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‘This is about fairness’: Call for dyslexic students to be given extra time in Leaving Cert exams

Lauren Lynch ‘ended up in a class for students who teachers didn’t want to teach’ and says too many pupils labelled ‘stupid’ for disability

Lauren Lynch graduated from Atlantic Technological University last November with a degree in early childhood care and education.

It was moment of pride and achievement, but for much of her time in school it seemed like it would never happen.

“In school, I was left to one side, labelled ‘stupid’ and ‘unwilling to learn’ or ‘distracted’. I ended up in a class for students who teachers didn’t want to teach,” says Lynch (23) from Sligo

She was diagnosed with dyslexia at school but says supports in school were sorely lacking, especially during the Leaving Cert exams.


“It was a horrible time and one of the most stressful situations I’ve experienced in education,” Lynch says.

Dyslexia, which affects approximately one in 10 people, is estimated to affect thousands of students due to sit the State exams.

On Thursday, TDs and senators considered a petition calling for dyslexic students to be given extra time to complete their Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert exams.

The petition, initiated by the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, warns that dyslexic students face significant challenges with reading and comprehension and often run out of time in exams.

Ireland, it says, is an outlier in not providing extra exam time for dyslexic students at second level given that it is an established option in countries such as France, Italy and the UK. It is also standard across most third level institutions.

For Lynch, extra time is simply levelling the playing field. Her experience at third level has been like night and day, she says.

At university she was given additional time, use of an iPad, access to printouts in alternative formats and the use of a computer with text-to-speech software.

“It’s evident from my results at university how much those supports helped me,” she says. “I got the highest grade in the class on occasion, whereas in secondary school I was barely passing or failing. That diminished my confidence and I did feel stupid – but I now know that with the right accommodations, you can succeed,” she says.

At the Oireachtas committee meeting on Thursday, Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard said the decision not to give extra time was “an anomaly I don’t understand”, while Sinn Féin TD Pat Buckley said giving students an equal shot at the exams was “common sense.”

In response to the petition, the Department of Education told the committee that the State Examinations Commission (SEC) provided an extensive range of supports to students with special educational needs.

The measures include – subject to eligibility – a reader or reading assistant, use of a word processor or recording devices, access to a scribe or a waiver from the assessment of spelling or grammar.

A total of almost 25,000 students – or one in five candidates – had access to these supports in last year’s exams.

However, it said an expert advisory group had previously highlighted the challenges in providing time-related accommodations.

The SEC has said that this group noted that ensuring extra time was restricted only to those who would achieve no advantage was “well-nigh impossible”.

“It would require intensive screening of each individual applicant by professionals and, even then, given the variation in the nature and severity of special needs, it would be extremely difficult to decide how much time was required by a candidate and whether or not the additional time conferred an advantage in the examination,” the group concluded.

On foot of this, the SEC has said it introduced a waiver from spelling, grammar and punctuation for candidates with learning difficulties, which was understood to be “unique to the Irish examinations system”.

In addition, it added 20 minutes per exam paper in Irish, English, history and geography, to make the time element less critical.

In a statement last year, the SEC said its reasonable accommodations scheme continued to be subject to a “process of ongoing review and improvement”.

For Lauren Lynch, however, additional time is a simple human rights issue.

She is considering completing a master’s degree, specialising in dyslexia, to help improve supports for vulnerable students.

Additional exam time is just one jigsaw piece of a wider array of supports that are needed, she says, but an important one.

“Extra time would allow students with additional needs to have the same opportunity to get the same result as their peers,” she says.

“Not having extra time is a violation of human rights. We shouldn’t have to petition the Government on this. It’s a disgrace. Disability rights, as the end of the day, are human rights.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent