CAO points race is distorting the true meaning of education

Opinion: Reform of senior cycle must cater for all students and their unique talents.

Reform of the senior cycle must cater for all students and their unique talents. Photograph: iStock

Reform of the senior cycle must cater for all students and their unique talents. Photograph: iStock

 

With this year’s State examinations almost upon us, and a review of the senior cycle underway, it is perhaps timely to consider how that review should proceed.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) represents second level teachers as well as teachers in further and adult education and third level lecturers.

We intend to engage in a meaningful, professional way with the senior cycle review. However, given past experience, we believe it likely that efforts may be made to marginalise the voice of the profession. To be clear, any such efforts will fail.

Without doubt, the review will generate an abundance of ideas from all quarters that will range from good through whimsical to poor. This is a given, and broad, democratic engagement is greatly to be encouraged.

However, it must be borne in mind that teachers are the critical group without whose support reforms will founder. It is teachers who will be asked to implement whatever changes emerge from the review.

Public confidence

Our members care deeply about their work and are the central actors in curricular change. For the sake of students, teachers and the quality of the education system, the TUI will demand that any new model must have robust structures that retain public confidence.

We will not be ‘focus-grouped’ or otherwise sidelined. One way or another, we will be at the heart of things, and our voice must be heard.

So what are the core issues for teachers?

Our position is clear and unambiguous - State certification is the seal of quality and our members are fundamentally opposed to assessing their own students for state certification purposes. Therefore external assessment and State certification are essential.

Also essential is the provision of the requisite time, resources, infrastructure and continuing professional development (CPD). Reforms must not increase workload. The precedent of ‘professional time’, set in the reform of the Junior Cycle, is critical in this regard.

In determining a viable way forward, we must learn from the successes and, perhaps more importantly, the failures in other jurisdictions.

Changes to the curriculum should have value and be incremental and sustainable for both students and teachers. Reforms should not deflect from teaching and learning by adding pointless administrative burdens and importing meaningless measurements.

Those who chose teaching as a profession want to be allowed to teach. They do not want to have their time wasted in the turgid exercises of ticking boxes or filling out endless rafts of forms.

Drudgery

This demoralising drudgery is too often demanded of teachers in other jurisdictions - and regrettably, increasingly, here in Ireland also.

It is necessary to point out that the dramatic increase in administrative workload in recent years is due in large part to cuts imposed by Government that hollowed out school management and student support structures.

Ten years ago, one in every two teachers held a middle management position - roles crucial for the running of schools - in addition to teaching duties. Now, only one in four holds such a position, and everybody in the school community suffers as a result, particularly students.

It is essential that a longitudinal study of the effectiveness and impacts of the Junior Cycle reforms be carried out. This should guide the review process of senior cycle, ensuring that wise decisions are made.

It would be reckless to embark on another a series of reforms without first taking stock of the effects, whether positive or negative, of the revised Junior Cycle programme on teaching and learning. Otherwise, we may fail to recognise what has worked and we risk repeating mistakes.

Any reform of senior cycle must cater for all students and their unique talents. At present, the range of levels across all senior cycle programmes caters for a wide breadth of academic ability.

The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) facilitates students who may not otherwise have remained in school while the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), with its practical elements and second components, fosters key skills. Future reform must not marginalise or exclude any cohort of learners; it must be inclusive in nature.

CAO points obsession

It is worth highlighting that the excessive focus on CAO points is not a flaw of the current senior cycle itself. It is an unfortunate by-product of our national obsession with progression to third level, an obsession that distorts the true meaning of education and invites unfair and invalid comparisons between schools.

Finally, the Department of Education and Skills must learn from its attempt to push through Junior Cycle proposals that, in their original form, did not protect the integrity and quality of the education system.

That undue haste led to a protracted period of time marked by industrial relations unease, including two days of strike action in second level schools across the country, before sense prevailed and real negotiations ensued. It will benefit all concerned if, from the off, the powers that be engage meaningfully with teachers, represented by their unions, in the process of senior cycle review.

* Seamus Lahart is president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland