stage and that there is a proper filtration process. At this juncture, I wish to reassure people that the marking scheme will reflect the difficulties students experienced in the exam and the time lost in terms of answering questions. That must be reflected in some compassionate way and I am confident it will be.

ENDS