Junior cycle reform changes more than just ‘a memory test’
New testing regime represented as big leap forward for conservative education system
Gráinne Macken, a member of the Department of Education’s junior cycle training team, introducing English teachers to reforms in Navan, Co Meath
A group of English teachers is gathered around a table debating what mark they should award a junior cycle student.
The second-year student has just delivered a compelling three-minute speech – without notes – on the topic of death as the great leveller for all.
It ranges from ancient philosophical medications to modern pop psychology. And it’s delivered with remarkable fluency and good humour.
Under the new junior cycle classroom-based assessment, the student can be awarded one of four descriptors rather than traditional grades.
They range from “exceptional”, to “above expectations”, to “in line with expectations” to “yet to meet expectations”.
The teachers are impressed, but are debating what threshold he has reached. “It was exceptional, there’s no doubt about it, but I wonder if it really shaped to a very clear purpose,” says one of the teachers.
Another agrees, but refers to the guidelines which state that a student can still meet a high threshold by meeting nearly all, rather than all, the criteria.
After a few minutes’ discussion there is consensus: the teachers agree the student’s contribution is exceptional.
This is a recent training session at Navan Education Centre for 25 English teachers preparing for the first classroom assessments linked to the reformed junior cycle.
It’s is a huge leap forward for a conservative education system where change comes dropping slow. It embraces modern teaching, learning and assessment methods which are overwhelmingly supported by educationalists over decades.
“This is all about assessing a broader range of skills, in comparison to the rote memory skills that are currently being assessed in a five-hour written English exam,” says Dr Pádraig Kirk.
The idea is also to change the Junior Cert from a high-stakes and often pressurised exam to a broader assessment of students’ abilities.
“Now, going forward, the five hours of written English exams will be two hours; they have two classroom-based assessments,” says Kirk. “Students will present them; then their teachers will correct it in the same way that they’ve always corrected their end-of-term exams.”
But there’s a problem. Just one in three schools will be in a position to deliver the changes.
That’s because they are either fully or partly staffed by members of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), which has voted to oppose the measures.
It has directed members to refuse to engage in any training linked to the changes, and not to provide cover for any colleagues who are being trained.
Their biggest source of opposition is that teachers will be assessing their own students for the first time in a State exam.
Assuming the union refuses to budge, there is the potential of a two-tier junior cycle in which some schools will benefit from the new approaches to education while others will not.
Children in ASTI schools will miss out on 10 per cent of the marks because they will not be able to take part in the classroom-based assessments. In addition, their teachers will not have benefited from in-service training for the wider reformed curriculum.
In the meantime thousands of teachers in schools staffed by members in the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) – mostly schools run by Education and Training Boards along with community and comprehensives – have undergone training sessions over recent months
In the case of English teachers, many have been to at least three training sessions preparing them for assessments and marking.
Kirk acknowledges that many ASTI members have reservations about marking their own pupils, but feels it is not an issue. “Will teachers be under pressure from parents? It’s a myth, in my view. Teachers are correcting their students’ work every day of the week in classrooms all over the country.
“Teachers won’t be left on their own. In fact, we’re supporting teachers and training them in the whole process of assessment: on how to assess students better, and identifying the kind of things we should be looking out for.”
The changes are significant. The first classroom-based assessments, which get under way today, require students to complete a three-minute oral examination. It can be anything from an original speech, to a piece of dialogue or a review.
During the training sessions teachers are shown clips from various students. In one hilarious oral presentation two students perform an Academy Awards acceptance ceremony in which “Leonardo di Caprio” is awarded an Oscar by mistake; another features a student’s review of the Hunger Games; a third is a whistle-stop tour of 1916.
There is some anxiety among teachers over the limited number of sample exam papers. Others critics say the reforms are not needed given that Ireland’s education outcomes perform relatively well internationally.
A few teachers also grumble that too much emphasis is on fashionable concepts like “creative thinking” and not enough emphasis on basic knowledge.
Kirk disagrees, and says core knowledge is deeply embedded in the new approach.
“This isn’t throwing the baby out with the bath-water – there are very good aspects in the current system. We’re trying to improve on that, and develop in line with modern, effective, education systems across the world. We’re well up there, but we can always do better.”
For most teachers about to teach the new curriculum there is optimism about how students will benefit.
“Up until now students were being typecast into grades based on the grade they got in a written exam. Their abilities outside this weren’t captured,” says Anthony Quinn, an English teacher at Inver College in Carrickmacross. “This is an opportunity to get away from pigeon-holing students. It’s not just a memory test where after three years students will be rewarded on the basis of who remembers the most.”