The main union for secondary school teachers has voted to escalate its industrial action over plans to reform the Junior Cycle to include the threat of strike action.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) voted by an overwhelming majority - 84 per cent to 16 per cent - to extend the dispute to include a one day strike and further strike action if the reforms go ahead.
However, the turnout for the ballot was just 44 per cent, even lower than the 45 per cent who registered a vote in the previous ballot for non-cooperation with the Junior Cycle plan.
"Strike action is always the very last resort for teachers and today's result shows the depth of feeling amongst ASTI members that the framework proposals will have a serious negative impact on students' experience of second-level education," said Pat King, ASTI general secretary.
“We now have a clear message for the Minister: teachers are not prepared to implement proposals which they believe are educationally unsound. It is vital that the Minister engages with the teacher unions in a way that ensures teachers’ concerns are heard and addressed.”
While the ASTI says it is broadly in favour of modernising the Junior Cycle, it is objecting to plans to have teachers assess their own students within schools. It also wants to retain the Junior Cert as a state-approved qualification rather than having the planned, school-based Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA).
ASTI president Philip Irwin said: "The outcome of this ballot reflects the deep concern ASTI members have that the abolition of the Junior Cert exam and its replacement with a school exam marked by students' own teachers represents a running down of Junior Cycle education which will result in a decline in student motivation due to the diminished status of the exam.
“This is not only the concern of teachers, but of many parents too. We believe it is possible to transform the Junior Cycle and to provide students with a truly modern, cutting edge education experience without losing what works and what is highly valued by parents and teachers.”
The decision gives the ASTI the same strike mandate as its sister union the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), which approved the move earlier last March with a 62 per cent turnout.
Already, the unions have instructed teachers to withdraw co-operation from implementation of the Junior Cycle programme, including the development of new “short courses” in areas like computer coding, digital media literacy and Chinese language.
However, both unions have stopped short of instructing members to cease teaching the new programme content, which is being rolled out on a phased basis starting with English this year. The unions say they are contractually obliged to teach the programme but will not participate in planned school-based assessments, due to start for English in early 2016.
In the last fortnight, the unions have also withdrawn co-operation from a consultation over the new Science framework.
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, who is meeting unions later this month for further talks, has been urged by secondary school managers to reconsider the extent of the reforms.
In a pre-budget submission, the Joint Managerial Body - which represents the boards of more than half of the State’s 720 post-primary schools - says instead of having assessments carried out entirely within schools, the Minister should introduce on a trial basis more modest proposals which were designed three years ago after a consultation with stakeholders.
The 2011 plan published by the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment (NCCA) recommended teachers would assess just 40 per cent of students’ grades, with the remaining 60 per cent allocated through a terminal exam such as the Junior Cert.
However, former education minister Ruairí Quinn went much further a year later when he announced the abolition of the Junior Cert, and its replacement with a junior cycle award to be assessed and graded by teachers in schools.