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[00:00:01]

It's Wednesday, August the 26th, and you're very welcome to the Inside Politics podcast from the Irish Times. I'm here. In a little while, we're going to be joined by our education editor, Carol O'Brien, to discuss the huge challenge of reopening the schools and what might happen with the impending leaving search results.

[00:00:17]

But first, a bit of a health warning. We are recording this podcast in midmorning on the Wednesday.

[00:00:22]

And it is entirely possible that by the time you are listening to this, that the the saga of European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, which has now been going on for pretty much a week since that disastrous dinner in Clifton took place, would have taken yet another twist or turn. But political editor Pat Leahy and our European correspondent Naomi O'Leary join me now to discuss what's going on. Naomi, what's the sense in Brussels today about Phil Hogan's position?

[00:00:47]

I think the sense is that at this point, he's really hanging on by his fingertips. I think that the commission gave him an opportunity to account for himself and allow the whole matter to slide, which I believe would have been their preference. I don't think that they're particularly eager to get rid of any commissioner, let alone one who's in a portfolio, which is massively important and, you know, particularly at the current moment. But unfortunately for him, the way in which he has handled the fallout has made the problem worse for himself, in that it's no longer just about whether he broke coronavirus regulations or rules in Ireland, but also whether he was a full and truthful in his account of what he was doing since then in public statements through his press people and also to the commission, who are his employers.

[00:01:40]

And so the effect of this drip, drip. Revelations that contradict previous information has kept the story alive and really worsened his position in a way that I think has has actually surprised people in Brussels because he had a reputation of being very politically canny as being difficult to dislodge. And I think it's really has sort of come out of the blue for a lot of people that a commissioner who was seen as a very strong figure has gotten into such deep trouble so rapidly.

[00:02:11]

And part of the drip, drip, drip continues. This morning, we have a story in this morning's Irish Times about the first night after Phil Hogan had arrived back in Ireland, where he was staying in his apartment at the key club in Kildare, even by his own account.

[00:02:23]

At that point, he should have been self isolating and quarantining. And there's a witness who says that he was dining at a public restaurant with with other people.

[00:02:32]

Yeah, story on the front page this morning. That part of the reporting done by Simon Carswell, who's spoken to somebody who witnessed him at first hand at the K Club restaurant on the night that he returned. So assuming that that is true, that immediately contradicts the account that he gave yesterday, or at least renders it incomplete in that respect. Were also reporting this morning that he visited Roscommon around the time that he was in Clifton. And whilst nothing may hang on that in terms of violating the lockdown, it is not present in the account that he furnished to the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen yesterday.

[00:03:16]

So you've got to think that all sorts of alarm bells in the commission president's office would be going off when they read that, to see that for the second time they have been furnished with an account of Phil Hogan's activities and movements, that there is at least questions about the completeness of veracity of them. I agree with just about everything Naomi has said there in terms of what the mood in Brussels is in Dublin. According to some contacts I had with people here last night and this morning, it's even more pessimistic about his future with a number of people saying that they don't think he can now survive.

[00:03:57]

And certainly, given the the political momentum that this story has built up, it's very difficult to see it just going away.

[00:04:10]

Now, Naomi, it's a very different thing from a European commissioner to be forced out there from a government minister in a cabinet, in any of the constituent governments of the EU to be forced out as it is much more unusual. You could argue, in fact, and I think I saw you arguing over the last 24 hours that this shows up a you know, a certain lack of accountability at the highest level of the of the EU institutions.

[00:04:30]

But it's it's a it's a pretty seismic event in its own way in terms of the course of European politics, isn't it? It is very, very rare. There's only one commissioner who has been dislodged before he was the Maltese commissioner, John Dalli, in 2012, and that was amid accusations that tobacco lobbyists tried to bribe him to alter health legislation. And I think that was viewed as a more serious affair than the potential breaking of the coronavirus sections for good or for ill.

[00:05:02]

So I think when this initially broke, people thought that the accusations weren't up to that level. They weren't sufficient really to dislodge a commissioner. And the argument for that is that there's 27 member states with different national politics that go on in all of these 27 member states. And if national governments have the power to recall commissioners, what you could have is you can have political change, you can have elections, you can have new government in a member state.

[00:05:26]

And suddenly they could turn on their commissioner for one reason or another. And it could just cause chaos for the European Commission. It could totally destabilize it and prevent it from having a stable mandate. And so there's this argument that, you know, the commissioner should be somewhat above the fray of national politics. And then again, you know, there's others who argue that there's a question, the the European Commission, if it wants to be the more engaged institution that it aspires to be in terms of with European citizens, that part of that is this accountability.

