Every decision taken by the government during this crisis is challenging, but the decision to postpone the Leaving Certificate is the wrong one. It is not what students want and our voice should be heard.
The Leaving is an important stage in the life of every young person; the culmination of years of hard work and a stepping-stone to the rest of their lives. Its importance has not been lost on the education minister or the Taoiseach. They seem determined that the class of 2020 will eventually sit the exams, as every other year, but this is a year like no other and this determination seeks to deny that reality.
Amidst a pandemic, life as we know it has had to change. Schools are shut for the foreseeable future and we are not receiving real education, yet we are still expected to sit the exams, despite the remaining uncertainty about exactly when that will be.
As a sixth-year student, I understand the challenge our education system faces. It is not the system’s fault that we cannot attend classes or receive the support we need from teachers, guidance counsellors and classmates. The decision to postpone the exams to “late July or August”, while well-intentioned, does not serve the well-being of students and could detrimentally affect our mental health.
Social isolation is challenging for all of us. Being apart from friends and family, worrying about our country, concern for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, are pressures that everyone is feeling. Sixth years carry the added stress of attempting to study for the state exams, alone at home.
Postponing them leaves students facing months under immense pressure without the support of our school community and with absolutely no assurance that they will definitely be able to take place in “late July” given the constantly changing nature of the Covid-19 crisis.
Many of my friends are feeling lost and anxious. Friends I have never before known to struggle, are now suffering from the toll that this situation is having on them. Sixth year has always been one of the most stressful years of our lives. Being expected to carry on with our studies in these extraordinary times is having a negative impact on us as young people.
There is inherent and growing inequality between the education that students are receiving. Thousands are without good internet access and the vital connection to the support offered by teachers, as they attempt study from home. Some students can receive online education, while others cannot. Many have had no choice but to become carers to their younger siblings or family members, while their parents work in essential services. These students are deprived of the opportunity to study, through no fault of their own.
If it goes ahead as planned, this Leaving will be the most unequal in the history of the state. It is simply unjust to ignore these fundamental inequalities that will harm the grades and life-chances of thousands of students. The government has failed to address this reality in their decision making.
While none of the available options are ideal, and while students do hold a variety of views, the majority must feel betrayed by the government’s latest decision. In the face of Covid-19, we are somehow expected to knuckle down and pretend that this can still be like any other year when it clearly is not.
We are in awe of our health system and all essential workers for the tremendous work they are doing for us. We appreciate the government’s efforts to keep us all safe, and we do understand that they have bigger priorities. But pressing ahead with delayed exams, rather than opting for predicted grades as elsewhere, is absurd.
Those whose last year of school has been robbed from them by adversity will now also have their first year of third level education disrupted by the government’s refusal to accept that this year the exams are just not meant to be.
Many students feel abandoned and ignored by our government. This decision lacks empathy and compassion.
Bébhinn O'Brien is a sixth year student at Dundalk Grammar School in County Louth.