A final decision on Leaving Cert 2020 is expected within days amid increasing pressure for the cancellation of the exams rescheduled to July 29 in the wake of Covid-19.
Four out of five of this year's candidates want them called off and replaced with a system of predictive grading, according to a new survey.
The use of predictive grades to assess the 61,000 candidates is now being openly discussed, after a milestone meeting in the Department of Education yesterday.
Education Minister Joe McHugh's attendance was a clear signal that deliberations on the Leaving Cert assessment arrangements were moving up a notch.
He joined members of the Covid-19 State exams advisory group in which, for the first time, options other than a delayed start to the traditional exams were formally put on the table.
The group represents interests such as teachers, students, parents, school managers and curriculum and exam chiefs and up to now its focus had been on the practicalities of running the exams in July/August in the context of the pandemic.
The opening up to other options reflects the growing realisation that it may not be feasible to run traditional exams from July 29 because of social distancing rules and other public health protocols.
Even if the enormous logistical challenges involved could be overcome, there is a demand for certainty now, in the interests of student well-being.
The Irish Second Level Students' Union (ISSU) was able to give the minister a first-hand account of the mood of exam candidates.
An ISSU survey conducted between Friday and Tuesday found that 79pc of current sixth years want the exams cancelled and replaced by a predictive grading model.
That is a massive jump from the 58pc who, in an ISSU survey a month earlier, voted for the cancellation of the exams if they could not happen in June.
The 24,000 students who voted in the latest survey make up 39pc of all sixth years, and have delivered a powerful message.
Only 15pc of students supported the July 29 exam start, while 6pc voted for "other".
The ISSU noted the cohort who do not favour predictive grades and said a model needed to be developed that would "ensure fairness and equity".
ISSU president Ciara Fanning said that students needed clarification on how assessment will happen.
She said the union was concerned about the mental health and anxiety issues brought to its attention.
Afterwards, Mr McHugh said yesterday's discussions would "assist in making decisions regarding arrangements for the Leaving Certificate that have students' best interests at heart and that are guided at all times by the public health advice".
The Department of Education said the meeting continued its discussions on the practicalities of holding the Leaving Cert exams given the constraints of social distancing and other measures.
Crucially, it added: "The group also discussed alternative assessment models."
It is understood that all alternatives centre on predictive grading, and some involve a combination of predictive grading and exams,
A lot of technical work has already gone into various options but all are fraught with difficulties around fairness in a system that has no tradition of using predictive grading.
Fianna Fail education spokesperson Thomas Byrne has called for the exams to be cancelled, while the National Parents Council Post Primary wants a mix of predictive grades and exams.