[00:05:58]

And part of it is that its officials are going to be subject to a kind of scrutiny that they haven't been used to experiencing. So it's it may be a sign of evolution in the EU institutions that they do become more subject to this kind of public scrutiny and so on. And this is very much part of why it puts the commission president or 079 in such a difficult position, because really this year and it was supposed to be kind of, you know, the relaunch of the EU, if you if you like, after Britain left in January, then there was a hope that, you know, now the E.U. could kind of focus on improving its image and becoming more effective and really proving its worth to citizens and turning around any sort of Eurosceptic doubts that might have been growing here or there.

[00:06:49]

And so in that context is really, really important for President von der Leyen at that she isn't made out to be the head of an unaccountable institution where people can't be fired. So for that reason, it is coming at a particularly sensitive time. And I do think that she will be aware of the potential damage to the image of the commission that that it would do if he was not dislodged. It wouldn't be the case here at the E.U. Don't get me wrong, people in Bulgaria are not glued to the story in the same way that people in Ireland are.

[00:07:20]

But, you know, it matters. It would be huge for for one member state in Ireland, and I think it would be significant in the Brussels bubble as well.

[00:07:29]

And we might come in a moment to what it might mean, should there be a change. But I just want to ask you, the Irish government's position, as you, as you mentioned earlier, does seem completely clear now. It is that Phil Hogan breached the guidelines, that he was incomplete in his accounting of his movements, and that therefore, in the view of the government, should depart his position. But that falls under the remit of Ursula von der Leyen.

[00:07:50]

That's clear enough.

[00:07:51]

They weren't so clear up until about a day and a half ago. There were sort of mixed signals coming all through the weekend. And it's the start of this week.

[00:07:58]

There was yeah, there was the statement from the party leaders and in the names that he should contact her on Saturday night, which called for Mr Hogan to consider his position, which is a universal acronym for FA Resign in our euphemism, rather fa fa resign in politics.

[00:08:20]

But the Finegan leader tarnished Leo Varadkar was a little more equivocal, I thought, in an entire radio interview on Sunday. But certainly the very strong sense that I was getting from people in Dublin last night was that having looked at the having looked at the account furnished by Phil Hogan and aware of the potential discrepancies in it, which we see reported this morning, that they believe that Phil Hogan, that his position was untenable.

[00:09:00]

That is a combination of the consequences of having broken the lock down in an immediate sense. But also the considering the interests of the government and its efforts to control the rising spike in infections that notwithstanding, the fact is, obviously Phil Hogan is not a member of the government, but that the credibility of the entire governing class and if you like, and was was endangered and possibly fatally undermined by the behaviour of Mr Hogan and that he had to go for the government to regain the confidence of the public.

[00:09:47]

So that was very much the sense I was getting last night and this morning, I think game. And Ryan then made that very clear. Now, in fact, the government is also being very clear that it is a decision for the European Commission. And Eamon, Ryan did say this morning that they would accede to whatever decision was made by Ursula online, but it is clear what their preference is now.

[00:10:15]

So, Naomi, then the question is, and I suppose that there's a subtle signs that the vultures are already circling. I'm seeing reports this morning about who might be mooted as a successor to Phil Hogan, should he be or should he be forced to to stand down?

[00:10:27]

It's an incredibly complex job putting together a European Commission. There are factors of politics, of geography, of gender and of skill levels, ability, all those kinds of things. Phil Hogan is a second time commissioner, which is reflected in his status and his his role.

[00:10:45]

Would this mean a reshuffle or would it mean a like for like replacement and a new Irish trade commissioner?

[00:10:51]

I think it's quite widely accepted that it would be pretty unlikely that Ireland would get the trade portfolio again if Hogan did, in fact, lead the job. So what that means is that because trade is viewed as such an important portfolio, you know, it's one in which the EU Commission actually has powers and competences and it has the power to set policy around the world because it's such a big portfolio. Then usually they put in second time commissioners like Mr Hogan into it.

[00:11:22]

So I think what's viewed as most likely is that if he went, they would take an existing commissioner, perhaps the high profile one that may be the economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, or perhaps the internal market commissioner Terry Burton, and put one of them into the position and then they would move people around and another vacancy would arise into which the new Irish commissioner would be put and it wouldn't really be up to and really wouldn't have a say over what that role would be.

[00:11:52]

And as you say, there's already speculation about what kind of names could be put forward. There's a delicate balance in the commission. It reflects the political representation of that emerges in the European Parliament elections. And as well as that, obviously there's, you know, one commissioner from each country. Plus they try to do a gender balance as well. So it is rather difficult. It's a it's a tricky balance to strike. So they'd be looking for someone who's essentially from the finical gene pool in order not to disturb that existing careful balance that's been drawn up.

