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Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Leaving Certificate Examination Results.

Thursday, 28 March 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 463 No. 5

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 1. Mr. Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin  asked the Minister for Education Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  the reason it took until after 15 January, 1996 for the Price Waterhouse inquiry to commence in view of the fact that she decided on 14 December, 1995 that this inquiry was necessary; when the inquiry will be completed and made available for publication; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6838/96]

[1355]

 14. Mr. O'Malley Information on Desmond J. O'Malley Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  asked the Minister for Education Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  when she expects to receive the results of the Price Waterhouse inquiry into the 1995 art examination results; and if she will make a statement on the matter to reassure those pupils preparing to sit the exam in 1996. [6691/96]

Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 14 together.

Following my decision on 14 December to have an independent inquiry, it was necessary for my Department to consider the most appropriate parties to conduct that inquiry. This necessitated a range of contacts and culminated in the choice of Price Waterhouse. The precise commencement date of the inquiry was also related to the availability of key and experienced personnel from Price Waterhouse.

I am informed by Price Waterhouse that the preparation of its report is well advanced. I am also informed that it has received legal advice which emphasises the importance of adhering to the principles of natural justice in fulfilling this assignment. This advice stresses the need to ensure that it is seen to have adopted fair procedures in carrying out its investigation and completing its report and points out that if it fails to do so the conclusions and recommendations in the report could be open to legal challenge.

In the light of this advice Price Waterhouse advised me that although it is unable to be precise as to the date when the report will be finalised and made available for publication it understands the interest of the general public, public representatives and many other interested parties in bringing this matter to an early conclusion. It is proceeding as quickly as possible to achieve that end.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Notwithstanding the reference to the legal advice which the company received concerning the report's compilation, does the Minister's earlier commitment to publish the report and make it available to Members of the House still stand? Will Members receive the whole report?

[1356]Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach The terms of reference include a commitment that I will publish the report.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I am somewhat concerned about the time lag between the Minister's decision on 14 December to proceed with an inquiry and its commencement one month later. Given the importance of this matter to students and the examination system, why did the Minister not make a public announcement on 15 December or in mid-January stating that such an inquiry would be established? The story did not break until 2 February.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach The Deputy's reference to the story breaking is unfortunate. The error was brought to my notice on 12 December and within two days I made a decision on the matter. Officials in my Department did not hesitate to meet students, there was no secrecy about the matter. I did not deem it appropriate to issue a public statement. I was more concerned about properly examining the proceedings. I did not believe we would retain the confidence of the House by asking the Department to investigate itself, although Deputy Martin believed that might be sufficient.

We made the necessary contacts and soundings before deciding to proceed with an inquiry. There was open communication between the school involved and the Department. The investigation proceeded before the House returned from recess. Perhaps the Deputy believes I should have issued a statement because the House was in recess. I was much more concerned that the inquiry's terms of reference would be acceptable to the public and those involved. I did not think of breaking it as a story.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I did not suggest the Minister broke the story, we did not hear about it until the story broke in a newspaper. If the Minister had issued a public statement other art students who were concerned about their results could have made inquiries to the [1357] Department. The integrity of the examination system was at stake because of this fundamental error and in those circumstances the Minister should have issued a public statement on the matter.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach I dealt with the matter in an appropriate manner. We established an independent inquiry and I openly supplied information to Members. When the report is published I am sure there will be much more discussion on the matter. I am confident the considered decision of my Department will succeed in discovering what happened in 1995 and retain the confidence of students sitting public examinations in 1996.

 2. Mr. Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin  asked the Minister for Education Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  whether she has received the formal report referred to in the reply to Parliamentary Question No. 86 of 6 March 1996 explaining the reason it took until February 1996 for her to respond to correspondence received from parents of St. Mary's school, Dundalk, County Louth, received by her in October 1995, regarding concerns raised in relation to the marking of honours English leaving certificate papers submitted by 80 candidates from that school; her views on this report; whether she is prepared to accept ultimate responsibility for this delay; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6839/96]

 7. Mr. Molloy Information on Robert Molloy Zoom on Robert Molloy  asked the Minister for Education Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  what progress, if any, has been made in relation to the dispute concerning the marking of the 1995 leaving certificate higher level English papers of students in St. Mary's College, Dundalk, County Louth. [6678/96]

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 7 together.

One hundred and four candidates sat the higher level English paper at St. Mary's College, Dundalk. Eighty of them were attempting the examination for the first time, 22 were repeating and two were external candidates. Eighteen [1358] of the 80 first time candidates appealed their results and one of them was upgraded as a result. A further recheck was made following representations in October and as a result no further upgrades were warranted.

I have received the formal report on the circumstances surrounding the delay in conveying this to the correspondents from St. Mary's school, Dundalk. I regret the delay in giving the result of the rechecks. The delay was due to oversight and no other reason.

The report indicates that the correspondence from the parents and the school was immediately acknowledged by my Department. On receipt of the correspondence all 18 scripts were rechecked but no change was recommended.

As is normal practice, the matter was then referred to a senior member of the inspectorate. At that time he was engaged in other important duties, including preparation for the 1996 examination. He laid the papers aside for further consideration but, regrettably, overlooked the matter. This does not condone the delay and the matter is being followed up in line with the Department's internal procedures. I repeat that the scripts from the candidates were marked strictly in accordance with national criteria and this was confirmed by the rechecking process.

When I issued the press release of 1 March last I was not aware that the management of St. Mary's school had written to the Department independently from the letter from the parents' group to me of 10 October 1995. I was also not aware of this when the Adjournment debate took place on Tuesday, 5 March last. It was only subsequent to that debate it was established that a letter from the school was also with the papers which had been referred to the senior member of the inspectorate. I regret I may have inadvertently misled the House on 5 March last in this regard.

