The Leaving Cert class of 2021: My head is full of questions

The Leaving Cert Class of 2021: my head is full of questions

It seems mad that in the middle of these Covid-19 restrictions that I, as a classroom teacher, am looking ahead to Leaving Cert 2021 but I am. I can’t seem to help it.

Firstly, I have to admit, that there is a lack of progress among my students. My current 5th Years have already been out of school since mid-March. They’ve been completing work at home and having a live lesson with me only once a week. I’m working from home with small children so it’s very much a juggling act for me. I’ve been giving them feedback on all the work they hand in. They are a fairly diligent bunch on the whole so I count myself lucky in that regard, but I cannot say hand on heart, that they are making any progress. They are heading into a long summer break from any schoolwork. I am rooting for them, but they are still very much running to stand still.

Secondly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the school year next year (2020-2021) is going to look entirely different to anything we have ever seen in schools in this country. We will quite possibly, be in and out of school on some sort of rota system for at least the first term if not longer. We are going to have to manage this situation in the fairest possible way, balancing all the needs of everyone in our school community; from children with significant additional needs to teachers who are themselves parents with young children and everyone in between.

This will be extremely challenging and some students will inevitably be prioritised in this very unusual situation. I think it is fair to say, that the Leaving Cert class of 2021 will be the priority in secondary schools around the country, along with incoming First Years (another story altogether). How are we going to ensure that they make the progress that they need to make in 6th Year without all the usual supports that being in school bring: meaningful feedback and encouragement from teachers who care about their progress, the camaraderie of classmates and so on. I am finding it very difficult to replicate these things remotely and I know I am not alone in feeling this.  

Thirdly, the whole problem that we are facing with the (lack of) a Leaving Cert 2020 is going to have massive repercussions for the current 5th Year cohort. We have no crystal ball, but it is possible that next year’s Leaving Certificate will not take place in the way we are used to either. We might not be able to organise mock exams, which have always been so useful in focussing students on the task at hand. Practicals and orals might have to take place virtually. The exam papers themselves might need to be shorter or more spread out and so on. All this uncertainty has obvious implications for the mental health and the wellbeing of students. But it also will have a big impact on us as teachers. How are we going to prepare them for something we don’t know the shape of? Will we be asked again to invent a grade for our students? What evidence will we have for this, if the learning is not keeping apace and we cannot assess in the normal way in classrooms and at the end of term? My head is full of questions.

Fourthly, the Leaving Cert class of 2021 will have a higher competition for places at 3rd level. This seems almost certain now. Although we are still very much in the midst of this, I imagine quite a few students from Leaving Cert 2020 cohort will not want to use their calculated grade and will opt instead either to do their exams (whenever they may take place) or repeat the year (or possibly just sit the exam in summer 2021). These pupils will add to the numbers of students applying through the CAO. We may actually find that students in 2021 are actually far worse off than students in 2020 in this respect. It will be impossible to compare because one cohort will (hopefully) be sitting the exam and the others, as has been explained and debated at length elsewhere, are having their grade retrospectively imposed.

Finally, there is the obvious question of impact of these changes are going to have on those members of our school community who are most vulnerable, namely those who are thoroughly disadvantaged. This crisis in our midst has simply laid this divide completely bare. The use of school profiling for generating grades this year is distinctly unfair, but it is not the only aspect of this that is worrying. The digital divide is absolutely real. The lack of engagement with education is real. We could also very possibly have a noticeable drop in school attendance for some, or all of the school year 2020-2021. This situation calls for very high levels creativity, flexibility and teamwork.  We will need time to reach out and liaise with families and our communities in different ways. We will need money to buy laptops and buy the technology we need to keep children involved in learning. We need to act quickly and decisively, if we are going to have any chance to mitigate against the worst effects of this on learning and educational outcomes for this year group and for all year groups.

I am fully aware that this post raises far more questions than it answers. As I said at the beginning, my head is full of questions.

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