Junior cycle reform deal contains enough for both sides

Teachers unions and Department of Education save face with new agreement

 A secondary school exam hall. The junior cycle reform deal agreed this week seems to satisfy both teachers unions and the Department of Education. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

A secondary school exam hall. The junior cycle reform deal agreed this week seems to satisfy both teachers unions and the Department of Education. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

In the weeks before he was reshuffled out of cabinet last July, former minister for education Ruairí Quinn said of his much-vaunted junior cycle reforms: “I would hope to have pushed the boat out so far that it can’t be recalled.”

Since then, the boat has been torpedoed, patched up and redecorated. Whether or not it’s now the same boat that started out the journey is more than an academic question.

To the Department of Education, the integrity of the reform remains intact. The plan to abolish State-certified exams has been scrapped, but such tests will now take place alongside classroom-based assessments, thus making space for new types of teaching and learning on the curriculum.

For the teachers unions, it is very important that this is seen as an entirely different set of reforms. If not, then why did they go to the trouble of closing the State’s secondary schools for two days as part of strike action?

The unions certainly have enough in this plan to save face. They will not be assessing their own students for State certification, but they will be spending more time on classroom-based assessment, which is designed to promote oral communication, problem solving and other skills that can’t be captured in a written exam.

Crucially, the results from the now-shortened State exams at the end of third year will be recorded separately to classroom-based assessments on a new Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement.

This document will be issued by the schools rather than the State, a hark-back to Mr Quinn’s original plan for the introduction of a school-based certificate to replace the Junior Cert.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan gave up on a proposal contained in the last reform plan, known as Travers II, to have school-based assessments go towards a “notional” 40 per cent of final grades.

As a result, there’s a risk schools will continue to concentrate on exam results and teaching to the test, while treating the newer elements of the programme as an “optional extra”.

Parents

The buy-in of parents will be key. If teachers continue to be judged purely by how many As they produce then the reforms will fall flat, just like the last attempt to modernise the junior cycle in 1991, when the Inter Cert was replaced by the Junior Cert.

The Minister is confident it won’t happen this time because of the checks and balances built into the plan.

She can take some personal credit for getting the deal across the line. Her colleagues in the Labour Party will be thankful too as the dispute threatened to cause both it and the unions a major headache in the forthcoming public sector pay talks.

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