[00:12:23]

And they they're a few names have been mentioned, too, I think. I'm not sure that any of the speculation is to concrete at this stage, because, look, he's still in the position. We don't know whether he's going to go or not. But essentially the kinds of people they're looking at are known known entities in Brussels, Irish people who are well known in Brussels, who I think they are viewed as people who would be fairly, fairly familiar with the institutions and able to slot into the position without too much difficulty, without a need for too much preparation in order to just kind of keep the show in the road, because it's a massively busy time for them between the pandemic, the Brexit deadline approaching and also the issue of trade, which is massively important.

[00:13:06]

There's a trade war going on between the US and China. And also the pandemic has really challenged just the functioning of the global trade order. So it's it's a huge brief.

[00:13:15]

But finally, maybe on this issue that the people who are being mentioned are, I think it's fair to say there are technocrats rather than politicians who have electoral histories behind them. This position has traditionally been seen as a aplomb, bit of patronage for whichever government is in power at the time when it when it arises. It's also caused its own political problems down the years, you know, causing by elections, which are sometimes, you know, knock on effects which weren't predicted.

[00:13:38]

I mean, my guess is that this particular government just wants to put a nail in this thing and move on and do whatever is as on destabilising, if that's not too many double negatives as possible.

[00:13:49]

Well, look at no government wants a by election. This government particularly doesn't want by election. At the same time, politicians tend to be very much in favour of continuing the appointment of politicians to senior roles. So I would be surprised if there's a technocratic appointment. To this, but I certainly wouldn't wouldn't rule it out sort of names that were flying about David O'Sullivan, Catherine debugged, former heads of the commission civil service and and both both Irish, of course.

[00:14:27]

But I think that there would be a conversation amongst cabinet members. One Finegan minister said to me the other day that they you know, they believe that if Phil Hogan went, would have to be a Phoenixville appointment.

[00:14:39]

And politicians and those of us who who surround them move on with ruthless efficiency to considering the successor of anybody who who's unfortunate enough to lose their to lose their post. So am I. I think that there will be four in the first place. There will be a conversation amongst Fine Gael ministers and between the override and me and some speculation that Leo Varadkar himself could possibly be interested in it. I will be surprised to see him depart domestic politics at this stage.

[00:15:16]

But I suppose we're in such a febrile situation with regard to this government and politics, both national and European generally. That would be hard to rule anything out at this stage.

[00:15:32]

Well, a very, very last question. Do you know me? Because the intriguing idea that Leo Varadkar might be the might be the nominee would that I mean, he's obviously a very heavyweight politician at a European level. Might that affect what kind of portfolio he might be given?

[00:15:44]

Arguably, although I wonder if a figure like Varadkar had the requisite kind of experience that they're looking for while he's you know, what a senior political figure does he have the kind of trade knowledge that would be needed for the trade portfolio? Really? I think with with something that's so sensitive where you have to manage your trade balance, you know, the the contrary interests of French cheese makers between like the Jack Japanese cigar industry, you know, you have to it's really details focused, brief.

[00:16:16]

So I think that they would really be keen to get someone with the relevant experience. And then again, if it's a if it's not the trade role, if it's something else, something, perhaps then, you know, I figured I faragher could be perhaps considered. But then again, you know, as Pat said, I don't think that the two ministers are keen to develop domestic politics, but maybe it could be another member of the cabinet. I've also heard the names of senior MEPs mentioned as well.

[00:16:48]

And what about this idea that Ireland is going to lose out that particularly in this in the run in to the very first Brexit negotiations in the in the next couple of months, that not having Phil Hogan, even if he's not directly involved in those negotiations, not having field organizers, very senior trade level, which is obviously a huge component of of those negotiations, means that Ireland is not going to be as well represented or have the same kind of in it would have had otherwise.

[00:17:14]

I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't think this was a loss. I think it's widely viewed as deeply unfortunate. But, you know, events are what they are. And I think that at this point, even though, you know, Phil Hogan has a lot of people who would like to see him continue in the job, even his allies are just exasperated at how he handled the whole thing and how he wasn't able to ride it out.

[00:17:42]

And, you know, I think it's just out of his hands at this stage. All right.

[00:17:46]

We'll leave it there. We'll let you go now, because I know you have a lot on your plate today in Brussels. Thanks very much for joining us. Stick with us. And we're going to be joined after this by Carla Carlgren.

