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Adjournment Debate. - Leaving Certificate Irish Paper.

Wednesday, 15 June 1966

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 223 No. 4

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Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins I raise this matter on the Adjournment with no desire whatsoever to embarrass the Minister or anyone else but because I feel that, in justice, this matter should be discussed here. I have been personally affected by numerous letters, phone calls and calls at my house from parents and students who appear to be genuinely distressed, genuinely worried and genuinely concerned about the standard of this paper. I am satisfied, purely as a layman, from reading the paper and examining it, that the spelling, the printing and the form of the paper are such as to be strange, or likely to be strange, to students sitting for this examination.

[674] The paper is a pass paper. It is designed to cover and to meet the requirements of students who are already weak in Irish. The form of the paper is clearly—and it is now without issue on this ground—acknowledged by all to be strange. I am sure the Minister has looked at the paper. He will see that to a student weak in Irish, there is, even in the spelling, ground for confusion. There is a marked similarity between the Irish “b” and the Irish “d” as it is typed or roneo-ed on this paper. There is a clear ground for confusion as to what is meant by question No. 1, as to what is the obligation upon the candidate for the examination, as to whether he is to answer portion of subquestion (a), (b), and (c) or merely to answer two out of (a), (b), and (c). The confusion is made more manifest when the already frightened and distressed student turns over to see the manner in which question No. 4 is put. I am not saying anything about the standard. I understand from the Minister that the secondary teachers met and considered it and were quite satisfied that the standard itself was not unduly hard or severe but the manner in which the questions were put have led to confusion and the distress which undoubtedly exists.

I just want to say to the Minister, and I say it very sincerely—I do not wish to have any confusion about it— that with a little common sense and toleration, this matter can be overcome, but I do want to suggest to him that in the case of students already weak in Irish, doing an examination which to them represents one of the most important tests they may have to face in their lives, doing a subject which they must pass if they are to get the certificate and being as a result nervous and probably emotionally pent-up by reason of the work they have had to do in preparation for the examination, and meeting a paper of this kind in Irish, with lettering which to many of them—it would not be to me—nowadays may appear strange, in a form of question which undoubtedly is strange, there can be no surprise that many students, particularly girls, broke down in tears. My information is that [675] in a number of centres girl students were unable to remain in the examination hall and left after the required 20 minutes.

It is in these circumstance—I suppose it is unfair of me to suggest that there should be another examination— I do not think that the ground that undoubtedly exists for confusion and for frightening strangeness in this examination paper are such as to entitle me to ask the Minister for an unequivocal assurance now that the strangeness of the paper, the ground for confusion, will be taken into consideration in relation to the marks. It is because I am not clear that the Minister said so in reply to questions today that I have raised this matter on the Adjournment. A clear statement by the Minister along that line is the very least that students still sitting to complete the leaving certificate examination are entitled to. If the Minister gave such an assurance, only good could come from it.

We frequently hear in the Dáil and elsewhere cliches in relation to the language. We talk about instilling a love for the language. This is one way in which it can be done. Certainly, if students sitting for the examination, sitting for any of the certificate examinations—I have heard complaints also about the honours Irish in the intermediate but I do not know sufficient about that to raise it—feel that the examination paper is designed to catch them out and that there is a threat in Irish to their future then nothing but harm to the language can result. It is on that ground that I would ask the Minister to give such an unequivocal assurance. I should like now to yield to Deputy Jones.

Mr. Jones: Information on Denis Francis Jones Zoom on Denis Francis Jones Ba mhian liomsa cabhrú leis an scéal seo maidir leis an bpáipéar seo. Mar adúras inniu, sé an rud ba cheart a dhéanamh nuair a bheidh an comhdháil ann i dtaobh mharcáil na bpáipéirí go ndéanfaí scrúdú géar ar chonus a cuireadh na ceisteanna roimh na h-iarrathóirí. Ba mhian liom a chur in iúl don Aire go bhfuil, mar is eol dó, deachracht ag baint le daoine a théann fé scrúdú—[676] go mbíonn díomá orthu, gan trácht ar an ghnáth-chúram a théann le ghnáthscrúdú.

