By Prof. Orla Sheils
Here we go again. Another summer beckons. Another set of Leaving Certificate results. And for 60,000 students, another delay.
From the perspective of someone with responsibility for planning and scheduling a new academic year, there may well be many reasons for a fourth consecutive year of delayed Leaving Cert results. But there is no excuse.
We all know what has happened. Traditionally, exam results in Ireland were released in mid-August, allowing the College term – for those who were headed that way, to start in September.
But for the past three years, and initially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, results have been delayed until early September. For thousands of students, this has meant a major delay in moving on to the next stage of their education or their first steps towards a career.
This year promises more of the same. Education Minister Norma Foley has said her best estimate for the 2023 results is early September.
The impact goes far beyond inconvenience.
Student life is about so much more than attending lectures. After the necessary lockdowns of the past years, it has never been more important for students to have an immersive experience. But in the past few years, we have watched students struggle more than ever before to find suitable accommodation close to their place of study, so they can have a semblance of normal student life. For incoming first-years, the late arrival of Leaving Cert results narrows down their already scant choices in an oversubscribed accommodation market.
As a result, many students are simply forced to commute long distances or try to strategically select days each week when they will attend in-person teaching. Meanwhile, students who have opted to study abroad are told the late release of their results will jeopardise any putative offers they may have received, piling anxiety onto an already tumultuous time in their lives.
Coupled with the misalignment of the uplift given to Leaving Cert students’ marks compared with those who take A-levels, the delay has contributed to a drop in numbers of students being attracted to Dublin from Northern Ireland.
This may all have once felt like an inevitable consequence of the pandemic, but the novelty has long since worn off. Students and universities alike have been left frustrated and hugely discommoded.
Yes we have heard all the reasons. There are difficulties with recruiting examiners, there is ongoing work needed to reform the Leaving Certificate, there’s a need to hold a second sitting of the examination for the small number of students who for very valid reasons - such as ill-health or bereavement - cannot attend at the scheduled time.
But is there really a compelling case to hold off releasing any results until the second sitting results have been entered into the system?
A small number of students have always missed the exams for good reason. Colleges and universities have worked with such students to make accommodations for them. There is no reason to believe this cannot continue.
Of course, it is important to provide stability and predictability for students as we transition from the pandemic era. And it is sensible to allow comparison with results from previous years thereby avoiding any ‘cliff edge’ that might arise from a return to traditional exam settings. However it is difficult to understand why the inclusion of a small number of additional marks could meaningfully affect the smoothing algorithm.
In short, it is difficult to pinpoint an excuse for the ongoing delay that justifies the enormous disruption to students’ progression beyond second level education.
From a logistical perspective, the delay means colleges and universities once again face organising a staggered start to the academic year.
Existing students now typically start their studies a full two weeks before the incoming first years. There is no space or time to deliver an in-depth induction for incoming students transitioning to third level education. They face the prospect of jumping aboard a train that has already left the station.
In situations where modules are typically taught to multiple classes or years, lecturers are faced with the logistical challenge of parallel sets of timetables. Teaching for first years must be condensed for their first semester; material is either omitted or piled on top of an already crowded curriculum. This is far from an ideal introduction to further or higher education. We have strong indications that progression rates for first years have been affected.
Ever before this delay, we in Ireland had the latest release of “exit examinations” in Europe. Most countries’ results were in before mid-July. And they have already returned to pre-Covid timelines. Irish students are thus seriously disadvantaged if they want to travel for their studies. Quite simply, they are losing opportunities to study abroad.
Equally, for overseas students wishing to travel to Ireland, many have already accepted firm offers in other countries by the time the Leaving Cert results are issued and processed. Colleges and universities rely on the income these students bring in the absence of sufficient core funding to cover the costs of course delivery.
But that is a gripe for another day.
The point is this: the Leaving Certificate is not an end in itself. It is a means to end. It is a bridge to further and higher education or to the world of work.
I think, this summer, we need to ask ourselves: do we want to once again hold our young people back, or can we let them take flight?