[00:17:57]

Now, this week and next, the country's primary and secondary schools are opening for the first time since mid-March. It's a massive undertaking, arguably the largest educational project since the foundation of the state. And as if that weren't enough, tens of thousands of Leaving CERT students will receive their exam results in two weeks time through a process of predicted grades, which has never been used before. And following huge controversy and chaos in the U.K. when a somewhat similar process was attempted there.

[00:18:24]

Partly he's still with us. We're joined by our education editor, Karen Brian Cala, a quiet time for you with funny, you know, the education calendar.

[00:18:32]

It's normally very, very cyclical, you know, and you can plot your your year out with the certainty that everything will happen like clockwork except this year. Of course, everything is up in flux. And the funny thing is, you know, education, it's especially the Department of Education that's normally quite a conservative department. Change happens slowly. But we've had this huge leap in the dark with calculated grades. And we've also had this is a massive undertaking of getting a million children back into schools in the middle of a public health emergency.

[00:19:06]

So very, very different times, huge challenges for the department. And it's exposed, you know, a lot of the weaknesses that were there within the education system that weren't always visible. But but it's certainly put those very much out in the open and causing major, major challenges.

[00:19:24]

This isn't only a huge Irish story, obviously. It's a huge global story. And right across the northern hemisphere, anyway, you know, schools are going back across Europe, in the United States. There's political controversies left and right about the pros and cons of that. I mean, we're more familiar and I mentioned it at the at the top of this item, what's been happening in the UK. But our education system is very different from the UK.

[00:19:46]

It's much more, I suppose, disaggregated, really, isn't it?

[00:19:49]

Yeah. Like, I think, you know, people sometimes think that our education system is very much like others where it's command and control and the teachers are employed by the Department of Education. And it's not quite the case here. You know, you have, I suppose, education. It's quite decentralised and a lot of ways. So you have 4000 schools which all have their own boards of management. And in many respects, they're independent fiefdoms. They in turn employ the teachers themselves, not the department.

[00:20:23]

They're paid by the department, but employed by the boards of management and schools. So you also have teacher unions, which are very, very powerful here and effectively in many respects, call a lot of the shots when it comes to to change. And and then on top of that, of course, we've largely underfunded education system, too, which has been propped up to a large extent by voluntary contributions by parents. So all of those kind of issues make it more difficult in a lot of ways for the Irish system to kind of re-open and get back on its feet versus other countries.

[00:21:01]

So so you're right. It's not as it's more challenging, I think, a lot of ways than other jurisdictions such as the UK and a lot of other European countries as well, where it is much more command and control and teachers are directly employed by the state.

[00:21:15]

Well, that to some extent give the department in particular a level of plausible deniability when things go wrong as some things are bound to go wrong, aren't they?

[00:21:23]

Yeah, things will go wrong. You know, what we're seeing is already you know, that obviously we had a very ambitious school reopening fund, 375 million and, you know, lots of money for additional substitute to cover PPY hand sanitizer, structural alterations so that, you know, went down quite well and it was very ambitious. And the problem is, of course, in practice is drawing all of that down. And you are seeing issues already where schools are complaining that, you know, they're not getting access to some of the PPE and they're not getting access to builders to do structural alterations.

[00:21:59]

And you could have, you know, in some schools a delayed reopening. But so there's definitely issues emerging there. But I don't think the department really will get off scot free, are the minister. But by any measure, you know, this is very much you know, the funding is coming from the department, the guidance is coming from the department, and that that informs everything ultimately on the ground. So so, no, I don't think that distance, if you like, gives them much cover, political cover at all, I should say, actually on the border management of the school myself.

[00:22:31]

And my experience over the last couple of weeks is that the the situation is incredibly fluid. And actually the guidelines from the department have changed on a number of occasions, even over that period of time, and continue to do so. And that has an impact on those on the plans that the school makes. And as Karl says, there are issues then about work that needs to be done and kind of be done on time. And you know that the dates in which the school is opening are changing.

[00:22:51]

People, I think, are prepared to take all that on board because of the the value of the prize, the.

[00:22:56]

Being getting children back to school, which really I think everybody agrees is absolutely vital. Yeah, I think people would probably make a judgment on this and around if the schools go back and something resembling the normal school week is established after after a couple of weeks, then I think people will give not just the schools, but, you know, the department, the government, the new minister, some degree of credits for us. I don't think people will expect everything to be perfect, but they will expect the schools to be more or less backward, as I say, a recognizable school week.

[00:23:36]

If that doesn't happen, if the aggregate of individual problems that will no doubt pop up in in schools all over the country is sufficiently grace to derail the whole project, then I think it will be difficult to imagine a more serious political problem for the government. So I think if this goes off OK, I think it will enable the government to maybe put the whole affair behind it to to some degree, because this is something that affects people in their daily lives and people really care about.

