International evidence shows dialogue with teachers crucial to education reform

ASTI president on Junior Cert reform


Andreas Schleicher has spent years examining the relationship between education reform and outcomes across a range of countries. The OECD’s special adviser on education policy has come to the conclusion that one key to successful reform is ensuring that teachers are not only engaged with its implementation, but also its design.

“Policymakers need to build consensus on the aims of education reform and to actively engage stakeholders, especially teachers, in formulating and implementing policy responses,” Schleicher told a conference hosted by Education International in London last month. His advice is based on his experience that the better a country’s education system performs, the more likely it is that that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers like trusted professional partners.

This is why Asti expressed such dismay last October when the Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn revealed his plans for reform of the Junior Cert in A Framework for Junior Cycle. Not only did the Minister announce his plan to abolish a terminal, externally assessed examination and State certificate at the end of the junior cycle, he embarked on this radical policy shift without any consultation with the teaching profession.

The fact that the Minister’s announcement departed so radically from the advice given to him by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) in November 2011 has stunned teachers. Because the NCCA represents a partnership model of curriculum reform, teachers had assumed that its advice, which did not include abolishing the State exam and State certificate, would be broadly accepted by the Minister. What has most shocked teachers is that in 2012 a minister for education would take such a top-down, bureaucratic and high-handed approach to radical education reform.

Following this announcement, the Asti began a consultation process with its members. More than 320 schools, representing roughly 10,000 members (almost 40 per cent of second-level teachers), participated. The findings, published this week, reveal a complex and diverse set of views.

Most teachers favour reform of the Junior Cert and many believe certain aspects of the Minister’s framework have the potential to lead to improved learning outcomes. However, the majority of teachers have grave concerns about the impact of the Minister’s framework, in its current form, on standards in education, equity in the second-level education system and student-teacher relationships.

A significant number of teachers have told us that removing the State exam at the end of the junior cycle will lower standards. This is because the Minister’s proposals do not include any model of external quality assurance against which school standards can be compared or benchmarked. Teachers are adamant that assessing their own students for the Junior Cert will distort the student-teacher relationship.

Other key issues are the challenges facing second-level schools as they grapple with the dual burden of diminished resources, due to education cuts, and an increase in the number of students manifesting anxieties and stresses, frequently related to their families’ financial problems. Many expressed concern about the capacity of schools for Junior Cert reform given that a range of other recent reforms, such as the Numeracy and Literacy Strategy, have yet to be embedded in the culture of schools.

Around the world, teachers are being challenged to transform educational outcomes. Fundamentally, teachers want to do what is best for their students. When teachers are unconvinced about the merits of change, and when there is no space for their professional opinion to be heard and responded to, their motivation and energy to implement reform is deeply impaired.

The Minister must look to best international practice to understand how successful reform was developed and implemented by the education stakeholders in those countries. It is now time for meaningful dialogue with teachers on Junior Cert reform.

Gerry Breslin is the president of Asti