“I wouldn’t start from here” has never been a good response to receive when looking for directions.
Education reform has always been bedevilled by that same response. The weight of established practice always seems to exceed the possibility of improvement. However, the radical impact of Covid on our exam systems has had one beneficial outcome. It has given us a glimpse of a green field on which to build, an opportunity to start from zero, as it were.
The suspension of the Junior Certificate exams, initially in 2020 and subsequently in 2021, has received very little attention. It has been eclipsed by issues relating to the Leaving Certificate examination. The relative invisibility of Junior Cycle in recent public debate is itself a reflection of its perceived status and esteem.
Yet the statement of the Minister for Education during the summer, that 2022 examinations at both Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate would “play to student strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the examinations” is a most disappointing response to the opportunities presented by Covid.
The Covid experience has opened a pathway to a more open and less prescriptive curriculum and assessment model at Junior Cycle. In recognising this, however, it is important to avoid crude interventions.
Teachers are rightly sensitive to opportunistic moves to exploit the emergency circumstances of Covid. Their commitment to the welfare of their students has led some teachers to engage in assessment processes which run counter to their own professional beliefs. This commitment must be respected in the post-Covid environment. Teachers should not be bounced into new models of assessment.
The issue might be best approached through the Citizens’ Assembly for Education, promised in the current Programme for Government. That seems like the most appropriate forum for a measured and reasoned debate about the aims and purposes of Junior Cycle education and how best they might be realised.
The post-Covid situation should be addressed calmly on a constructive basis that allows everyone to reflect on and to learn from the experience of the past two years. In particular, discussion should be framed by two key premises:
Separate consideration of the Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate assessment processes: considerations that apply to the Junior Cycle are likely to differ in some important aspects from those at Leaving Certificate;
The opportunity to rebuild “from zero”: instead of reverting by default to the system as applied before the Covid crisis, we should reintroduce components of the examination system only on the basis of their relative merits.
The distinction between Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert is essential for improved provision. Junior Cycle should be less concerned with certification, promoting instead a greater role for local school reporting and greater prominence for the record of personal achievement of each student. This might extend to differentiated treatment of subjects rather than a single model of examination to be applied across the board.
The Junior Cycle is possibly the most important, and certainly the most challenging phase of young people’s education. This may be an opportunity for the Junior Cycle to take on a more coherent identity in itself, emerging from the child-centred primary curriculum but not yet formed by the exam-driven Leaving Cert.
The suspension of the Junior Cert exam these past two years is a cause for hope. We have a number of other positives. There is already in place an imaginative and pragmatic curriculum plan for Junior Cycle – the framework developed by the NCCA (2012) and adapted by the Department of Education (2015).
The Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT) support programme has fostered a culture of professional growth in the form of networks of schools and in-school teams of teachers.
A powerful model has been developed over many years through the Teaching and Learning for the 21st century (TL21) project led by Maynooth University. In TL21, schools working in collaborative networks, identify their own priority needs and develop responses to the needs of the pupils they encounter in their classrooms everyday.
Over half a century ago, the introduction of free post-primary education ushered in a huge transformation in Irish society. Perhaps the most significant impact of that scheme was the freedom it gave to introduce a new primary school curriculum.
Because all students were progressing to post-primary school, the crude Primary Certificate examination could be discontinued and the old curriculum could be replaced by a new and exciting child-centred programme. We now have the opportunity to introduce a similar transformation in Junior Cycle education.
The ill wind of Covid may have delivered some good to the education system. It may have given us a good place from which to start.
Dr Gary Granville is professor emeritus at the National College of Art and Design. He was formerly assistant chief executive in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).