The new Junior Cert: what you need to know

The current system’s replacement, the Junior Cycle Student Award, or JCSA, will be rolled out subject by subject between next autumn and 2022

 Pens down: The new system will see an end to the summer exams at the end of third year. Photograph: Eric Luke

Pens down: The new system will see an end to the summer exams at the end of third year. Photograph: Eric Luke


It’s official. The Junior Cert is soon to be no more, and the snazzy-sounding JCSA – for Junior Cycle Student Award – is poised to take its place if delays and teachers’ concerns are worked out.

It’s not before time. The Junior Cert began as a radical departure that was to provide students with a richer educational experience, but the exam-based model quickly led to the programme becoming something of a mini-Leaving Cert, complete with rote learning and teaching to the test.

The model is outdated and well out of step with international best practice. In addition, we have no real information about how our children are doing in education. We participate in international testing, such as the Programme of International Student Assessment (Pisa), but apart from that the only information we have about our students is the Junior Cert, which seems to measure how well students do in the Junior Cert but little else.

The JCSA aims to change all that. The model of teaching, learning and assessment at junior level in postprimary schools is about to change considerably. The idea is that if we shift focus from what students are taught to how and what they learn, and encourage independent thinking, learning and real engagement with education, we will end up with students who are more flexible and capable of adapting to ever-changing learning environments.

The changes will be gradual – exactly how gradual remains unclear. Last Friday a meeting of the working group examining the implementation of the JCSA decided the change should be complete by 2022 rather than the original target of 2020. There is room for review after three years if it is deemed that change should be more gradual still. But essentially we’re going to end up with a system in which the Junior Cert as we know it will be no more.

For now the aim is that by 2022 there will be no major State exam. The overwhelming focus on two weeks of examinations in June will be a thing of the past. But that scenario is a number of years away.


can 2014 entrants expect?
First-year students in September this year

will be the first to sample JCSA English. The syllabus is replaced by subject specifications that focus on what students’ should have achieved rather than on teacher-delivered content.

In common with all new subject specifications, the English course will seek to develop the key skills of literacy and – even in English – numeracy. Students will have clear goals and expectations. English has been made a little less wide-ranging, with an emphasis on active learning and new elements such as digital literacy. Students will still study novels, short stories, drama extracts, poetry and film, but the hope is that teachers will have more leeway to be adventurous and engage students. There is a suggested list of texts and some prescribed ones. Teachers may substitute their own choice of unprescribed texts.

Forty per cent of students’ English marks will be earned through school-based continuous assessment in second and third year. Students will be assessed on their oral communication as well as on a selection of texts they have produced. These could be written in the usual way, or delivered as a PowerPoint presentation, or as a website or blog. Most likely, students will present a mixture of texts for assessment. This is probably the biggest immediate change for both students and teachers.

The 2014 entrants will do all other subjects in the old Junior Cert programme. This will change in later years, as more new subject specifications are introduced. Students may be able to study short courses (see panel, below), and there will be credit for participation and achievement in school beyond exams and assessment.
How many subjects will my child do?
All students in the JCSA will study eight to 10 subjects. For students starting first year in 2014, most of these will be in the old Junior Cert programme. If a school is offering short courses a student, at the discretion of the school, may take two short courses in place of one full subject. Students will be able to swap one or two subjects for two or four short courses. So one student might study six subjects and four short courses; another might opt for nine subjects and two short courses; and a third might opt for eight subjects and no short courses.

What’s the story with

extracurricular achievement?
Students will receive a

school report along with their JCSA School Certificate at the end of third year. This will detail attendance and punctuality as well as any achievements and participation that fall outside the certification process.

Is there

provision for students with learning disabilities?
Yes. Programmes for these students will be based around “p

riority learning units” that will aim to develop social and prevocational skills. The resulting qualification will be aligned to level two on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). The Junior Cert and JCSA are aligned to level three on the NFQ.