I had indicated I was prepared to ask the chief examiner for English, with the chief advising examiner and the deputy [1359] chief inspector, to again visit the school by appointment to meet all three teachers and the principal, but this did not take place because the school side wished to broaden the scope of the meeting.

The school and the parents wished the meeting to address the issue as to why candidates from the school with different perceived abilities were awarded the same grades and they wished to have comparisons made between the scripts of candidates on whose behalf an appeal had been made and candidates from the school on whose behalf no appeal had been submitted. This could not be accepted. Marks in the State examinations are awarded on the basis of nationally agreed criteria and these cannot be the subject of negotiation. Having been briefed on the four stages of marking and rechecks of the work of the candidates of St. Mary's College, I am satisfied that the grades awarded are fair and in line with national criteria.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin It is a matter of deep regret that the Minister should attempt to lay the blame for the delay in dealing with correspondence initially sent to her on one official in her Department. This correspondence was acknowledged by the Minister on 13 October and it was promised that inquiries would be made. Will the Minister outline the procedure she adopts when responding to correspondence of this type? It is clear that the correspondence sent by the parents was very considered and that it dealt with a serious issue. Having acknowledged the correspondence, did the Minister at any stage between 13 October and February follow it up, check with an official about what was happening, what developments had taken place and whether the parents had received any further communication?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach After the correspondence was acknowledged the results were rechecked. I have every [1360] confidence that the administrative procedure was followed through. Although the papers had been corrected three times I did not think it was fair that an error or breakdown in communications should have caused so much disquiet to the parents, school and pupils. I bent over backwards to make up for this breakdown in communications by arranging for officials to visit the school in February. I regret the breakdown in communications which should not have happened.

An internal investigation will be carried out to ensure that this problem does not again arise. If we learn from this unfortunate incident and ensure that the procedures are tightened then we can move forward with confidence.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Did the Minister follow up this correspondence?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach No.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Will the Minister accept that there should be a system in her office which would facilitate her in following up correspondence of this sort? It is incredible to think that she is so removed from what is happening in her Department that it took until February for her to reply to correspondence received in October.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach When there was no change after the third recheck the senior official should have communicated this to the school. However, he did not do so and we did not know that.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The Minister got the letter.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach There is a system in place — it is like a set of traffic lights — but there was a breakdown in communications. When the matter was brought to my attention in February I took the exceptional step of facilitating the opening up of communication. That is an honest account of what happened. I arranged for officials to visit the school because I took seriously this breakdown [1361] in communications. I assure the Deputy and students who will sit the examination this year that the communication system will not break down again.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern May I——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy I cannot entertain Deputy Ahern, for obvious reasons. We are dealing with Priority Questions and only the Member or Members who tabled such questions may put supplementaries.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern Is the time for dealing with Priority Questions not up?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy Not yet.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin This is a wide-ranging issue which deals with more than the delay in replying to the correspondence. The Minister has revealed that no meeting has taken place to date and none will apparently take place. The terms of reference being laid down by departmental officials on the structure and content of the meeting are much too restrictive. The idea of appointing an independent chairperson is undermined if the meeting is to be ring-fenced in advance. There has been a clear attempt to ring-fence the meeting between the parents, the teachers and Department officials, giving the independent chairperson little room for manoeuvre in arbitrating independently on the issue. The Minister raised false expectations among the parents by appointing an independent chairperson and not following through on the implications of that decision. The parents are extremely frustrated as a result.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach There was never a question of renegotiating these marks. The papers were checked and rechecked and I have absolute confidence that they were marked according to national criteria. I was facilitating the communication of that information to the parents. However, it was not acceptable that I should extend the terms of reference by examining papers of pupils [1362] who had not sought a recheck. At that stage the terms demanded for the meeting were outside the scope of any form of communication. I had to convey that it was not a meeting for negotiation and that the papers had been corrected a sufficient number of times by three correctors overseen by the subject inspector and the senior inspector. I am confident that those papers were marked in the way that all other papers were marked. To enter into a meeting under an independent chairperson and put on the table the question of making comparisons with students who had never asked for a recheck was not acceptable to me or to the Department.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The issue of comparing the scripts of those who had sought rechecks and those who had not was raised and discussed with Department officials at earlier meetings between the parents and the teachers. Preliminary agreement was given by the officials at one such meeting. It would be unfair to reverse that decision.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy The Deputy seems to be imparting information rather than seeking it. What is his question?

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Is the core issue not the integrity of the marking system applied to leaving certificate honours English? A senior teacher in the school with ten years senior examining experience with the Department is of the opinion, along with other senior teachers, that the marking in this instance was seriously askew with 72 students bunched together around the same grades. That is the core issue. We need a mechanism to resolve that issue and the parents have put forward a reasonable one. There has been an attempt to cover up in order to protect the examination system itself. There seems to be a view abroad — we have heard it from officials off the record — that an appalling vista will open up if anything breaks in this regard.

[1363]Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach The core issue was whether these papers were corrected according to national criteria. They were and that is the core issue for me.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That is not the core issue. The core issue is whether they were marked fairly.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach They were marked by three examiners who were overseen by two inspectors. Having been given the information, I am confident that they were marked according to the national criteria. With my officials, those correcting the papers, I am satisfied that they were marked in accordance with national criteria. I apologise for a systems failure. This matter should have been communicated to the school and the pupils in question last October. If that had happened we would not be doubting how these papers were marked.

Miss Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan Zoom on Mary Coughlan That is the problem.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach They were marked according to national criteria. Unfortunately this information was not conveyed to the school and I apologise for that.


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