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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 4

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Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I used to believe the Departments of Justice and Health were the most dysfunctional in government for a number of years but the Department of Education has come up on the outside and taken that mantle. This is because of last year's fiasco involving indecisiveness over cancelling the leaving certificate examinations and the debacle over predicted grades. The latter involved school profiles, which had to be removed. The Minister had to apologise to 6,500 students for incorrect grading. The Minister then promised a review of the leaving certificate examinations of 2020. We are still waiting for it. Not even six weeks into 2021, we have had no fewer than three announcements about schools reopening that had to be withdrawn. These were on 7 January, 26 January and earlier this week before the Cabinet. We welcome the fact the Government has taken on board the Labour Party's call for clarity and choice for leaving certificate students but there are still question marks over certainty because of public health advice.

I want to raise a number of issues. Over the next six weeks, students will have to decide whether to sit oral and practical examinations despite great uncertainty over schools reopening. Some people, including those in the unions, are quite rightly asking why, if oral and practical examinations are going ahead, all students cannot do them regardless of whether they are going down the traditional leaving certificate route or the calculated grades route. This type of external assessment would give both teachers and students peace of mind. We in the Labour Party ask the Tánaiste to consider this as a constructive option.

I want to ask the Tánaiste a very specific question about the leaving certificate examinations and the reopening of schools. Given yesterday's announcement regarding the leaving certificate, has the plan been Tony Holohan and NPHET proofed? It is a very simple question. Given the kite-flying and the commentary by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at parliamentary party meetings regarding the reopening of schools, and considering that the meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid is to be held only this evening, is there any chance that any of what is proposed could be torpedoed because of the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET doing their jobs and giving advice? I am aware that Ministers, including the Tánaiste and Taoiseach, would often have been upset by letters coming in just before key decisions were to be made. I really want to know the position because we must not have kite-flying. We have to have certainty. Can the Tánaiste guarantee here today that the plans for the leaving certificate examinations and, most important, the plans for the reopening of schools, which were mentioned again on radio by the Minister for Education this morning and by the Taoiseach on Limerick radio, will be implemented because the Government has consulted NPHET and the CMO, Mr. Tony Holohan, and that they will not be torpedoed?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I thank the Deputy. Parents and students asked for clarity, choice and some compassion, and that is what we have provided in making the decision yesterday. A decision from the Government gives students the choice to opt for either a calculated grade or an accredited grade, or to sit the traditional examinations, which include written, oral, aural and practical examinations. They can make their choice subject by subject and they can also choose both options, taking whichever grade is highest.

On school reopening, NPHET has been consulted. It has given us informal advice on what school reopening could look like. It has advised that we should adopt a very gradual approach and that we should not have all 1 million pupils going back on the same day. The advice is that reopening should be done on a gradual basis, perhaps starting with leaving certificate students, because they need to prepare for their examinations, and also the youngest pupils, who are considered to present the lowest risk. These include pupils in junior and senior infants and first class, for example. After reopening, the situation would be assessed for a few weeks to determine whether there is an increase in cases of transmission, for example, and further reopening for more groups and years would occur only thereafter. That is the plan. That is the approach that NPHET has advised us is most appropriate. This will be discussed again this evening by the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid.

The Deputy asked me the very fair question as to whether we can give a guarantee and certainty. If we have learned anything from the pandemic in the past year, it is that nobody can give a guarantee or offer absolute certainty. We are seeing case numbers coming going down but they are still quite high. There are still 500, 600 or 700 per day. Schools were fully open at those levels back in September and October but we now have the B117 variant, which is much more transmissible. We just cannot say for sure what impact it will have as schools reopen on a phased basis throughout March and April. When schools reopened in September, we did not see a significant increase in cases. We know from other countries that they have managed to keep their schools open or bring pupils back but it would not be responsible for me to use the words "certainty" and "guarantee". That is why the advice from our scientists and public health doctors is not to bring back pupils all at the same time but to do so gradually, with some years going back first, followed by an assessment after two or three weeks. It is only then that the green light would be given for more classes or years to go back.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly I have two points. Will the Tánaiste take on board the request of the Labour Party for both sets of students to have oral and practical examinations? That would assuage many concerns, particularly those of unions. It is a request. The Tánaiste might come back to me on that.

I realise there is no certainty with Covid. I really do not have an issue with the Tánaiste saying he cannot offer a guarantee. I was not trying to put words in his mouth but the issue for me is that there is genuine concern. Why kite-fly 1 March? Why not have the meeting of the subcommittee tonight? Why not come back next week or later this week and say what the Government is doing? The Cabinet subcommittee on Covid, with Dr. Holohan and NPHET, is meeting tonight. After that, the Government should make the decisions. Why have a Taoiseach and Minister on radio, a Minister on the television and two live-streamed parliamentary party meetings all making reference to preparing for 1 March? Everyone is hanging on everyone's words. When will the Tánaiste tell us when the Government will make a decision that everyone, including parents and students, can plan for rather than saying the date will be 1 March? I respect the fact the Tánaiste cannot give certainty but I do not respect the timeline.

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I thank the Deputy. We will certainly take on board the suggestion and request from the Labour Party on a hybrid option but I understand there are some difficulties with it. One reason we want to have the calculated grade or accredited grade system is in case, for some reason, schools close again and oral, aural and practical examinations cannot go ahead. I am not saying they will close again. Having two systems, with the examinations and accredited grades, at least allows us to know that if things go wrong, there will still be accredited grades. If oral, aural and practical examinations are worked into those accredited grades, there may be a problem with accredited grades in the event of schools having to close again. That is the thinking behind it. Maybe it is possible to have three parallel systems of assessing students. We will take that up with the Department of Education and the Minister.

On dates, I have never used the date 1 March. I appreciate that others may have. What I have said is what I have said here.

Deputy Alan Kelly: Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly The Tánaiste is representing the Government now.

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I have referred here in the Dáil to the plan. The plan for quite some time has been for the phased reopening of schools, starting with the opening of special schools, which has been done, and moving on to special classes. Across the period of March and April, the plan is to open schools on a phased basis. I totally appreciate that what parents want is a clear plan and clear message. We will have that in the next few days.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I want to take up a question that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Connolly, raised yesterday, namely, the question of the destruction of the files from the commission on mother and baby homes. I am sure the Tánaiste and everybody else in the House is aware of this because everybody will have received emails about it from the survivors and their representatives. I am making a plea to the Tánaiste, in his capacity as a representative of the Government, to find a way to do something to extend the lifetime of the commission beyond 28 February. He will be receiving emails asking him to do this. The reason is that the survivors and their representatives believe - much of legal advice is to this effect - that if the commission closes down on 28 February, there will be no prospect that it will be able to go after the files containing the 550 oral testimonies that we are told have been destroyed.

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