Carrick-on-Suir student whose mother died during her Leaving Cert exams campaigns for exam reform

Aileen Hahesy


Aileen Hahesy

Campaigning student

Rhona Butler pictured beside her late mother Margaret and dad John and Scoil Mhuire and Carrick Credit Union representatives on the occasion she was awarded Student of the Year last May.

A Carrick-on-Suir student whose mother died from cancer in the middle of her Leaving Cert exams last June is campaigning for bereaved students like her to be allowed do the State exams a few weeks later. 

Former Scoil Mhuire Secondary School student Rhona Butler from Carrickbeg finished her exams despite the grief and distress she was suffering at the loss of her mother, Margaret. 

Due to her experience, she wants the Minister for Education to give students who lose a family member just before or during the Leaving Cert exams a period of grace and allow them sit them in July.  

Rhona said she sent letters by email outlining her appeal to the Taoiseach Leo Varadker, Education Minister Joe McHugh and the Department of Education & Skills. But she only received automated responses and decided to highlight her case instead on RTE Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy show this morning (Thursday, January 17).  

Speaking to The Nationalist after the radio interview, Rhona said two sets of Leaving Cert exam papers are prepared each year and one set is chosen. 

"I think instead of throwing the other set of papers away, they should keep them for circumstances such as this,” she proposed. 

"The final Leaving Cert exam was on June 21 last year. Students who have suffered a bereavement could do the exams in the second week of July to give them a bit of head space. It wouldn't take that long to do and there would probably be only between five and ten students sitting the exam later. I don't think it would take a whole lot of effort," she told The Nationalist.

She said the period of grace should also apply to students who suffer an accident or serious illness during the exams. 

Rhona was awarded Scoil Mhuire's Student of the Year Award on May 25 last year just before she started her Leaving Cert exams. 

Despite being seriously ill, her mother attended the proud occasion with Rhona's dad John. Sadly just a few weeks later, Margaret lost her six year battle with breast cancer at the age of 50. She passed away on the night of Wednesday, June 13 while Rhona was in the middle of her exams. She had completed her maths, English and Irish exams and was due to sit her business exam the following morning. 

In the midst of her deep sorrow, Rhona went ahead and sat the business paper and her remaining exams in German, accountancy and music. "If I hadn't I would have had to wait until June the following year. I had been working towards this for six years."

She said sitting the business paper at Scoil Mhuire the morning after her mam's death was a "surreal" experience. "When you are in shock you don't really know what you are doing."

Rhona's German exam was on the morning of her mother's wake, Friday, June 15 and the Requiem Mass was the following day. She recalls she was exhausted by the end of the weekend and had two more exams still to sit. 

While Rhona felt she didn't have much of a choice but to press ahead and finish her exams, she also knew it was what her mother would have wanted. "I know if I said I was going to postpone sitting the exams, she would just say 'don't do that'," she told The Nationalist. 

Rhona's fortitude and hard work paid off and last August she got the Leaving Cert results she required to get a place in the University of Limerick's undergraduate Business and German degree course. She needed to get 420 points and achieved 498. 

She was delighted with the results but believes she probably would have been capable of achieving over 500 points if she hadn't sat the exams during such a harrowing time. "If I was aiming for a course with higher points, I wouldn't have got it," she pointed out. 

Rhona, who won student of the year awards during each of her six years in Scoil Mhuire, paid tribute to the school's principal Brendan O'Dwyer and staff for the huge support they gave her while she was sitting the Leaving Cert. 

When she went into school on the morning after her mother's death, she was offered loads of cups of tea. "If they could have gone and sat the exam for me they would have. They were so supportive," she recalled.  

Students from Scoil Mhuire formed a guard of honour at her mam's funeral. Rhona's sister Lorna is a fifth year student at Scoil Mhuire and her brother Richard is in 1st year at Comeragh College. 

The Nationalist has contacted the Department of Education & Skills and State Examinations Commission in relation to Rhona's proposal and is awaiting a response.