Teachers risk losing the moral high ground by rejecting latest compromise

The question arises as to whether teachers should have a veto over educational policy

Protests at Newpark Comprehensive, Blackrock, Co Dublin.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Protests at Newpark Comprehensive, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Another day, another compromise plan for junior cycle reform dashed.

The teacher unions must be aware that the scope for further negotiation is limited but they have chosen to reject the proposals of talks chairman Dr Padric Travers without putting them to a ballot.

This runs the risk not only of further industrial action but also ceding the moral high ground.

Dr Travers described his proposals as the “basis for an honourable settlement”. By demanding further changes before even considering consulting their members, the two unions representing secondary teachers - the ASTI and the TUI - are open to accusations of intransigence.

Under Dr Travers’ plan, the unions could claim victory on a point of principle: school-based assessment would not be carried out for state certification purposes. But Dr Travers makes clear that fears about teachers being “corrupted” by local or parental influence shouldn’t stop such such assessment from taking place.

“The well-articulated concern that school-based assessment for certification would expose the teacher to undue pressure can be addressed and teachers supported,” he says.

“The use of standard descriptors, internal and external moderation and validation, and the continued existence of an independent state examination all offer some protection.”

Thus, he recommended a hybrid model. Exams would go towards “a notional 60 per cent” of grades, while project work carried out in second and third year would be assessed by teachers.

Applying percentages would, however, be moot under the plan. The proposed “Junior Cycle Student Profile of Achievement” intended to separate exam marks from school-based assessments so they were explicitly not comparable.

The new certificate would also identify students’ achievement in planned new short courses in subjects like artistic performance, forensic science and caring for animals.

However, no guarantees have been secured on additional resources, and no pay is on the table for the extra workload involved in assessments.

Some teachers may feel Dr Travers’ plan represents the worst of both worlds as they would have to “teach to the test” for part of the junior cycle programme and then switch to a more collaborative form of teaching and learning for the school-based assessments.

It may be argued that the plan by former minister for education Ruairí Quinn to eliminate state exams at the end of third year, and have 100 per cent school assessment, would have been easier for teachers to manage - quite apart from any educational benefits for students.

Dr Travers acknowledges the risk of the planned hybrid system, saying the National Council for Curriculum Assessment will be requested “to pay particular attention to avoiding ‘over-assessment’ and the cumulative burden on students and teachers of multiple assessments across the full range of subjects”.

Whatever the merits of Dr Travers’ plan, however, the debate is slowly shifting towards the question of whether teachers should have a veto over educational policy.

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to reform second-level education, and it needs to be in the best interests of students above all.

Over 20 years ago, the Junior Cert replaced the Inter Cert but the emphasis on rote learning and “teaching to the test” remained. This time, students deserve more than just a rebranding exercise.

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