I should like again to bring to the Minister's notice in regard to this matter the anxiety in connection with the form of this paper. I was in touch with the Department of Education on Saturday last as a result of representations which were made to me. I pointed out here today that the Minister can be very helpful at the point where his inspectors meet to decide on the standard of marking to be adopted, to decide on the standard of marking which will be adopted before the actual marking of the papers. That is very important from the point of view of the students whose careers may be affected, particularly those students who intend to go on to university.

On Saturday morning last, I explained to the Minister that students of a minority group who wish to continue their education might be adversely affected. For instance, the only school of architecture here is in University College and, if these students could not gain admission there, they would have no alternative but to leave the country and seek higher education elsewhere.

Coming to the actual paper now, I put it to the Minister today that the first question is ambiguous in that the question reads: Freagair dhá cheann ar bith de (a), (b), (c) annseo. Now (a) contains five parts, (b) ten parts and (c) ten parts. Any candidate of the particular standard might very well think he or she was to take two parts from (a), two from (b) and two from (c). That would be a logical interpretation for a young student. I take it that what the examiner was looking for was a choice of either (a) and (b), (a) and (c), or (b) and (c). The question is ambiguous.

Compare the first question with question No. 4 in which again the same type of information is sought by the examiner. He puts the stipulation “Freagair dhá cheann ar bith de (a), (b) agus (c).” There there is a more definite decision, but certainly the student looking at these two questions would have been confused in regard to what he or she was expected to do.

[677] Now in regard to (b) we have here the use of the word “ceartúsáid”. To adults that is quite understandable, though it is an unusual word. The word “ceart” is used as a prefix. We are now starting to use these terms, but one wonders rather why the examiner did not use “ceart/úsáid”. Furthermore, in (c), as I pointed out today, you have: “Bíodh an focal ‘leadránach’ mar shampla agat.”: “Cuir sé cinn de na haidiachtaí seo a leanas in abairtí a léireoidh brí gach aidiachta acu go cruinn. Bíodh an focal ‘leadránach’ mar shampla agat.” To me “bíodh an focal mar shampla” means “use as an example.” There is a more positive and better form: Let me have as an example, and then the word “leadránach” is used and an example given. One would have thought that in a situation in which a student is coping with the time factor as well as natural difficulties, there would have been no room for doubt as to what was meant. I think difficulty was created for the young student. That is another reason why the Minister ought to direct the examiners' attention on this occasion to the fact that this could have a bearing on the answers given by the pupils.

With regard to the paper generally, I do not disagree with the standard of the actual questions or the amount of knowledge required of a leaving certificate student. The paper is, in my opinion, reasonable in that regard. However, I think the Minister will agree that these students are under stress and anything that tends to put them off could throw them out of their stride and upset them.

The Minister said today that we want to get away from stereotyped forms. I have said on several occasions that we are too examination-conscious where education is concerned. We place altogether too much reliance on examinations. However, if they are to be there, then papers should be set in a form which will give students a reasonable chance to show that they have followed the course and can come up reasonably to the standard expected of them. This year the Department departed from the usual form. I know the Department is not tied to this approach, [678] but some years ago when there was a departure in regard to mathematics, specimen papers were supplied to the schools as guide lines. I do not recollect the Minister saying here in the recent past that there would be any departure in regard to this particular matter.

Everybody will agree, I think, that what we are doing is cramming the students with facts which they are expected to spew out at examinations. Real education is ignored or forgotten in pursuit of the fetish of examinations. Students are conditioned by the method of teaching and if they are prepared along certain lines, as is done in every school, conditioned to certain forms of questions, any unexpected departure puts them in the position of being confronted with a quite serious obstacle. I do not say the standard required in this paper is unreasonable, but the paper created difficulties. What we are asking the Minister to do is to ensure that he will get across to the examiners at this marking conference that, when they come to deal with this paper, they will have due regard to the difficulties the children had and that nobody will be left with cause for grievance against the language because the questions on this particular paper were badly phrased.

