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Statement from Office of Children’s Ombudsman following meeting with Minister for Education and Skills to discuss Leaving Certificate

7th May 2020: Following a letter from The Ombudsman for Children to the Minister for Education on 17th April, the Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon met Minister Joe McHugh yesterday evening to discuss the issues surrounding the Leaving Certificate exams which are due to begin at the end of July. 

The Ombudsman expressed his concerns to the Minister about the state exams and welcomed his engagement on the issues. Dr Muldoon brought the Ministers attention to the large number of complaints made by parents and students to the Office of Children’s Ombudsman over the past number of weeks. These issues relate to;


Mental health concerns
Parents and students have raised concern about the impact that the disruption may have on those who are already vulnerable; children suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders or those who are victims of abuse. The mental health of all students, even those who previously would not be considered at risk was raised. 

The Ombudsman relayed messages received from parents about the pressure felt by students who, for two years, have been working towards a fixed end point in June and now that pressure is sustained for two more months. Families are suffering from financial strain; some students are concerned the funds will not be there to support them if they do get to college and some students are trying to study with other siblings in the house and parents working from home. 


Special education needs
Correspondence from parents and children with special educational needs were also discussed. These students have been unable to access their usual in-house school supports to enable them to adequately prepare for these examinations. It was also highlighted how such students will be seriously challenged by home schooling because of the lack of structure and discipline and support compared to the formal education settings they are used to. This may be exacerbated by the fact that many of the parents will be working from home too and therefore the educational needs of their children may be harder to satisfy in such a scenario.


Digital discrimination
The Ombudsman has received a number of complaints on behalf of children who do not have a secure, reliable broadband service and this was also brought up with the Minister. Families who do not have the financial resources to provide high quality broadband or the equipment needed to stay up to date with schoolwork have contacted the Office of Children’s Ombudsman. 

There are also students who do not have the support of parents or family members who are IT literate and can understand and help with online activity. 


Inequity in the provision of continuity of learning
While the majority of schools are providing ongoing learning to their students especially those preparing for the Leaving Certificate, there is no consistency about the quality and quantity of such initiatives and not all schools are providing this, which places the students of those schools at a significant disadvantage. Concerns were also raised about whether or not current supports will continue to be provided by teachers during the summer months, and this is a concern for all of the Leaving Certificate co-hort.

Dr Muldoon also expressed his concern about children living in communal accommodation that may have heavily relied on school resources such as breakfast clubs and homework clubs, due to the lack of space at home. This would include children living in direct provision, homeless accommodation, halting sites and residential centres. 

Dr Muldoon said, “We appreciate the engagement from the Minister yesterday evening and feel encouraged by his openness to considering a wide variety of options that could be made available to students, including the concept of calculated grades. We urged the Minister to continue to look at a range of options and ensure that representatives of third level and further education institutions are involved in generating such options”.

Dr. Muldoon further stated that “on a purely human level there are 61,000 children who are deprived of all the positive elements of finishing school, the comradery, the sports days, fun days and general acknowledgement that they have moved from a child to an adult over a 6 year period. This is a crucial rite of passage for so many and it is the closeness of friends and the support of teachers and other school staff which makes the chore of studying worthwhile – but that has been taken away from this cohort of children and it will always hurt, no matter what results they get in the exams. I really hope that clarity can be provided to children, their parents and teachers as soon as possible to avoid further anxiety amongst an already vulnerable group of people.”