Investigating time-sensitive complaints

The Office of the Ombudsman in Ireland received a number of complaints about a scheme set up to provide assistance to students with disabilities when sitting State exams.  The complaints were received only weeks before the exam was due to start. So the Ombudsman set up procedures to ensure the complaints were dealt with quickly and to address the systemic issues which arose.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) administers Ireland’s State examinations. These include the Leaving Certificate examination (similar to A Level in the UK) which is sat by students aged between 16 and 18 years of age.

To ensure students with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the exam the SEC established a scheme to provide ‘reasonable accommodations at certified examinations’ – the RACE scheme. Eligible students receive special assistance during an exam such as a scribe to write out answers, a person to read exam papers aloud or a separate exam centre.

In 2016 the Ombudsman received 52 complaints about the RACE scheme. The majority of complaints were from students with specific learning difficulties.

Many complained that:

  • they were not informed of the reasons for the refusal of their RACE application,
  • they had been provided with assistance to sit their Junior Certificate exams (similar to GCSEs in the UK) but had been refused assistance for their subsequent Leaving Certificate exam.  This was despite the fact that their condition had not improved.
  • they were not told the outcome of their appeal until the month or weeks before the exam commenced.  This meant that if a complaint was made to the Ombudsman there was very little time to investigate a complaint before the start of an exam.

Most of the complaints were received within weeks or days of the start of the examinations. Given the time-sensitive nature of these complaints the cases were prioritised. The Office established a dedicated team of caseworkers, led by the Education Sector Lead Investigator, to investigate the complaints. The Office also agreed a process with the SEC for fast-tacking queries from the Ombudsman when investigating the complaints. Work on the most urgent cases carried on through weekends including the weekend before the exams commenced. The majority of complaints were concluded within a few days with 22 of the 52 complaints received being upheld.

The Ombudsman, together with the Ombudsman for Children (who examines complaints from those under 18), discussed the issues raised in the complaints with the SEC. The Ombudsman was pleased to report that following these discussions the SEC:

  1. will simplify and speed up the process for assessing RACE applications
  2. introduce a system to ensure students fully understand the reason their application was refused
  3. has agreed to allow students, who are awarded RACE accommodations for their Junior Certificate examinations, to keep those accommodations for their Leaving Certificate examinations.

The changes being introduced by the SEC will provide more certainty for students with disabilities sitting their exams and will help eliminate the stress such students experienced in the weeks and days before such an important event for the student.

Two of the cases the Ombudsman dealt with are summarised in the Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2015 – Case Studies

 Please contact Gerry Kenny, Education Sector Lead, Office of the Ombudsman, Dublin for any questions you have on these cases.