Andrea Feeney, CEO of the State Examinations Commission (SEC), tells eolas Magazine how the SEC’s new Statement of Strategy 2023-2027 lays the path for development which takes account of the organisation’s ambitions to develop the State examinations service for the future, while holding to its enduring mission of providing a high-quality candidate-centered service.
The certificate examinations provided by the State Examinations Commission are part of a rich tapestry of public examinations in Ireland, which stretches back almost 150 years. Second-level examinations were first provided by the Intermediate Education Board for Ireland in 1879 and continued to be provided by the Board until 1924, when the Department of Education provided the State Examinations for the first time. Following a major restructuring of the Department of Education, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) was established on 6 March 2003, to deliver the national certificate examinations on behalf of the State to the highest standards of quality, security, and integrity.
The provision of the State examinations is a key national service which touches on the lives of over 130,000 young people and their families each year. The SEC works with the education system in the provision of this service and relies hugely on the collaborative efforts of school leaders, teachers, the education stakeholders. Teachers marking the examinations are the lifeblood of the examinations system. In 2023, we worked intensively, including with stakeholders, to ensure that sufficient numbers of teachers engaged in this critical work. The SEC is extremely grateful to those teachers who engage in the State Examinations in a variety of roles, and to school leaders in supporting our efforts.
In the 20 years since our establishment, much has been achieved; the examinations system of 2023 is very different to 2003, especially in the range of services we provide and in how we provide them. What remains constant is our absolute commitment to continued partnership with stakeholders to deliver a system of examinations that enjoys high levels of public trust and confidence.
New Statement of Strategy
Our Statement of Strategy 2023-2027 follows a wide-ranging consultative process with stakeholders from across the sector including the Department of Education and agencies, school leadership and management bodies, teachers and teacher unions, and the important voices of students and their families.
Six ambitious goals support our mission “to provide a high-quality candidate-centred State examination service” and our vision of “a progressive, fair, and responsive examination service and organisation with a positive impact on learners and society”. Those goals are:
- To provide a high-quality, fair, and inclusive State examinations service.
- To develop a State examinations service for the future.
- To provide all candidates with opportunities to demonstrate their attainment.
- To seek opportunities for improved service delivery to meet current and future challenges.
- To be organisationally excellent with staffing, infrastructure, and systems aligned to deliver on our mission.
- To be accountable for our decisions and actions.
Delivery and curricular reform
The number and modalities of assessment deployed in the State examinations continues to grow on foot of the introduction of new subjects and through reform of existing subjects. In 2023, only 13 of the 41 curricular Leaving Certificate subjects were examined exclusively by written examination. Assessments include point in time written, aural, oral, and practical tests; coursework components involving research reports and portfolios; and physical or digital projects.
The SEC has a central role in curricular reform at both Senior Cycle and Junior Cycle working with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Department of Education. Over the lifetime of our strategic plan, we look forward to working on the ambitious programme of Senior Cycle redevelopment which has been announced by the Minister, including undertaking research into generative artificial intelligence (AI) and digital assessment; and introducing additional assessment components worth at least 40 per cent in all subjects.
In recent years, the SEC has undertaken transformative change involving a number of complex digital projects. These include online marking of scanned examination scripts, which is now our normal way of working, with over 4,000 examiners using the system in 2023. Of the one million Leaving Certificate and Junior Cycle results issued this year, 98 per cent were in subjects which were either fully or partially marked online. The adoption of a design for digital approach in relation to examinations coursework is underpinned by our Schools Portal, which facilitates secure transmission of digital coursework to the SEC. We have also integrated digital coursework directly to the online marking platform to provide fully digitised end-to-end assessment. Finally, we provide the Candidate Self Service Portal (CSSP) to offer a complete one-stop shop of examination services to Leaving Certificate candidates. The SEC is a world leader in terms of openness and transparency in the examinations. Through the CSSP candidates access not only their overall results but also the marks they achieved in individual subject components, and they can also view their scripts online to see how their work was marked.
Under our new strategic plan, we want to exploit many more opportunities for improved service delivery to meet current and future challenges.
Supporting students with special educational needs
The SEC provides fair access to the examinations through inclusive design and the provision of appropriate accommodations under its Scheme of Reasonable Accommodations at the Certificate Examinations (RACE) Scheme. The scheme enables candidates with special educational needs to demonstrate what they know and can do, without compromising the integrity of the assessment.
An extensive range of individual supports is available through the scheme including assistance with reading; writing accommodations; access to assistive technology; and the provision of modifications, waivers, and exemptions. In 2023, almost 30,000 candidates (22 per cent) out of the overall cohort of 132,000 candidates required access arrangements under the RACE Scheme.
The scheme is continually evolving to better meet the needs of candidates with special educational needs while preserving equity and fairness. Deferred Leaving Certificate examinations were introduced in 2022, for candidates experiencing serious accident, injury or illness, or close family bereavement at the time of the main sitting. The provision of read-only PDF papers to vision impaired Leaving Certificate candidates was piloted. These are significant, improvements which make very real differences in the lives of young people taking the State examinations.
Supporting candidates with special educational needs is a strategic priority for the SEC and over the lifetime of the next strategic plan we aim to increase the use of assistive technology to enhance access and integrity and to support independent learning.
We have experienced many challenges in our history, particularly in recent years given the impact that the pandemic has had on candidates due to take their examinations. Fortunately, we have a very strong innovation culture, which really stood to us in our pandemic response as we demonstrated agility, and creativity in meeting the unprecedented level of change required to the various arrangements for examinations candidates which were introduced in the years 2020-2023. Team work is exceptionally important to the SEC as we are driven by a common purpose in providing an examinations system which places the candidate of everything that we do. We are extremely fortunate to have an excellent staff who consistently deliver outstanding work year on year.
In delivering our strategic objectives we intend to build on our achievements and use our history and experiences to enhance our capacity to innovate and develop a world class examinations system for the future.
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