Junior cycle reform talks collapse despite compromise offer

ASTI and TUI secondary teacher unions pass ballots threatening strike action over changes

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan has said it is “regrettable that the second-level teaching unions have failed to engage positively with the [junior cycle reform] proposal”. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan has said it is “regrettable that the second-level teaching unions have failed to engage positively with the [junior cycle reform] proposal”. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

 

Talks aimed at resolving the dispute over the planned new junior cycle have collapsed after the teacher unions rejected a compromise offer from Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan.

Rolling back on plans by her predecessor Ruairí Quinn to abolish the Junior Cert in its entirety, she said she had proposed the have a State exam at the end of third year which would go towards 60 per cent of junior cycle marks.

The remaining 40 per cent of junior cycle marks would be awarded for project or portfolio work during 2nd and 3rd year. This 40 per cent would be assessed by classroom teachers.

The Minister also said she was willing to retain State certification for the new junior cycle award, satisfying one of the key demands of the unions.

Under Mr Quinn’s plan, which was supported by many educational experts, the junior cycle award would be made at school level, and 100 per cent of marks would have been assessed by the class teacher.

Ms O’Sullivan said: “In talks over recent days I have offered teachers a fair and sensible compromise in relation to junior cycle reform.

“These are extensive changes designed to retain the progressive elements of reform while addressing concerns expressed by the teaching profession. It is regrettable that the second-level teaching unions have failed to engage positively with the proposal.”

Strike threat

The two secondary teacher unions, the ASTI and TUI, have passed ballots threatening strike action over the reforms.

In a joint statement, the unions said “teachers have serious concerns about the framework for junior cycle which must be addressed, including the threat to national education standards represented by school-based assessment, the capacity of schools to implement aspects of the proposals in the wake of six years of education cutbacks, and the potential for the proposals to exacerbate inequality between schools and between students”.

As well as maintaining State certification, the unions said they wanted to keep “external assessment in order to maintain national education standards”.

They said they were seeking “direct” intervention from the Minister following the talks, which had been chaired by Dr Pauric Travers, former president of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

Ms O’Sullivan’s offer represented a return to the terms of a 2011 plan published by the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment (NCCA). When this was rejected by the unions, Mr Quinn pushed ahead with a more radical reform.

As well as retaining State certification, Ms O’Sullivan had planned to have the State Exams Commission check a proportion of school-based assessments to ensure consistency and fairness.

Ms O’Sullivan recently appointed Dr Travers as an independent chairman to the talks between her officials and unions.

The Minister said: “The breakdown of these talks will not scupper the much-needed reform of the junior cycle. Over the coming weeks I will be looking at how that agenda is advanced and I would ask the second-level teaching unions to re-engage on what is a fair basis for agreement.”

She continued: “We need to reform the junior cycle. The structure of the exam at present doesn’t serve the best interests of students. The skills young people need for life - skills such as communications, teamwork and problem solving - aren’t skills that can be tested by a final written exam.

“We are also placing enormous pressure on young children by having such a reliance on written exams taking place over a short number of weeks.

“Having a substantial element of school-based assessment encourages the teaching of a broader range of skills and results in a much more rounded picture of a young person’s capabilities being fostered and assessed.

“Similar reforms have been introduced in Scotland, Finland, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with high-performing education systems. In Ireland we have been talking about junior cycle reform for nearly 30 years. It’s high time that we took action.”