Junior-cycle reform still hangs in balance

Education: The issue of reform dominated 2015, yet changes will affect a minority of schools

Why are the reforms so important? In a sense, the future of second-level education reform may well hang in the balance. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Why are the reforms so important? In a sense, the future of second-level education reform may well hang in the balance. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

After all the huffing and puffing, the strikes and the votes, long-awaited junior cycle reforms are due to be rolled out in the spring of 2016. But just one in four schools will be in a position to deliver the changes. That’s because they are either fully or partly staffed by members of the ASTI, which has opposed the measures.

Bizarre situation

Why are the reforms so important? In a sense, the future of second-level education reform may well hang in the balance.

A new focus on classroom-based assessments could lay the foundations for a move away from rote learning and written exams to new types of learning which most agree we urgently need in a highly competitive knowledge economy.

The ability to think critically and creatively, to innovate and adapt, to work independently and be part of a team: all these skills will be vital in the years ahead.

The plan is to roll out the reforms for second-year classes in English next year, followed later by other subjects. If successful, similar changes would likely occur at Leaving Cert in the near future.

The actual reforms, however, are hardly radical. The most eye-catching amendments to the junior cycle, first proposed by former minister Ruairí Quinn, were dropped one by one throughout 2015.

His successor, Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, argued that the integrity of the reform remained intact, though senior union officials admitted privately that they secured almost everything they sought.

The plan to abolish State-certified exams, for example, was scrapped in favour of tests which will now take place alongside classroom-based assessments.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) members voted in favour by a 70:30 margin. The ASTI, however, could not get a decision from its teacher representatives and the proposals were sent to members to consider without any recommendation.

Hardline members

The results highlight the dysfunction at the heart of Ireland’s largest secondary teachers’ union. Many members feel its structures are outdated. Retired teachers have a major say in union affairs, while few young members now attend meetings.

The “no” vote, say many, has much more to do with a 15-year-long internal conflict in the union and a chronic distrust of being seen to do a deal with government.

What lies ahead? The reforms are due to go ahead in the spring regardless, though most students won’t benefit.

The union, for now, has boxed itself into a corner on the reforms. While it went to the trouble of closing the State’s secondary schools for two days through strike action, senior members say there is no appetite for further action on the issue.

If a creative solution is found to the standoff next year, it could have profound implications for teaching and learning in the years ahead.

If not, it may well set back reform of education for another decade.

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