I’ve never been one to let sleeping dogs lie. I mean, what if the dog’s not sleeping? What if he’s already dead? He could lie there stinking the place up until someone finally recognises there’s a carcass that needs to be disposed of, and sets about doing the needful.
The new Junior Cycle was but a puppy when our eyes first met across a blinking computer screen in October 2012. And I'll admit it, I was excited, both as a teacher and as a parent. The focus on active learning, on process rather than regurgitated product, on education as an enjoyable, engaging and challenging experience rather than as "something that is done to you so you can sit an exam" made it seem like my kind of animal. As an ed-tech evangelist I was also thrilled to see digital literacy embedded across all subject areas, even if the "how" of this remained a bit of a mystery given that most, schools have zero money to invest in their IT infrastructure.
I heard and still hear the critical voices loud and clear. The concerns they express are not without foundation: lack of resources; an ever-increasing workload at a time of exploding class sizes; a genuine fear that assessing our own pupils transforms us from advocate and ally to judge and jury; and a pervasive sense that it’s all just a box-ticking exercise: these are issues that continue to be thrashed out in staffrooms nationwide.
There is also significant anxiety about the gulf between what the NCCA proposed and what the Minister is implementing; it appears he listened to the experts up to a point and then just went on a solo run.
Sadly, it seems our Minister intends to keep doing this as the new framework for Junior Cycle – “one of the most significant reforms of post-primary education since the foundation of the State” – is implemented. Therein lies the problem. Dreaming up this vision for change is in many ways the easy part. Implementing it is a whole other beast.
As English is the first subject to introduce a new specification, you would imagine that I'd have had some training by now. In fact, as an English teacher, I will begin teaching the new course to incoming first years students in September 2014, and I will have had just one day of in-service training. As a parent, if it was my son or daughter starting secondary school next September, I would be very worried indeed, as these kids become crash-test dummies while the teachers figure out the messy business of how these glossy framework documents (only one per school now – we're in a recession, you know) might work in practice.
Offering teachers just one measly day of CPD in their subject area before each new course is introduced, followed by one day in each of two subsequent years, would be comical if it weren't also so fundamentally insulting to the entire teaching profession and to the students who become our guinea pigs while we fumble around in the dark. The gasps of dismay and disbelief at the INOTE English teachers' conference when this profoundly inadequate provision of in-service training was announced (by the recently appointed director of the Junior Cycle for Teachers support service, Dr Padraig Kirk) reassured me that I'm not the only one who feels angry, disillusioned and betrayed.
Subsequently, tweets flew in both directions as English teachers labelled this scant in-service provision “absolutely shocking”, “ridiculous”, “pathetic”, “a cause for grave concern”, “a joke”, “a farce” and “a disgrace”. Meanwhile, those who would defend the new Junior Cycle assured us that “it’s not all that different” (Yes it is! And you seem to be missing the point that if it’s not all that different, then why bother at all?); that “the link schools were well supported” (I know. I envy them. But that’s only 40-odd schools out of 700-plus in total); and that there will be “numerous other supports” available (can you be more specific? I’m starting to feel a little ill).
However, sensibly, I decided to put my rage to one side. Perhaps my discontent had no grounding in reality and I was in danger of turning into one bitter half of Statler and Waldorf, heckling from the balcony at anyone on the stage.
For the record, and because I fear I may be turning into that person, not for a second am I questioning the enormous work that has gone into developing the framework; designing the new specification for English; consulting with teachers (via link schools, online and during a one-day consultation conference that had a big waiting list); designing short courses (I’d like to try the “Programming & Coding” module myself) and establishing a dedicated team (the imaginatively named Junior Cycle for Teachers support service or JCT) . The team will to oversee training and ensure more than 26,000 teachers and 700 secondary schools embrace “fundamental changes in our approach to learning, teaching, assessment and curricular planning . . . to improve the quality of students’ learning experiences and outcomes”. But the bottom line is, if there isn’t enough training, then all of this will have been for nothing.
Specialist expertise required
Thus, to a Minister who is fond of citing best international practice, I now present what my research has uncovered. In order for Continuing Professional Development to have a positive impact on student learning, specialist expertise – usually drawn from outside the school – is required. The focus of CPD should be on translating theory into practice and on finding ways to connect current and new approaches to relevant research. Crucially, CPD must consist of at least 15 hours of in-service training; any less and the impact on teaching and learning is negligible or non-existent.
By contrast, if you invest heavily in teacher CPD, you reap the rewards: 49 hours over the course of a year can boost student achievement by 21 percentile points (Darling-Hammond et al, 2007). “Understanding what enables hig-quality professional learning” is freely available on the website of Curee, the UK-based education research agency (curee.co.uk).
This is not rocket science, nor top-secret classified information. Any idiot with a brain knows the real meaty work of transforming theory into practice matters more than anything else. This is where change lives or dies. This is where the new Junior Cycle will live or die.
Even those of us who support this change, who like the Minister’s cute new puppy and want to give it a good home, are losing faith. You’re selling us a dog that barks the bark and wags the wag but when you look in its eyes it’s already almost a zombie. So resuscitate it now, dear Minister, before it’s too late – or put the poor thing out of its misery.
Evelyn O’Connor is an English teacher at Mount St Michael Secondary School in Claremorris, Co Mayo, and blogs at leavingcertenglish.net
Rolling out: how the new Junior Cycle will evolve
When will the new Junior Cycle be complete?
Not until 2020. English will be the only core subject to change from 2014, but schools can start offering short courses immediately, if they have the personnel.
When will the new framework be set up?
It will be introduced in four phases. Irish, Science and Business Studies will have new specifications in 2015, followed by Art, modern languages, Home Economics, Music and Geography in 2016, then Maths, Technology subjects, Religion, Classics and History in 2017.
How many subjects in total will students take on in the Junior Cycle?
Students will eventually include between eight and 10 full subjects on their school certificate. Two short courses can substitute for one full subject.