Teacher's pet

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

An insider's guide to education

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has a spring in his step around the Department of Education these days, as you might expect, after the very positive response to those radical Junior Cert reforms.

The changes were welcomed by school principals, employer and business groups, virtually all media commentators and, it seems, most of the public. Most accept the argument that radical change is required to address the literacy and numeracy crisis at second level.

Curiously, the two teacher unions – Asti and the TUI – were the only ones to rail against the reforms. With scarcely a pause for breath, both rushed in to condemn the proposals in robust terms. Many union members were puzzled by the negative response – and small wonder.

Both unions are represented on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, whose report last November formed the basis for the Quinn plan. The Asti and TUI representatives on the NCCA signed off on the radical changes, such as the switch to continuous assessment, which now appear so troubling.

It all begs some questions. Where are the unions’ own plans to combat the literacy and numeracy crisis? What are their plans to address the sense of disengagement among young boys in disadvantaged communities from second-level education? How do they believe the system should change? And are they really concerned only with the pay and conditions of their members?

**

Extraordinary scenes on the day of the Junior Cert launch at the Department of Education. The great and the good from Irish education had assembled for an NCCA conference on assessment. All was going swimmingly as Prof Paul Black of King’s College London gave an inspiring speech on assessment.

But the upbeat mood was broken when Asti’s new reprsentative on the NCCA council, Philip Irwin, told the professor that he lived in a monarchy whereas the rest of us lived in a corrupt Republic where independently marked State exams were about the only safe thing around.

Black cut Irwin off in full flow, saying he would not allow teachers’ professionalism to be questioned in this way. His dramatic put-down won strong applause from the audience.

**

Who are the big winners in the Junior Cert reform? It was a good day for NCCA chief executive Anne Looney, who has been pushing for radical exam reform for some time, only to be rebuked by previous ministers.

It was also a good day for the NCCA chairwoman, Brigid McManus, the former department secretary general and an essential link between the council and Marlborough Street.

Around the department, chief inspector Harold Hislop and director/assistant secretary Alan Wall played a key, and much-praised, behind-the-scenes role in drafting the final Junior Cert proposals.

Politically, Quinn is the big winner. He has recovered his poise after that embarrassing U-turn on Deis. The Junior Cert reform package cements his reputation as someone who can leave a lasting legacy in the department.

The next challenge? Finding that €77 million in education cuts before the budget.

**

A voice from the past was heard on radio the day of the Junior Cert launch. Thirty-seven years ago a landmark Intermediate Certificate Examination report was published, calling for much the same changes Quinn has now announced. And who gave the Thought for the Day on RTÉ on the day of the launch? None other than the chair of the working group that produced the report: a hale and hearty 85-year-old Paul Andrews SJ. Serendipity or what?


Teacher’s Pet is compiled by Sean Flynn. Email sflynn@irishtimes.com. Twitter @SeanFlynnEd

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