Irish students rejoice over government U-turn calling off high school tests due to the coronavirus

Ireland's Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh announced that students would now be able to choose whether to use "calculated" grades or to sit final-year exams when it was considered safe to do so.
Getty Images

Students in Ireland told CNBC of their relief at the Irish government's U-turn and decision to effectively cancel final-year high-school exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Ellen Kenny, a final-year student at Mean Scoil Mhuire school in Longford, said the government's decision reflected "the power that young people can have" after an initial proposal to delay the exams caused uproar among students.

The exams, known as the "leaving certificate," are taken at the end of the Irish equivalent of high school and determine which college and course students go on to study. 

Ireland's Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh announced Friday that students would now be able to choose whether to use "calculated," or predicted, grades, or sit the exams at "at a date in the future when it was considered safe to hold the examinations." 

This backtracked on plans announced last month that final year exams for all students would be delayed until July 29, and pupils would be allowed to return to school two weeks prior to this date to prepare for the tests. 

McHugh said the change was made "based on medical advice and other assessments." 

"The decision has to be taken now to remove the anxiety that many students have been experiencing over how the exams would look later in the summer," he added. 

The initial plans had sparked anger among students, who feared that returning to school to take exams could increase the risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus and compromise the safety of their families. 

There have been 23,135 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,467 deaths in Ireland, according to latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Like many countries around the world, Ireland has been in lockdown for weeks, with people confined to their homes in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, although the government is now starting to ease restrictions.

Alicia Joy O'Sullivan, a student at Skibbereen Community School in West Cork, said that she had seen friends "breaking down crying" on social media when the government initially proposed pushing back exam dates — "it was traumatic."

Following the latest announcement, O'Sullivan said she was relieved, adding that it showed "how right we were to worry about our safety and wellbeing." 

Luke Casserly, secretary of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union (ISSU), and a student at St. Mel's College in Longford, said he felt the decision gave clarity to students and hopefully meant they could start college as intended later this year. 

The government's decision also followed a poll of nearly 24,000 final year students — close to two-fifths of all the students affected in Ireland — conducted by the ISSU and published last week. Around four in five students thought the leaving certificate exams should be cancelled, preferring that some form of predicted or estimated grading be used. 

'Unmitigated disaster' 

Prior to the U-turn, Ireland's Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly said in the Irish parliament that the way the leaving certificate had been dealt with during the pandemic had been an "unmitigated disaster." 

"The stress these students have been put under is intolerable," he said. 

Ireland's leader Leo Varadkar acknowledged that for some students the leaving certificate, which has a reputation for being tough, could be "traumatic," saying that he still had nightmares about his own math test.  

Student O'Sullivan said the Irish government's handling of the situation before Friday's announcement had been a "mess," with leaks of information and rumors about what might happen with the exams. 

However, there are some concerns about the reliance on predicted grades, as highlighted by Sean Carey, welfare officer for the ISSU and also a student at St. Mel's.

"I'm relieved but obviously a little nervous as to how predicted grading will play out as I think most leaving cert students are," he told CNBC. 

"In regards to clarity I feel there are still a few issues that need to be ironed out but definitely a huge improvement on where we were this time last week."