This year's Leaving Certificate students could be offered a choice between examinations and an alternative measure, according to the Department of Education.
The precise form of any alternative has yet to be determined and agreed, but the department said that intensive bilateral talks will now begin to develop a concrete plan.
In a statement issued with the agreement of education partners, Minister for Education Norma Foley said she was inviting the partners to discussions to begin progress on "two distinct process for Leaving Certificate 2021: planning for examinations and scoping out a corresponding measure, different to examinations that can also be offered to students".
Suggesting an openness to an approach combining exams with some form of alternative assessment or grading, the minister said that a "parallel approach" needs to be explored.
"Examinations need to be available to students. Given the impact on learning for students both last year and this year, there is also a need to explore a parallel approach which can be offered to students," she said.
In a statement, the minister said that any alternative measure this year would need to incorporate new features compared to last year’s calculated grades.
"Any corresponding measure should have the confidence of the education partners. Last year a process was put in place that involved schools generating estimated marks and the application of a national standardisation process. This allowed students to progress," she said.
After weeks of meetings involving a wide group of stakeholders, the move to bilateral talks represents an intensification of the process.
The minister said: "We will be actively planning both to hold the Leaving Certificate examinations, and to put in place a corresponding measure that can also be offered to students."
This afternoon, education stakeholders, including students, held the last of a series of meetings to discuss a range of options for this year’s State examination candidates.
Both the Teachers Union of Ireland and the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland have accepted the invitation to take part in the discussions.
In a statement, the TUI said that it will "participate constructively in what we will insist will be meaningful engagement that recognises the professional views and legitimate concerns of our members, including a fundamental concern to protect the standards and reputation of national awards to students".
Meanwhile, the ASTI said that it is committed to "working constructively with all stakeholders to ensure that Leaving Certificate 2021 goes ahead as normally as possible and that alternative plans, should they be necessary, will be put in place".
Both unions said they would be making no further comment during the period of engagement.
The Department of Education said the discussions will be focused and immediate, aimed at providing clear plans and information to students as quickly as possible on how the examinations will be held and details of the corresponding measure to be offered to students.
Minister Foley said: "I am inviting the education partners to now engage intensively with the department in planning for the next steps, to enable decisions to be made and to bring much-needed certainty for students."
She said the discussions in the Examinations Advisory Subgroup have been hugely helpful in considering the many issues and challenges involved.
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The minister said: "Any corresponding measure should have the confidence of the education partners. Last year a process was put in place that involved schools generating estimated marks and the application of a national standardisation process. This allowed students to progress.
"In particular, the State Examinations Commission will need to be given the necessary legal powers to run the process. It will also need to provide more comprehensively for students studying outside school.
"Recognition of the skills and competences associated with orals, practicals and coursework should also form a clearer part of any such measure.
"Due to the nature of the pandemic, and the need to always have regard to public health advice, in addition to planning actively to hold the Leaving Certificate examinations, it is necessary to have in place a parallel measure that can also be offered to students."
She said the situation was not identical to last year, and so any solutions that were considered needed to be appropriate for this year's cohort.
The minister said: "My commitment to students and their families is that we will give as much further certainty as we can, as early as we can.
"We will ensure that we find ways that enable students to progress."
Sinn Féin's education spokesperson has said that Leaving Cert students are still in the dark, but hopes that they will have a choice with the exams.
Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that a written exam only is not feasible this year, and he is keen to see the outcome of the negotiations.