What’s in store for students entering second-level from 2015?
All subjects are

being reviewed. When the new system is fully in place, every student will be required to study English, maths and, unless they have an exemption, Irish. These are the only subjects that will be split into higher and ordinary level. All other subjects will be studied and assessed at a common level.

Friday’s meeting of the working group looking at implemention of the JCSA came up with new suggestions about how the specifications should be phased in. The plan for now is as follows: 2015 will see new specifications for science, followed by Irish and business studies in 2016. After that, in 2017, will come new art, modern languages, and craft and design, while 2018 will introduce home economics, music, geography and maths specifications. Finally, in 2019, the rest of the subjects – technology subjects, religion, classics, Jewish studies and history – will be introduced.

As with the new English specifications, the focus will be on students and their learning experience. Subjects will all endeavour to develop literacy and numeracy, and they will all have a large element of continuous assessment.

How is everything assessed?

To ensure satisfactory progress in the basics, there will be standardised testing in English and maths in 2017. This year’s entrants will miss the standardised tests. Next year’s new entrants (in 2015) will be the first to sit the tests when they are in second year. Standardised testing in science will be introduced for second years in 2018. Parents will get results of these tests, and they will be monitored nationally.

Although this year’s entrants will avoid the standardised testing, they will be the first to experience the continuous assessment of the JCSA. Short courses will be assessed in second and third year, while all students will have 40 per cent of their English grade completed before entering the exam hall. This will be the case with all JCSA subjects when they are introduced. The remaining 60 per cent will be assessed in the June 2017 exam. The rest of the subjects will be examined under the old Junior Cert system.

This year’s entrants will receive a dual qualification in 2017. They will get a Junior Cert and a School Certificate. The School Certificate will detail achievements in English and any short courses. Students will also receive a school report with achievements and experiences they notched up outside the assessments. Students will continue to get a dual qualification until JCSA 2022, when the new system is fully in place.

For at least the next few years, English, Irish and maths exams will be administered and marked by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). Students will still be able to choose between higher and ordinary level in those core subjects. At the moment it’s not entirely clear how long this SEC involvement will last.

When more new subject specifications are introduced, with the exception of maths, English and Irish, all exams will be set and corrected in the students’ own school. Until these assessment systems are fully in place, the SEC will continue to provide schools with exam papers and marking schemes for noncore subjects.

It is intended there will be greater transparency and communication between schools and parents. Parents will be regularly informed of how their child is doing in the key areas of literacy and numeracy, and the students will be asked for input on their own progress. There will also be information about extracurricular activities and about social and personal development.

How will we ensure

standards are being maintained?

The aim is to enhance standards of education and learning and to improve the quality of information about how our students are doing. Work will be assessed and graded according to strict guidelines, and results will be monitored nationally.

The standardised tests will give a good idea of how students are doing compared with the rest of the population. We don’t currently have that information at second level. At primary level students sit standardised exams, such as the Micra T, Sigma T and Drumcondra tests. These assessments will continue to track the progress already monitored in primary schools.

Schools and teachers will take a more active role in assessment and quality assurance. More self-assessment and reflection is required, and the aim is to free schools and teachers, empowering them to decide what will work best for their students in their specific circumstances. However, schools and teachers will have strict parameters within which to operate when assessing and marking work.

The Department of Education will provide each school with a data profile from its statistical analysis that will advise the school of patterns in their results data relative to national norms of achievement in both the School Certificate and in the standardised tests. The data profile will also give schools information on their achievement relative to other schools. This data will help schools refine their assessment and moderation practice and will also be valuable information for schools’ self-evaluation processes.

In the event of an unusual pattern of achievement – a school doing unusually well or badly – support and evaluation measures will be put in place. Irish students will continue to participate in international testing, such as Pisa, which will also serve as an extra check and balance.

A National Council for Curriculum and Assessment information leaflet was distributed to primary schools at the start of this term. If your child is in sixth class and hasn’t received one yet, follow up with the school. See

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