The Minister for Education is not going the right way about implementing change

Opinion: Junior Cycle reform requires more thought and better training for teachers

What will it do to the reputation of our education system if there is no independent verification of standards? Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

What will it do to the reputation of our education system if there is no independent verification of standards? Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Supposing you wanted to implement important changes in a very large and dispersed organisation. Would you opt to do it at a time when there are almost no resources available to carry out that change?

Would you do it when your workforce are weary, undermined and demoralised, having had several years of seeing vital supports for the people they serve disappear, and also having suffered wage cuts and increased hours and responsibilities? Would you demand it after piling new iniative after new initiative on them, while job security for new workers virtually disappears?

That, pretty much, is what Minister Ruairí Quinn is attempting to do with his proposed Junior Cycle reform.

Teachers are not opposed to reform. Given that they spend their time struggling with the limitations of a system that is overly focused on exams, they have strong incentives to back well-managed change.

However, the proposed method of implementation is causing profound fears.

I should declare an interest – I am a second-level teacher, and ASTI member, although I do not speak on behalf of either constituency.

However, because I teach English, I will be expected to introduce a radically new approach to teaching next September, because it is the first subject to undergo reform.

Terminal exams
We are expected to move from a system almost entirely focused on a terminal exam to one where assessment is part of a toolkit to help the process of learning.

The Minister has loftily declared that we have four years to implement change, because the first examinations will not happen until 2017.

For someone who believes that we need to get away from terminal exams, it seems rather odd of the Minister to pick 2017 as the point where real change kicks in. Surely the new approach is all about the process, which is supposed to begin with first-year students in September 2014, that is, in 10 months’ time?

In 2013/2014, teachers of English will receive one full day of training outside of school, and two hours inside of school.

Yep. That’s it for this academic year. In that time, we are supposed to change our entire teaching methodology and focus, and inspire confidence in our incoming students and in their parents.

In contrast, when Project Maths was introduced, there were nine in-service days, even though there were no radical changes in assessment methods.

The post-primary management bodies, along with the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, have been politely and persistently requesting three things.

Firstly, rather than isolating teachers of one subject and letting them carry the burden of change, that there would be one day for the entire staff to absorb and digest the proposed changes. They also asked for funding for 10 hours a week per school to focus on how best to co-ordinate reform. The third request was for a panel of experts around the country, a kind of flying squad who could go to schools for short visits when problems emerge, as they already have.

To date, none of these incredibly modest requests have been approved. Teachers have the strong impression that instead, we will be expected to make it up as we go along.

The most worrying aspect, though, is the absence of what is called external moderation, in other words, independent quality control of how assessments and exams are to be marked.

There will be no Junior Certificate – only a school certificate. What will it do to the reputation of our education system if there is no independent verification of standards?

Parental confidence
What will it do to parental confidence if it becomes clear that the school certificate from school A is very different to that given by school B? As currently proposed, that lack of consistency will be inevitable.

The original proposals from the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment included external moderation, particularly for the exams at the end of third year. All of that has disappeared.

These changes will hit the disadvantaged schools hardest, because they are already struggling to maintain equilibrium, particularly as the guidance counselling cuts bite.

Better-off schools can design and fund the new short courses much more easily, so it reinforces inequality.

Parents are probably worried that the first State exam that their child will ever sit will be the Leaving Certificate, but there are far greater worries. This reform has huge positive potential, from smoothing out the current gap between primary and secondary, to increasing independent learning by students that will equip them far better for a world where the only constant is rapid change.

But it won’t work if it is rushed, and if there is a derisory amount of professional development for teachers.

Mindful of the Minister’s former profession, Sally Maguire, president of the ASTI and enthusiastic supporter of proper reform, has likened current plans to an architect’s blueprint, which is being mistaken for a fully built home, even though the foundation has not even been laid.

The only sane option is to delay implementation for a year, while instituting intensive whole-school training, and adequate professional development. But that would take courage and real leadership.

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