As the new academic year looms ever closer on the horizon, returning students are faced with familiar tasks: module enrolment, registration, fee payments. These are the annual, slightly tedious jobs that must be completed in mid-to-late August so that our September can operate as smoothly as possible. However, for tens of thousands of young people, nothing can be done until the long, torturous wait for the release of this year’s Leaving Certificate results is over, setting their college schedule back weeks.
For the third year running, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) have confirmed that the Leaving Cert results will be delayed, issued on Friday, September 2, rather than the traditional date of mid-August. For the classes of 2020 and 2021, this delay was an irritation, albeit an understandable one. Both of these year groups’ exams were heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with accredited grades being used to calculate points for the vast majority of the class of 2021, where calculated grades were optional, and the entirety of the class of 2020, who did not sit a traditional Leaving Cert at all. This year, however, approximately 63,300 sixth-year students sat the traditional exams, in a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. If our exams have returned to normal, why not our results?
Minister for Education Norma Foley and the SEC have listed several reasons for this delay. Firstly, they claim that many exams had to be deferred as a result of Covid-19 infections, family bereavements, and illnesses. As a result of these deferred sittings, they maintain, many papers cannot be marked until a later date anyway, and thus the results will be delayed as a consequence. However, the deferred examination system first took place in 2019, and results were available at the usual mid-August date. The SEC have not released any figures on the number of students who sat deferred exams this year, but considering that it can only be a small fraction of total sixth years, and that the deferred timetable ended on 16 July 2022 leaving an entire month for corrections, the excuse appears weak.
The far more likely explanation comes in the form of the SEC’s second reasoning for delayed results: the lack of examiners available to mark the papers. However, it is important to note that this is not even remotely a new issue. Articles decrying the shortage of examiners to correct state exams get published every year in our national papers during the run-up to exams. Considering the timetable for the Leaving Cert was released in February, the SEC had many months to put in place provisions to combat these obstacles. Social Democrats’ Education Spokesperson Gary Gannon highlighted how it is “difficult to understand how merely holding deferred exams for a small minority of students could contribute to any delay. Further, the SEC has known about a shortage of examiners for quite some time. It is worth asking, what has the SEC actually done to address this perennial issue?”
Is it any surprise that we have a shortage of examiners in this country when there is little to no incentive to apply for such a position? Teachers must be willing to sacrifice either their summer holidays, or other seasonal work, to mark scripts for abysmal pay. Examiners receive a flat fee of €223.93, plus a per-script rate that ranges anywhere from €6 to €35, depending on the subject and the level, with an additional €6 per script introduced as an incentive for 2022. On average, an examiner can expect to be paid between €3000 to €6000, again depending on the type of script they are correcting. However, up to 56% of earnings are taxed, and so take-home pay often does not compensate for 26 days of almost full-time work correcting papers. Many teachers have also criticised the fact that payment can take weeks, or even months, to come through from the SEC. The cost of living crisis doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, and as we quickly approach what will be a difficult winter for many can we blame teachers for seeking to teach grinds or EFL courses during the summer months instead of marking these exams?
The writing was on the wall for delayed Leaving Cert results weeks before the SEC even officially announced it. Teachers who noticed that training conferences for marking certain subjects had been scheduled for as late as mid-July recognised this was a warning sign that results would once again be delayed. These conferences are usually wrapped up by early July, and so it begs the question: if the SEC knew early on that the results would be delayed, why not work on alternative solutions, rather than plan for the least-desired outcome?
According to Cork Red FM, “in 2019, 244 post-graduate master’s in education students and 97 non-teachers corrected the exams, out of over 3,000 total examiners”, so there is a precedent already for the SEC to expand their pool of possible examiners, and thus combat the shortages they are facing. However, in order to ensure a long-term resolution to this issue, the solution cannot simply be to increase their possible workforce, but to improve pay so that teachers will seek out this job, instead of the SEC having to desperately beg people to apply each year. Whilst the ASTI secured a pay increase in 2021, it is clearly not substantial enough to deal with the rising inflation in our economy. Teachers’ and students’ unions in this country need to continue pushing for better conditions, not only for the examiners correcting the exams, but also for the students who sit them.
While exam results are out on September 2, the Central Applications Office (CAO) first round offers are not going to be released until September 8. This leaves students mere days to finalise accommodation arrangements before the beginning of the academic year. In the midst of a student accommodation crisis this uncertainty is wreaking havoc on prospective students’ mental health, causing them undue stress during an already anxiety-inducing time. The most frustrating element of this delay is the fact that the reasons cited by the government have been problems for many years already, and yet no adequate solutions have been attempted. The SEC has a mammoth task ahead of them next year to ensure that all exams run smoothly and that results are out on time. This is a task that must be risen to, because the consequences of yet another year of inaction would be unacceptable in a country that is desperately trying to prove to its young people that they are valued and supported by the government, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
This article was updated at 11am to correct a date.