Junior cycle concessions carry ‘risks’, chief inspector warns

Department negotiator says school-based assessment needed for ‘21st century learning’

Harold Hislop, the chief inspector of Irish schools, at the Department of Education and Science in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Harold Hislop, the chief inspector of Irish schools, at the Department of Education and Science in Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Demands by secondary teacher unions to abandon school-based assessment from the new junior cycle would deprive students of “21st century learning in schools”, the chief inspector of the Department of Education and Skills has said.

Dr Harold Hislop, who represented Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, in marathon talks recently with the ASTI and TUI over junior cycle reform, said the unions had achieved major concessions in the negotiations and these concessions carried “risks”.

However, he described the compromise agreement put forward talks chairman Dr Pauric Travers as a “reasonable” one.

Ms O’Sullivan has accepted the “Travers II” document but the union executives have rejected it - without a ballot - on the basis that teachers object to assessing their own students.

The unions have instructed members not to cooperate with the reforms until the plan is further amended.

However, Dr Hislop told a school management conference in Galway on Thursday “without this form of school-based assessment, a complete picture of a student’s achievement is simply not possible, and the virtuous circle of learning-teaching-assessment/feedback-learning for the 21st century cannot exist.”

Holding out the carrot of further school supports to teachers, he said it was “self-evident that other resources, including leadership capacity, will be needed to implement the sort of learning and assessment that students need and which the junior cycle framework offers”.

However, under Dr Travers’s plan, talks on resourcing can only begin once the unions agree to the reforms in principle.

Addressing the annual meeting of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, Dr Hislop pointed out that Ms O’Sullivan had made “a considerable shift from the policy of her predecessor”.

While school-based assessment was envisaged, aimed at capturing a broader range of skills and abilities than the Junior Cert, this would now run in parallel with state-certified exams.

This concession was understandable, Dr Hislop said, “given this attachment to state examinations, among society generally and among teachers”.

However, he said, “There are risks in this Travers approach. Will school-based assessments be valued as much as state-certified examination results, for example?

“I am confident that they will over time - indeed I believe that when teachers and parents experience school-based assessment and feedback, they will come to regard them as much superior to exams, but this will take time.”

Underlying the need for change, he said: “If we are really serious about promoting the learning to which we aspire for young people, we have to recognise that young people are likely to value the behaviours and learning that we choose to recognise and reward.

“That is why a consideration of approaches to learning cannot be separated from a consideration of assessment - it is absolutely necessary to align assessment with the purposes and nature of the learning we want to encourage.”

He said: “For example, helping the student to understand the elements of his learning that have been achieved is useful; but far more beneficial is enabling him to understand how his abilities and skills can be improved and how his learning can progress.

“That is why, for the sake of the student, school-based assessment must happen between the student and his or her own teacher, and of course, the parents of the learner.”