[00:24:18]

People are certainly annoyed at the air and a lot more than annoyed, furious at the at the golf dinner. But this is the sort of thing they expect a government to be able to manage. And if it doesn't, manages and goes on to. Then when the Leaving CERT results come out on the 7th of September to stumble into that and I think the way older they are discrete issues, the way they return of the schools next week goes will determine a lot of the context in which the Leaving CERT result is interpreted.

[00:25:02]

So I think if it goes badly next week, I think the chances that it goes worse with the Leaving CERT results the following week increases. And in that case, I think that could be perhaps fatally destabilizing far for the government. I mean, I think I've said this on the podcast before, but the future of the government, I think, actually depends on how the next few weeks go. And it's in that respect, it's it's impossible to overstate the political importance of it.

[00:25:32]

And I want to turn to the living here in a minute. But I want to ask you about the news reports yesterday and this morning about I just found it kind of confusing, really, about a school which had had a prayer service for for four first years entering the school for the first time.

[00:25:47]

So there were 120, 130 individuals congregated in a hall, albeit with social distancing of one meter.

[00:25:53]

And that seems to me to be the kind of thing which the guidelines advise against, isn't it? I mean, what does that say about that?

[00:26:00]

The guidelines are my understanding of them or or that school's understanding of them or what they actually say.

[00:26:06]

Yeah, like there's no doubt that went against the spirit of the guidelines. You know, one of the issues is schools have a fair degree of autonomy, you know, in interpreting the guidelines. So they're not very prescriptive. And so there isn't, believe it or not, anything in the guidelines which says you do not hold an assembly, do not hold an event where you have 150 pupils socially distance that there should be, of course, but there isn't.

[00:26:33]

And you would have thought maybe that most school principals would, you know, on the ground would not hold those types of events. But in this particular school, they did. And there are other schools certainly where they're looking at, you know, trying to do orientation days for for students and holding them en masse. But this is this is the big challenge in reopening schools. It's a big mindset shift. You know, you can't do the things that you used to do anymore.

[00:26:58]

And I think that's going to take a while to percolate through on the ground, you know. So while something might be written down in black and white, certainly if you look at the spirit of the guidelines, that's not the kind of activity that should be happening. And when that happened in that school in Carlisle yesterday, you know, the department issued a very kind of wishy washy statement which really didn't answer the question at all. But it took Norma Foley when she was on primetime last night, kind of very much say, you know, this isn't what we want.

[00:27:27]

You know, this isn't what the aim of these guidelines are about. I think you're going to see, you know, quite a bit of that. You know, you've principals and teachers just adapting to that new normal and and just realizing that, you know, you can't have the staff meetings. You can't have a lot of the extracurricular activities, you can't have school assemblies. You're just going to have to change the way we do things. And that that might take just a little a little while to get through on the ground.

[00:27:52]

It seems strange, though, that that has not been realized already given all we've been through in the last six months.

[00:27:58]

You would have thought so, particularly against the backdrop of the discussion of, you know, the 81 Iraq dismembers and others, you know, in a hotel that, you know, that should have gone through. But, you know, in that case, you know, the principal was saying, listen, we abided by the guidelines. The students were distanced that one metre. There was nothing in the guidelines that said we couldn't do that. And she's right.

[00:28:22]

Absolutely. But again, it comes down to the the spirit of it. And I think one of those issues with the guidelines is that, you know, every school is kind of different on the ground, every school and the unique challenges, such as classroom layouts, some of Pithole, some don't, all of that. So the guidelines themselves were free, were molded in a way to allow schools to adapt them to their own individual circumstances. They weren't unduly prescriptive.

[00:28:48]

And, you know, that can be a positive, but it could also be a negative, as we've seen in this most recent case. And I am sure there will be many others in these opening weeks where you will have, you know, pictures flying around on social media of of kind of questionable assemblies and group meetings and so on. But I think I think that will get through, you would think, over the coming days and weeks.

[00:29:13]

Plus, Norma Foley had a couple of rocky moments over the course of her first two months or next two months are likely to be tougher. How do you think she's doing so far as a new TV in a particularly fraught position?

[00:29:27]

Well, pretty shaky start, I think. And she kept the head down over recent weeks when there were, as you know, constant calls for her to come out and be the face of the reopening of. But which gave a fairly strong interview last night on air on prime time. And I think she has a reasonable shot of pulling this off. I think if it goes wrong, as we discussed earlier, there will be enough political blame for everybody to go around.

