History ‘special status’ forces big reversal of Junior Cycle reform

Curriculum contradictions must be resolved to instil clarity and cohesion

Portuguese navigator and explorer Ferdinand Magellan, a character encountered by history students: deep reforms of education require a compass. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty

Portuguese navigator and explorer Ferdinand Magellan, a character encountered by history students: deep reforms of education require a compass. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

 

The decision to grant the subject of history a special status in the Junior Cycle has been met with relief in many quarters.

As a former history teacher, I understand this sentiment; it speaks well of our civil society, and no doubt, of the values which influenced the Minister’s decision.

However, for those committed to educational reform, this decision has been felt as a setback, as it appears to run contrary to the aims of the Junior Cycle, a curriculum which has already been “watered down” several times.

To understand these concerns, the logic of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) needs to be given greater consideration, even now after the decision has been made.

Though advisory in nature, the NCCA is the body primarily responsible for the design and revision our curriculums.

Radical attempt

The Junior Cycle proposals, first published in 2012, represented a radical attempt to transform our early secondary education system, broadly speaking along the lines of Scandinavian models.

Best-known among these systems is the Finnish model. Their holistic approach focuses on nutrition, wellbeing and health, as prerequisites for academic progress; it also encourages schools to co-operate, rather than to compete with each other.

Few would argue that our overall system has such coherence or clarity of purpose.

A myriad of school patrons, state-supported fee-charging schools, and competing vested interests, who are either sceptical of, or opposed to change, all mitigate against reforms of this kind.

A further contradiction in our system, has been the disconnect between the purposes of primary schools, which are student-centred; post primary schools, which are exam-centred; and third level, which is focused on independent critical thinking.

These differing emphases have often led to stressful transitions in the first year of secondary school, and to high drop-out rates in the first year of college.

The Junior Cycle, as originally conceived in 2012, sought to deliver systemic cohesion for students transitioning from primary to secondary.

Those early proposals, cognisant of rapid social change, technological advancement and globalisation, sought to redirect our system away from rote-learning and terminal assessments, towards experiential learning and continuous assessment.

It also sought to amplify the choice and voice, of both students and teachers alike, and to broaden the curriculum with specialised locally-created short courses.

Incoherence

Proponents of the reforms feel the changes, which were made for a variety of reasons, have led to some incoherence in the curriculum.

The primary cause of this incoherence was the decision to retain terminal exams , in what became the Junior Cycle Framework (2015). This had the unintended effect of de-emphasising cross-curricular teaching, group work, problem-solving and student voice.

The imposition of compulsory terminal exams and setting the effective minimum number of subjects for examination at eight have led to a system that is more restrictive than the Junior Cert.

For those schools advocating reform, Junior Cycle exams, based on content-heavy specifications, limit our ability to develop an approach based on cross-curricular problem-solving and group work; precisely the analytical and communication skills which future generations will need, to solve the problems that their world will face.

It is in this context that concerns arose around the compulsory status of history. The Junior Cert saw subjects as separate blocks of knowledge, but in contrast, the Junior Cycle sees knowledge in terms of overlapping sets of skills, knowledge and values.

These themes, which can traverse several subject areas at a time, are referred to as “statements of learning”.

Schools were, to an extent, given the responsibility (and freedom) to balance their curriculums, based on their students’ and teachers’ interests and competences. They could do this through a combination of traditional subjects, new 100-hour short courses and other learning experiences.

One of these key statements of learning requires that a student “values local, national and international heritage, understands the importance of the relationship between past and current events and the forces that drive change”.

Conceivably, therefore, a school which did not make history compulsory could have met the requirements of this statement by delivering historical content and skills through a short course. Indeed, they may have been obliged to, to credibly meet the requirements.

Reversal

Other concerns, relate to the fact that the decision to make history compulsory has created a problematic precedent, in that science and geography could reasonably claim the same importance; and, secondly, that wellbeing hours, seen as a key benefit of the new curriculum, might be taken for history.

If this comes to pass, it would represent a significant reversal of the progress made in Junior Cycle reform.

From a system point of view, it would appear logical that either the statements of learning couldn’t deliver the depth of historical competence, as intended, and is therefore flawed; or they could deliver on this competence, and the decision to make it compulsory was unnecessary. Both scenarios provide food for thought.

While, for some, the obligation for students to study history represents a diminution in the coherence of Junior Cycle reform, most would recognise that the decision was made for laudable reasons.

The real issue isn’t whether history is compulsory or not; it is that contradictions in the curriculum need to be resolved in order to bring clarity and cohesion to our rapidly evolving sector.

Deep reforms require a compass bearing, and for this, it seems clear that a national consensus must first be achieved.

Colm O’Connor is principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School