Tuesday, 18 May 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
30. Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Education and Science if his attention has been drawn to the continued widespread concern among dyslexic students and their parents regarding his proposed changes to the marking of the 1999 leaving certificate; the reason he considers the proposed marking system preferable to the old system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12784/99]
Mr. Martin: No change has been made this year in relation to how examiners mark the papers of candidates with a specific learning difficulty. The position is and always has been that the work of all candidates in any one subject is marked in accordance with a common marking scheme. This is to ensure uniform and objective criteria are applied to the work of all candidates. This will continue to be the case this year. Students with specific learning difficulties will again have the same marking scheme applied to their work as will apply to the work of all other candidates.
Complex and inter-related issues arise in relation to assessment of the work of students with specific learning difficulties in our examination system. The heavy reliance on written terminal assessment can clearly create difficulties for those with reading and writing problems. I am aware for instance, from contact with the Association for Adults and Children with Learning Difficulties, of its concern that the examination system and its current modes of assessment is not responsive enough to the needs of students with specific learning difficulties.
For some time I have been anxious to have a wide-ranging and comprehensive review of the special arrangements which are made at the examinations. Late last year I asked the expert advisory group on examinations – which I established to provide independent advice on the operation of examinations – to provide me with a discussion paper for publication and as a basis for a thorough review of our approach in this area. I received the group's report last month.
I have arranged for the publication and circulation of the discussion paper and in yesterday's national press the expert advisory group invited submissions from interested parties and individuals on the issues identified in the discussion paper and on the operation of special arrangements in general. The discussion paper brings out very strongly the complexity of the issue. In particular, it highlights the tension within our examination system between the need for equal treatment and fairness, on the one hand, and the desire to take account of human circumstances, on the other. The discussion paper also deals expressly with issues which arise in the case of students with specific learning difficulties.
Previous reviews of the special arrangements schemes were conducted internally in my Department. I was particularly anxious that this review would be public and open to build a consensus on how best to respond to the needs of the individual student within the constraints imposed by the format of some examinations and the need to maintain full confidence and credibility in our systems of national certification. I was also concerned that  international practice would be considered in the review.
Mr. M. Higgins: Will the Minister agree that there is a fundamental difference between a similar and an equal system of evaluation? The thrust of the Minister's reply to the parents of dyslexic children suggests it is important to put in place a similar system for all children. However, an equal system would ensure that a child's handwriting difficulties, for example, would be recognised before their examination papers are sent to the first examiner?
Mr. M. Higgins: Unfortunately, that is the flaw in the Department's logic. The Department is insisting on equality in the system, but we are talking about the equality of children. This would ensure that the child is entitled to indicate the handwriting difficulty, for example, before the marking system highlights it. The child might have to get over a certain set of difficulties to achieve an acceptable level of handwriting. At present, handwriting difficulties are passed from an inspector to a supervising inspector. It is bureaucratic equality rather than child equality.
Mr. Martin: Where there is a difficulty in terms of legibility or readability of an examination paper, it is passed on to a supervising examiner to ensure that every effort is made to give due process to the candidate. There must be a proper review of this complex issue. I have had a number of exhaustive internal discussions to try to reform the system. The expert advisory group I established to look independently at the operation of our examination system has published a discussion paper. It has also referred to the experience in Britain, for example, where a different system is in place. While I have sympathy for many of the candidates involved, I am confident we can reform the system for the examinations in 2000.
Mr. Naughten: Why are the examiners not informed of a child's difficulty, such as dyslexia? What experience or training do the examiners have to correct examination papers? Why are pupils not allowed to use computers if they have reading and writing difficulties?
Mr. Martin: The examiners do not have specific training. Traditionally, where a concern was expressed about the readability of material, it was brought to the attention of the individual examiner. However, in the event of an examiner encountering difficulties in reading the script, the examiner was instructed to send the answer book to his or her supervising examiner. This was to ensure that, notwithstanding any presentation or readability difficulties, every effort was made by the examiner or supervising examiner to ensure the candidate was given full credit for all the work done in accordance with the marking scheme. This year the Department has moved to strengthen this arrangement by instructing all examiners who have a difficulty in accessing the information given by a candidate to refer the script to their supervising examiner.
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