No one has a clue when it comes to what is going on in educational reform

Opinion: Junior Cert is currently objective, in that it is marked by people who do not know the pupils


Parents have finally realised that there is a major overhaul happening in second-level education, beginning in September. Naturally enough, they want to know what the changes will entail.

Strangely enough, no one, aside from a small number of schools that have taken part in pilot programmes, can give them answers.

If this sounds like a rant against educational reform, it is not. Junior Cert needs reform is the one thing on which almost every stakeholder in education can agree.

The Junior Cert is deficient in many ways, though not always in the ways that our current Minister for Education identifies.

It is true that the form the assessment takes dictates what happens in the classroom, and the almost exclusive focus on terminal exams means many potentially interesting aspects of a subject have be abandoned in favour of “completing the course”. This is a much greater problem at Leaving Cert, however, and there is no talk of reform there. So, how will students make the transition from the new Junior Cycle Student Award to the Leaving Cert?

English is the first subject to undergo reform, and there is much that is positive about the new syllabus, such as a greater emphasis on oral skills.

There is also a return to prescribed texts, including mandatory study of Shakespeare at higher level, which is not currently the case.

As a second-level teacher expected to implement this new syllabus in September, I had my first in-service training this week, and with a competent and professional facilitator.

However, time and time again, the answer to questions posed by teachers was, “that has not been decided yet” or “that has not been made clear yet”.

More stressful
Teachers have had demand after demand thrown at them in the last few years, have seen their wages cut, and their conditions of work grow far more stressful and pressurised. In the case of teachers who belong to the ASTI, they have only just emerged from a period of low-key industrial action. They have had no time at all as a school community of professionals to even begin to absorb junior cycle reform, much less design new syllabi.

The key difference is not so much in teaching methods, but in how to assess pupils. There has been so little preparation or consultation that it is laughable.

In fact, most of what is expected in the new English syllabus in terms of the approach to teaching is already being done. Teachers are sick of being told that the new syllabus will replace rote learning, as if all we do all day is stuff undigested facts down unwilling maws, to be regurgitated in the Junior Cert.

But here’s the problem. English is a good subject with which to begin, but no one has a clue what is happening to the rest of the subjects, or how short courses will fit in a timetable, or who is supposed to teach Mandarin Chinese.

History teachers have been rightly vociferous about the damage that will be done if a couple of short courses replace three years of study of a subject, but the problem is much more basic.

Across all subjects, there is a move away from teaching knowledge, towards learning skills. It is not as crude as saying that now we have Google, no one needs to know anything, just how to access information and assess the quality of it, but it is a potentially worrying development.

Formidable in life
As American educationalist Marc Tucker says, “People who have thinking skills but no knowledge have nothing to think about or with. The people who are formidable in life are those who know a lot and can think well, whether the subject is carpentry or nuclear physics.”

The current Junior Cert is too pressurised, but by making it a low-stakes exam, will we lose academic rigour, especially since there will be no independent external assessment after the first few years?

Schools have been the subjects of cutback after cutback, including services vital to student wellbeing. We have very large class sizes.

At the in-service training I attended, some of the suggested activities would work well in a class of 24, but would become much more difficult or impossible in the normal class size of 30.

At the moment, the Junior Cert is objective, insofar as the exam is not marked by people who know the students. That objectivity is very important in a country such as Ireland.

In small towns, once teachers start assessing their own pupils, a weary teacher reaching for the chicken nuggets in the freezer in the supermarket is likely to be accosted by a parent demanding to know why Seán did not get an A in maths. The supplementary question will be why Mr O’Flaherty’s pupils all get As?

In the last European Values Study, guess which institution in Ireland was far more trusted than politicians, and far, far more trusted than journalists? It was our education system.

This educational reform is very important, and we don’t want to damage one of the few institutions that still has credibility. Can we please, please, slow down and get it right?

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