[00:29:53]

And but I think at present, she has a reasonable shot of of of doing this successfully. A lot will depend, of course, on as Carl has laid out, the performance of the individual schools and and how I think both the health authorities, but also the central Department of Education react when, as inevitably there will be and there are outbreaks in schools, you know. Ah, and, you know, our whole schools shut down because of outbreaks.

[00:30:26]

Is it simply the pods are the class are the year or how that is done?

[00:30:31]

There's a fair bit of confusion, as I understand it, among schools as to what's going to happen.

[00:30:36]

If there is a if there is an outbreak of cases reported in their schools, I think they'll simply ask the Hajazi and the Hajazi well will assess the situation and tell them what to do. But that, in a way, is handing over control of how that is managed to an outside agency, which, you know, hasn't always displayed NASA levels of competency to to say the least of it.

[00:31:05]

So, you know, I think it's probably too early to say how Folies is is performing. She has a test next week and the week after, and she has a reasonable shot at passing it, I think. But if I were her, I certainly wouldn't be taking anything for granted.

[00:31:23]

So let's talk about the the leaving search, Carl. I mean, I imagine that the situation in the UK, where, first of all, the Scottish government brought in these calculated adjusted grades and had to roll back completely humiliating climbdown.

[00:31:38]

And all this was observed by the government at Westminster who then fired. If I went ahead and did exactly the same thing in England with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, you know, being deeply critical of the Scottish humiliating climbdown and then being forced to do the same thing himself within within 48 hours, it was a complete dumpster fire of a process.

[00:31:58]

And people have wondered, you know, they had this complex equation or algorithm or whatever you may want to call it, which clearly delivered unfair outcomes for some people, seemed to entrench or enhance socioeconomic inequalities and various other kinds of things.

[00:32:16]

So we're all looking at here.

[00:32:19]

Do we have an algorithm here? We do.

[00:32:21]

You know, and and you're right. You know, the department and the minister will have been watching with kind of fascinated horror as to what's unfolded over in the UK. But, you know, the biggest assets they have is time, you know, and they've seen where all the landmines were in Scotland and Wales and England and Northern Ireland. So they have a chance to try and diffuse some of them over the coming weeks. And so when they announced that the results were going to be not in the middle of August, September 7th, there was a bit of an outcry over that book.

[00:32:54]

But, you know, that gives them some crucial breathing space to try and ensure that, you know, the grades are released in a way that's acceptable to most pupils. Now, you look at how how similar are is the Irish system to the UK system. And on the face of it, they are very similar. As you said, you know, have two sources of information that inform grades. You have you know, the teachers estimate a grade for a student and then you have this standardisation process.

[00:33:23]

So on the face of it, we have a very similar system to the UK. There are some small differences which should lead to the grades not being not quite as controversial. So one is that, you know, teachers in Ireland were giving percentage marks to students, not grades. So should be a bit more accurate. Secondly, the standardisation tool is likely to be, I would say, a light touch standardization because they've looked at what's happened in the UK and they've seen that's where the controversy was.

[00:33:58]

You know, when students are seeing their results being downgraded significantly. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if that actually thought that standardisation are the algorithm isn't applied as as heavily as it has been in the UK.

[00:34:13]

You've got to think, though, that some process to address the same problem, which is teachers marking up their own students, which is likely seems to me to be just as likely to be a phenomenon here as it was in in the UK. Now, whether Irish teachers will mark up their students by a. Similarly spectacular amount as British teachers appear to have done, is is another question, but either way, some sort of process to address the at the problem of teachers marking up their students and therefore having vastly better results than might otherwise have been the case.

[00:34:59]

And that was certainly the case last year and will have to be found.

[00:35:03]

But one of the things, Carol, that strikes me is that there were more used to the idea of predictive grades in the UK because for a long time they've had predictive grades which allow universities to make early offers, which are then contingent on the real marks that people get in in in their annual exams, which is different from the system here. So they should have been more familiar with the kind of differential between teachers marks and and and exam marks.

[00:35:26]

But it still went horribly wrong.

[00:35:27]

One of the things which has been suggested is that, you know, in attempting to get this accurate bell curve, which mimicked exam results in previous years, what they did was they intentionally reflected inbuilt inequalities in the system in the first place and just impose them on people this time, which made them more glaringly obvious and perhaps more ethically problematic than they had been in previous years. But they're there all the time.

[00:35:49]

Well, I think what emerged from the UK was that, you know, there wasn't there wasn't public support for a system where individuals grades were largely dictated by an algorithm. You know, people are happy that when it's a human overseeing a corrective process, that that happens. Even though there are algorithms involved there. You know, there are less visible. But here it was very, very visible in that case. And Norma Folia actually made a kind of a coded reference last week, which I thought was very significant.

