The Secret Teacher: Desperately seeking a Junior Cycle sample paper

Third years are preparing for the first-ever exams in a range of subjects so why are we only seeing the first sample papers now?

‘We are well into November and third year students are only now seeing sample papers for exams new Junior Cycle exams which take place in June.’ Photograph: iStock

‘We are well into November and third year students are only now seeing sample papers for exams new Junior Cycle exams which take place in June.’ Photograph: iStock

 

First they came for the English teachers, and I did not speak out - because I was not an English teacher. Then they came for the science and business studies teachers, and I did not speak out- because I was not a science teacher or a business teacher. Then they came for the Irish, modern foreign language and art teachers, and I did not speak out-because I was not a teacher of Irish, MFL or art.

You get the idea.

We have, of course, always been speaking out and speaking up and yet they keep coming. They come for someone new every year and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

We have negotiated and campaigned, and with some success; however, Junior Cycle reform still causes more problems than it solves. As long as this remains true, the not inconsiderable merits of the reform will lurk in the shadows while the obstacles hog the limelight.

Awful

Is the new Junior Cycle so awful? Yes, it really is. To concentrate only on this year’s affected cohort, we need only look at the Gaeilge and MFL (French, German, Spanish, and Italian) teachers.

We are well into November and they are preparing their third year students for a State examination next June. An examination they saw a sample of for the very first time on 12th November.

Sample assessment tasks were released by the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) earlier this academic year to whoops of excitement, until, little by little, teachers learned that the NCCA doesn’t issue the exam papers, so this material didn’t reflect what will be on the SEC’s (State Examination Commission) sample paper.

Edco and Educate publishers have been pushing hard for pre-sales of their editions of the sample papers. No publication date, obviously, as they too were as in the dark as teachers in the classrooms until the sample paper was issued.

And so, again, this year everyone waited for the SEC to release such a paper - ideally more than one, and based on that we would be better able to inform our students (ourselves first, obviously!) on how to prepare for what awaits us all next June.

We can only hope that in the two years and more we have been teaching the course without such a sample, we have not misunderstood too much or misled too many!

Why wait so late, I hear you ask? Why indeed. Allegedly, it’s so that we don’t “teach to the exam”.

Interesting that, as we will be able to do so every single year after the autumn of the initial release of papers for that subject. This argument only holds water for that first cohort.

The English candidates for the new Junior Cycle examination in June 2017 may have only seen sample papers the previous autumn, but their successors in 2018 had a full year’s extra notice.

What’s more, they had teachers with a whole year’s experience and therefore a far better idea of what was going on, including how best to prepare their students. Conclusion: the only party entirely disadvantaged by this approach is the students sitting the exam in its inaugural year.

Fiasco

Whatever has been a fiasco about the new Junior Cycle journey is not and has never been about me or my colleagues. It has always been about the students. We are highly trained and reasonably paid, and would always have been willing to comply with any reform that made pedagogical sense. Unfortunately, this one has failed at far too many junctures.

We teachers experience any preparation period for in-house, Junior Certificate or Leaving Certificate exams numerous times. We have stronger groups and weaker groups. We are not naïve to the many variables which impact on the teaching and learning of any group preparing for an exam: timetabling, attendance, motivation and so on.

There are, then, the inevitable emotional upheavals which are part and parcel of adolescence. We fully embrace them all as part of the challenge, and as teachers taking different cohorts through exams we know that no one positive or negative experience or result defines us completely as a teacher of the subject.

Not so for the student of the subject; the vast majority of our students will only experience each exam in each subject once. Why can’t that once be guaranteed to be as effectively organised as is humanly possible?

There are so many ways in which the rollout and implementation of the new Junior Cycle could have been improved. One very simple place to start would have been to pilot it. That’s what the best education systems do in order to ensure that what is put in front of the students has already been judged a viable product.

Change

In the absence of piloting prior to implementation, have the appropriate bodies engaged in reflection and evaluation during the roll-out?

Teachers are constantly asked to reflect on and evaluate our own performance. Ironically, reflection is a huge part of the new Junior Cycle, so students must engage in it too. Facing criticism for the late release of sample papers in previous years should surely have signalled a need for change.

If we and our pupils have to identify our strengths and weaknesses in a community context, why isn’t this happening in relation to the rollout of a whole new State examination?

Perhaps this is a case of do as I say, not as I do?