Where now for junior cycle reform?

New classroom-based assessments begin next month but the future of the wider changes hangs in the balance


It was supposed to herald a new dawn in Irish education, training young people to think creatively and critically. Now, with one teacher union refusing to engage in training, the future of junior-cycle reform hangs in the balance.

The ultimate goal of creating a system that is less of a memory test and more of a real preparation for further or higher education and the world beyond is in stasis.

The current system is not serving young people very well, says Majella Dempsey, a lecturer in education at Maynooth University and a specialist on developing young people’s key skills. “In the new junior cycle curriculum there is a move towards focusing on learning outcomes and embedding the development of key skills – such as teamwork, creativity and managing information – into subjects. This is a major change and teachers are not ready for it.”

A recent analysis by the World Economic Forum in Davos suggested that by 2020 at least five million jobs across 15 major countries will be displaced by new technologies. There is a growing awareness that economic, political, technological and social change is happening ever more rapidly and young people need a different kind of preparation for third level, careers and life. This is the wider global context within which exam reform is being discussed.

In 2012 the initial plan of the then minister for education, Ruairí Quinn, was to abolish the Junior Cert exam. The unions faced it down. Quinn was right, says Dempsey. “It was very radical. He took a big, bold and brave move to address a system of lower secondary education which was not meeting the needs of students. It was the way to go. That said, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland are not totally wrong in saying that the system is not ready for school-based assessment, but they’re not saying what we need to do and what sort of continuous professional development could move this forward. Nobody can disagree with the need for change.”

Officially they do not. “Our members acknowledge that we need to change how and what we teach, and that we need more meaningful assessment,” says Moira Leydon, ASTI assistant general secretary. “Teachers are not against change, but the complexity of the new system is causing wariness. They feel that there will be significant workload issues with the new junior cycle which will impact on their teaching. Teachers are expected to engage in deep innovation while middle-management posts go unfilled, and it causes resentment.”

David Duffy is education and research officer with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents about a third of teachers. TUI members have agreed to be trained in delivering the new syllabus. Duffy disputes the idea that the exam system is not preparing students for the modern world, pointing to a recent OECD report that found 83 per cent of Irish parents are satisfied with our education system, compared with an OECD average of 67 per cent.

He says teachers have always favoured “positive reforms” and have worked with stakeholders to bring them about. “New courses, programmes and subjects come on stream all the time, but implementing them requires adequate resources.”

Sweeney says parents complain about the Leaving Cert but ultimately feel it is fair, as everyone sits the same set of anonymously marked exams. “But it only examines one type of knowledge and is not developing skills for life and for jobs. I see it myself at third level: students with a lack of communication skills and the inability to do a presentation, for instance. This isn’t a skill that can be reduced to a tick-box exercise; we need a deep and broad learning.”

Over the past decade, a significant amount of time and money has been spent looking at how the senior cycle could be reformed to place less emphasis on the cycle. There have been some changes around it, with a new focus on apprenticeship programmes and a reorganisation of the points system to reduce the number of possible grades from 14 to eight, but despite some curriculum reforms the intense exam itself is relatively untouched.

“We want to bed down junior cycle reform before we look to the Leaving Cert,” says a senior source at the Department of Education. But the grand prize of Leaving Cert reform appears to be receding.


Will exam reform happen? The decision lies with members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland. Last September the ballot was put to them without a recommendation from union leadership and just 38 per cent of union members voted. The result was 55-45 per cent in favour of boycotting junior cycle training.

Their colleagues in the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, following a recommendation from union leaders, voted, on a 60 per cent turnout, to accept the ballot.

This means that teachers in about a quarter of postprimary schools will participate in the training and the remainder will not. David Duffy of TUI, Clive Byrne of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, and a senior figure in the Department of Education all say the training has gone well so far and no major issues or concerns have arisen.

Duffy says teachers are “looking forward to the continued rollout of the programme” but declined to comment why his teacher colleagues in the ASTI feel differently.

It is no secret, however, that the ASTI is riven with division over the issue and that there is a sizeable cohort of teachers who are deeply unhappy that they can’t take part in training – an unhappiness that they are voicing in their staffrooms.

Indeed, the ASTI itself has various factions competing for control of the agenda, and the impact is being felt by children in schools around Ireland.

The union’s leadership is in flux: the ASTI’s new general secretary, Kieran Christie, in situ since January, is a teacher from Sligo who is widely regarded as more sympathetic to the union’s militant wing.

What if the ASTI continues to block reforms? As yet, there seems to be no plan B.

“There is still time for a cohort of students to do the classroom- based assessments in the 2016-2017 academic year,” says the department source.

“There is now a cohort of teachers from TUI schools (mostly ETB and community and comprehensive schools) who have been trained and will be delivering the curriculum without huge concerns or fears, so that may have some impact on their ASTI colleagues.

“But it’s not a given that they will get on board. They have asked for clarification on some issues, many of which are relatively technical in nature. If they want further clarification, we are happy to provide it – but we are not reopening negotiations.”

Majella Dempsey says that the teacher unions are particularly powerful in Ireland.

“We are unique in education systems in that the teacher unions have a strong hold over the politics of teaching and learning. They can hold it all up, and they have.”


Third-year student at Summerhill College, Sligo

“I enjoy school but the curriculum is fairly outdated. There’s hardly any mention in business, for instance, about computers, and although it does teach about the world of business, the curriculum doesn’t really give a sense of how exciting and enterprising it can be. Continuous assessment is a good idea, but it should be developed further. The curriculum disciplines you and ensures everyone follows the rules and behaves like a good citizen. Some aspects, such as the social, personal and health education curriculum, are valuable in that they teach us about relationships, but there is not much else of practical use.”


Second-year science student at NUI Galway

“Some of what was taught in school was useful, but the off-by-heart approach that I and thousands of other students have to learn from school is not easily unlearned. It can be frustrating for science lecturers who are trying to get us to think critically and not rely on rote learning. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the tick-box syllabus during the Junior Cert, to the neglect of emotional wellbeing. Some subjects were relevant to me, but others were nothing more than a massive, overwhelming workload. I saw getting through the syllabuses as a means of getting the points I needed.”


Journalism student at Ballyfermot College of Further Education

“There was so much pressure to memorise, especially in the Junior Cert. There was little creativity and no attempt to match students with areas that suited their skills. Now, in college, continuous assessment seems to work so much better. My sister is doing her Junior Cert this year. She is only 15 and has so much homework and pressure to study. Junior Cert students are just kids. The pressure is too much. Transition year was a highlight of school, and where I learned things that have actually stayed with me, because it is about life and the real world.”

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