[00:36:17]

And she was saying that, you know, the Irish system will have more weight attached to the school based grade. Now, that hasn't been said before. And what that does indicate is that we will have a much more light touch standardization or less emphasis on the bell curve and ensuring the results are the same from year to year. The problem with that is, of course, that that does mean grades are likely to be much, much higher than previous years.

[00:36:43]

And it also disadvantages a very sizable cohort who are applying for places in college this year based on previous years leaving cert. So let's say there's about 70000 people looking for college places. About 20000 of those are people applying on the basis of previous leaving cert. So they could certainly be disadvantaged if grade inflation goes through the roof because we're placing much greater emphasis on on school based grades. And also the thing the issue with with teachers, you know, be more generous in estimating their students grades.

[00:37:17]

We've no research in Ireland about this. The only researchers in the UK and as you said, they've huge experience in doing this. But I think it's the latest research I saw was that in 70 percent of cases, teachers overestimate their students grades in the UK, and that's a system where they have a lot of experience over over decades there. So in Ireland, we really don't know. But I'd be very surprised if we're not dissimilar, you know, expect us to be and certainly somewhere in that ballpark.

[00:37:46]

Of course, the reality of delivering cert is that what it is, is in fact is is a masked or glorified third level entrance exam. That's that's its primary function. I'm sure that there's a there's a smaller number of people for whom it has some effect upon the jobs that they hope to start in the succeeding year or two years. But that's that's a very small part of it. So what does that knock on effect of that grade inflation you talk about?

[00:38:07]

I mean, for the universities that that does not just wash through or does it mean that there are more people who who get into university this year than did last year, not just university, but all third level? Yeah.

[00:38:19]

Was the CEO system. It's a supply and demand. So it's different to the UK where, you know, you get your conditional offer based on what grades you will get and then you get your place in college. Whereas in Ireland it's really supply and demand and of course your grades convert into points. And then the points are based on your your where you are in the competitive queue, if you like, four places in a particular course. So the thing is, in the UK, to kind of solve this political issue, they had to create thousands of additional university places because so many students were getting those conditional offers which hadn't been otherwise due to standardisation.

[00:38:58]

But in Ireland, it's going to be different in that we literally do not have the capacity to offer these additional places. In fact, the universities are probably doing well enough to offer the same number of places as last year because of the financial crisis a lot of them are facing into. So I think what you might see is that because of international students aren't going to be coming here in the same numbers, you will you will see some courses, perhaps those high demand courses like medicine, maybe nursing and some engineering courses that you will see some additional places there, but not huge.

[00:39:33]

We're talking in the hundreds, maybe. Certainly not the thousands. So that could ease some of the pressure, but we don't have that option that the UK has had of kind of lifting caps and and really opening the opening the doors and allowing, you know, thousands and thousands of additional university or third level places for for students. But I think they will just hope that by adjusting the standardization, by having a light touch approach to it, that that will, you know, take some of the heat out.

[00:40:03]

And what's also interesting is the sequencing in how students will get their results, because you get your results on a Monday, September 7th, four days later, you get your seehofer. So, you know, it's not you won't have students kind of marching in the streets, you know, until they would see their CEO offers. And then it's the following Monday that you only get to see what your school, our teacher estimated. What the for you and your grade.

[00:40:32]

So you'll only then get to see the extent to which are downgraded. So if you like, the sequencing of that could take a lot of the heat of the situation ultimately, whereas in the UK your people had full visibility on day one of exactly what had happened to their grade, what their teacher had estimated, what their actual result was and whether they were going to college here. It's spread out over the course of a week or so. That's very convenient sequencing, isn't it?

[00:40:57]

It is. And and it's kind of the system that with that we've we've had, which is kind of controversial in itself because people think that, you know, when you get yearly results, you should know automatically are you going to college or not. But that's the the system we have. But certainly the idea that you're not seeing your teachers estimate the grade for a week, I think could be crucial in shaping, you know, the public opinion and the student response to these grades.

[00:41:22]

And that could certainly take some of the heat out of this from from the government's point of view, finally.

[00:41:26]

But just as you've said already, this is the crunch issue for the government now over the next six, six to eight weeks in particular. And really, it seems to me that nobody's really sure how either of these huge issues back to school and and that even sort of results are going to go.

[00:41:42]

It's in some ways, it's a huge political gamble and it has to be done by political gambles and not things that politicians like to take normally are. They know.

