Assessment of pupils ‘a red line issue’ ASTI conference is told

Delegates concerned that changes will break a that ‘has served us well’

Delegates at the annual convention of secondary teachers union, the ASTI, have restated their opposition to assessing their own students’ work. The conference unanimously passed an emergency motion in the issue which speaker after speaker warned was “a red line issue” for them.

Delegates also backed a motion that the ASTI will not engage in any discussion on Leaving Cert reform as announced by Minister for Education Norma Foley last month until a full, open and transparent study of the Junior Cert has been conducted and its findings made public.

ASTI Standing Committee member Philip Irwin said that Ms Foley had spoken about proposed Leaving Cert change and grade assessment by teachers in "a disgraceful way" where teachers were being treated almost as an afterthought.

He said teachers had only gotten involved in calculated grades for the Leaving Cert as an emergency measure during the two year Covid-19 pandemic and only after firm commitments had been given by government it would not be taken as a precedent.

Mr Irwin warned that resultant grade inflation of such a long-term move would prove to be “unsustainable” and he urged the government to listen to teachers over how the future of the Leaving Cert should be handled.

Mark Walsh of Dublin North East said Minister Foley's proposal was a repeat of the proposal made by then Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn regarding the Junior Cert in 2012 where he had failed to properly consult with teachers with disastrous consequences for students.

He said that Mr Quinn made the decision to reform the Junior Certificate and only then committed to seeking partnership from teachers on how to implement the decision and the Minister now was adopting the same approach regarding Senior Cycle reform.

Huge pressure

Sinéad Moore from Fingal warned that asking teachers to assess their own students could result in teachers coming under huge pressure from parents and principals to award high marks as happened to her while teaching in a private school in Rome during a career break.

“I had a couple of bold boys who decided they were going to plagiarise their exam .... I warned them if they plagiarised their exam, they would get zero percent and we used Turn It In and I saw that these two students plagiarised so I gave them the promised zero percent.

“So what happened, the parents kicked up an absolute fuss - emails, phone calls meetings - I was unwavering and said I would not change the result - the principal came on board and she put me under severe pressure to change the result and this went on for two months.”

Ms Moore said that she was in a position to be able to refuse but she wondered what might happen in a private school in Ireland if a teacher, who did not have a permanent position, came under pressure from a parent or a principal to improve a student's marks.

Michael McGrath of Dungarvan Branch said the current Leaving Certificate exam system was "above reproach" and was recognised worldwide as an fair and independent assessment where grades could not be bought by wealthy parents.

"I have a past pupil in Harvard University doing research studies and he knows a student from Ireland walked into Harvard two years ago and presented their Leaving Cert with 625 points and he said 'Why?' Because they knew Daddy could not have bought those grades."

Séamas Mescill said the existing Leaving Cert boasted hard won integrity and should not be jettisoned. “I believe the Government is taking advantage of the good will we showed them over the past two years. They want to seize the opportunity and plough ahead.”

Tipperary delegate Noel Buckley said there was "massive support" within both the ASTI and TUI to oppose the issue of teacher exam assessment. "We need to sing from the same hymn sheet - we are both opposed to this. Our system of external assessment has served us well."

Mutual trust

Geraldine O’Brien from Clare said the Minister had spoken about mutual trust but trust had to be earned and Ms Foley had twice exploited the good will of teachers during Covid-19 by first asking them to do accredited grades and then calculated grades.

“You now want us to do that on a permanent basis - shame on you, Minister,” said Ms O’Brien, adding that the union must insist that any rollout of reform must be rolled out for all subjects together so teachers cannot be “picked off” subject by subject.

ASTI general secretary, Kieran Christie warned that "teachers assessing their students for State Certification is simply a bad idea". He compared the proposal to "the equivalent of an educational pyrite fiasco" and said teachers would not be sidelined.

“The views of our members will be sought and ascertained in a detailed consultation across our structures to inform our position. Those views will be brought to every forum at every stage of the process.

“Without drilling down too deeply into the details, I see two fundamental problems with the proposals. Minister Foley has stated that the changes she is bringing forward aim to reduce stress on students. A noble objective that we would all share.

“However, it has been a popular commentary for many years that the big problem with the Leaving Certificate is not so much the examinations per se but the fact that they are tethered to progression to third level and it is that (which) drives the stress.”

Mr Christie warned the second major problem was the manner in which Ms Foley had outlined the proposed changes on March 29th without consultation or negotiation of any kind with the union.

“She (Ms Foley) enveloped it all in nice soft language peppered with notions of inclusion, valued stakeholders, consultation and what have you. It is a neat trick if you can carry it off.,” said Mr Christie before issuing a stern warning to the government.

“Let me be clear. If this is the manner in which she intends to proceed with her proposals she will find that we in the ASTI can be a strong adversary. ASTI members cannot and will not be taken for granted.”

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