Minister for Education (Mr. Colley): Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley Ní dóigh liom gur féidir liom, nó gur gá dhom mórán eile a rá seachas an méid adúirt mé inniu. Ba mhaith liom a rá leis an Teachta Jones go bhfuil iniúchadh ar siúl cheana féin ar na páipéirí scrúdaithe sa Roinn chun a fháil amach chomh fada agus is féidir, ar cuireadh isteach ar na h-iarrthóirí de bhárr an fhoirm inar cuireadh na ceisteanna seo, agus chomh lua is a bheidh eolas ar sin againn, socrófar cad is gá a dhéanamh leis an gcomhairle dosna scrúdaitheóirí a tionólfar go lua. Do mheas mé go raibh sin iontuigthe ón méid adúirt mé inniu ach deirim arís é ar aon nós.

There is little I can add to what I said today. I thought that I had made the position as clear as possible. So far as I understand the speeches of Deputy O'Higgins and Deputy Jones, what they are asking for is what I said today we intended to do.

[679]Mr. Jones: Information on Denis Francis Jones Zoom on Denis Francis Jones Would the Minister allow me to quote his answer today: “If the answering of the candidate shows that that is so, allowance will be made for it in the marking.”

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley Yes.

Mr. Jones: Information on Denis Francis Jones Zoom on Denis Francis Jones That would seem to be ex post facto.

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley No. As I have said in Irish, what happens is that when my Department has started to examine the answer books of this examination, it will emerge from its inspection of the examination papers whether the candidates have been disturbed or had a reaction which was unfair in regard to the questions. If this should prove to be the case, then at the meeting of examiners to which I referred today, specific instructions will be given as to how to deal with this problem.

This kind of thing is not new. On numerous occasions in the past complaints have been made that questions in various papers on various subjects have contained ambiguities. Where such things have happened, it has been always possible, in arranging the marking of the papers, to make allowance for this, so that no candidate will suffer by reason of any such ambiguity. As I explained, very elaborate steps are taken to standardise marking of the examination papers and to ensure that there will be no question of personal bias or opinion on the part of an individual examiner affecting the results. The system is so designed as to prevent any such thing happening.

I thought that was clear from the statement I made today and I want to repeat, if the papers, on examination, show that students were unduly affected by the wording of the questions, specific instructions will be given to the examiners in writing and every candidate who might have been so affected will get full allowance in respect of that.

Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Would the Minister say how that would be disclosed?

Donnchadh Ó Briain: Information on Donnchadh Ó Briain Zoom on Donnchadh Ó Briain The Minister should be allowed to conclude. We want to hear the Minister.

[680]Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley What is the question.

Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Would it be necessary to have a certain number of papers disclosing that, or what?

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I think it would. The Deputy will agree, for instance, that to receive one examination book or ten examination books that were blank would mean nothing and would not indicate that, of the thousands of candidates, a large number had been affected in that way. All I can say about that is that the examiners and my Department have vast experience in dealing with examination papers, in dealing with situations where there might have been ambiguity in the questions, and I feel quite confident and I think everybody can feel quite confident, that it is possible for them to ascertain whether there has been any undue effects on the answering of the students by the wording of the directions, particularly for question No. 1. If that is so, as I say, full allowance will be made for that.

I am glad to note from the speeches of Deputy O'Higgins and Deputy Jones that it is accepted that the standard of the paper, as such, was not unreasonable and that the complaints seem to be directed, in the main, to the wording of the directions in the grammar section. One of the points raised by Deputy Jones about ambiguity escapes me somewhat. He referred to the question: “Freagair dhá cheann ar bith de (a), (b) agus (c)”. He said it was possible to interpret this as “Choose two from (a), two from (b) and two from (c).” But question (b) says: “Abairtí a cheapadh a léiróidh ceart úsáid sé chinn de na neithe seo.” I do not think it is really possible for anyone to read that as meaning you could take two of them and that would be answering the question. However, that is a point I would prefer to leave to the examiners, who, as I say, are very expert and experienced in dealing with these matters.