[00:41:52]

But as you say, is it it has to be done. It seems to me there's a couple of danger points in this. The first is that there could be, as Carl says, without an expansion of university places. And if the grades are higher than they have been in previous years, which seems to be what we are headed for, then there'll be a spike in a spike in points so that lots of people who would have hoped with particular results get into particular college courses won't won't get in.

[00:42:21]

That's that's a danger point. And also, when the the corrections and the full information on the individual grades come out, what really torpedoed the British system was an avalanche of individual stories about people who in many cases came from underperforming state schools, who had worked really hard, had outperformed everybody in their school, and was going to go to the college of their dreams through the course of their dreams and so forth. And they achieved that in their estimated results, but then were knocked down by the evil state algorithm, which is deprive them of of the university place of their dreams.

[00:42:59]

If anything like that happens here, then and then I think that, you know, the government could be headed for all sorts of trouble. What I suppose it will need to do is to project an image of of being in control of competence, but also to put forward to people a believable narrative. Nobody expects that everything is going to be perfect. But if the government can present a system that is working more or less pretty well in the circumstances, and that isn't contradicted by a whole heap of, you know, very hard individual stories, then it has a shot of, ah, making their spot.

[00:43:44]

Given the given the management competence that the government has displayed thus far, it wouldn't exactly fill you over brimming with confidence that it's going to be able to pull this off.

[00:43:59]

Finally, what do you think about that? Because, I mean, it's quite right that the the thing that the algorithm was particularly dismal on, ah, perhaps was most noticed because it was so glaringly unfair, was high performing students in underperforming schools got a particularly raw deal?

[00:44:15]

This particular thing, I think more in Ireland, but maybe correct me if I'm wrong, that there's another cohort we might kick up some trouble, which is an aggressive parents in in supposedly high performing schools, often fee paying schools who are very, very keen to call on my learned friends. If they feel that if they feel that they're there, they're lovely. Children have. I've been in some way disadvantaged by the state maybe for the first time in their lives.

[00:44:40]

Is there any any sense that, you know, we might end up with some of this in the courts? Yeah, I think they're the one certainty is that there's going to be controversy about this. You know, there will be winners and there will be losers. You know, what will be crucial is, you know, to what value that is happening. And there will be legal challenges. You know, in fact, we've already had one successful legal challenge, which was from a home schooled student who argued that they've been unfairly excluded from the calculated grade system.

[00:45:09]

So they've already lost one big legal case. The attorney general advised when they framed this calculator, great system, was that there were legal vulnerabilities to it. So I think it's an inevitable there will be legal challenges. You're right. You know, the very well-connected students who don't get their their chosen places will feel especially hard done by if they sense that it's an algorithm that has tripped them up enough, their their academic capabilities, that's going to be an issue.

[00:45:41]

And as in Scotland, as you said, that the really big issue there was disadvantaged students being disproportionately downgraded. I think that's something, you know, which the Irish policymakers would be acutely aware of, you know, and it was the one area of controversy when the health, a great system was was devised initially was the school profiling idea. You know, that students calculated grades might be adjusted based on the school's track record in achieving grades over a period of three or four years.

[00:46:17]

So that will form part of the algorithm. The issue, the what the Irish officials say is that our system is slightly different to the UK system and that it does pick up the type of student who might be in a poorly performing school, but actually is exceeding the performance of the wider class. And they're saying they can pick up on that from their junior cert results. And also the teacher's individual grading will be recognised as well. However, there were similar arguments made in Scotland and in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland.

[00:46:53]

So I think the key thing is nobody knows how this is going to go, you know, but as I said, the biggest asset the Irish system does have is time. And certainly I would say they're working furiously to go through student by students, school by school, with a large degree of human intervention to ensure that, you know, what does emerge is going to be as palatable as possible. I don't think that happened in the UK where is very much, very much done by by algorithm and it was outsourced.

[00:47:24]

So here, I think definitely time is the one thing which is on the Department of Education side here.

[00:47:30]

It's kind of fascinating stuff really is going to be a bumpy, maybe a nerve wracking ride as well. We'll leave it there. Thanks very much to Takala Teapot for joining us. Thanks to Neomi also for joining us earlier and also to Declan Connellan, our producer and JJ Vernon on the desk before we go. Allow me to encourage you one more time if you have not already done so, to go to Irish Times dot com slash, subscribe to sign up for limited access to the Irish Times for the remarkable price of one euro for the first month.

[00:47:54]

And if you want to get in touch with us, we're always delighted to hear from you. Just email us a politics podcast at Irish Times dot com until the next time. Thanks very much indeed for listening.