I want to make it quite clear that, as far as I am concerned and as far as my Department is concerned, there is no question whatever of trying to lay a trap for students. We want to be as fair [681] as possible to all candidates in this examination. We have an obligation, of course, to see that a reasonable standard is attained in the examination and we shall carry out that obligation, but certainly there is no question of trying to trap candidates.

I cannot do more than repeat the assurance I gave today that if the papers disclose that candidates have been affected in any way by the wording of the question or by any ambiguities which might have occurred in the questions—and they are not quite clear to me yet—full allowance will be made and the candidate will not suffer as a result. This does not mean that a candidate who is not up to standard will pass; he or she will not, but, subject to that, no candidate will suffer.

Perhaps I should refer to a small point raised by Deputy O'Higgins. He said the spelling and the printing were strange. I want to tell him that the spelling and printing are as they have been for quite a number of years past in these examination papers. I do not know what he meant by spelling, whether or not he was referring to the fact that it was not cló Romhánach. When the cló Romhánach was introduced, a timetable was laid down so that students such as these who had been learning Irish not through cló Romhánach but through cló Gaelach would not have to switch over to the cló Romhánach. The timetable will expire so that students using the cló Romhánach, when they reach the leaving certificate standard, will have the examination papers in cló Romhánach.

Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Would the Minister look at “b” and “d”?

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I think it is the normal lettering.

Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Would he look at “Roinn Oideachais” and look at the “d” in that?

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I think that is the normal “d”. I do not think that would confuse anybody. However, in the last minute I have left, I should like to [682] refer again to something I said today, and Deputy Jones agreed with me. This whole question highlights something about which we all ought to be concerned, the approach to our educational system and examinations. I have been endeavouring to change that approach and I would appeal to anybody who is concerned about education —and I think most of us are—to use their influence to try to counter this steeplechasing, this terrible concentration on just one question after another and not on education, on knowledge. This applies not only to Irish as a subject but to all other subjects. We would be doing a good day's work, if, as a result of of this discussion, we could get across the idea that this is very bad for education and very bad for our children.

Mr. Lindsay: Information on Patrick James Lindsay Zoom on Patrick James Lindsay Would the Minister answer one small question? He said his inspectors would take into account from the answering the amount of confusion likely to have been caused by the questions. Supposing a highly nervous child became so confused that he or she did not answer anything, what steps would he take to ascertain what the situation was from a blank paper? Would he get in touch with the school?

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I can only speak off the cuff on this: I am not quite sure. I would have to consult with the officials concerned as to what their approach would be, but my own personal approach would be that any student who goes into a leaving certificate examination and comes out without answering one question does not deserve to pass the examination. Deputy Lindsay will agree with me that, like me, when he was going to school, there was one thing he was told: answer every question and do not come out until the time is up.

Mr. Lindsay: Information on Patrick James Lindsay Zoom on Patrick James Lindsay The Minister and I are two very tough characters. Supposing a highly nervous child, on reading the paper, were genuinely confused, burst into tears, got hysterical, or fainted, and did not answer anything— I am sure there would be very few of them——

[683]Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I hope so.

Mr. Lindsay: Information on Patrick James Lindsay Zoom on Patrick James Lindsay In those circumstances, some reference should be made to the school or to a teacher in the school to ascertain whether the fainting or the tears were genuine.

Mr. Colley: Information on George Colley Zoom on George Colley I cannot give a categorical [684] answer to that. I can only give the Deputy my own personal reaction.

Mr. T.F. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins It is not a decision?

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16th June, 1966.

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