Junior Cert to switch emphasis


Written exams would account for only 50 per cent of the marks in the revised Junior Cert under new proposals designed to radically overhaul the grading system.

The proposals place a heavy emphasis on school-based portfolio work in a move which could be opposed by the main second-level teacher union, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI). The confidential briefing document has been prepared at Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s request.

The document from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment says a “fifty-fifty split (between written external exams and school-based assessment) is being discussed but so is a sixty-forty divide in favour of the external component”.

Reform of the Junior Cert is Mr Quinn’s main policy priority after the ranking of 15-year-old students slumped in the last report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The council for curriculum assessment will submit final proposals next month.

A Department of Education spokesman said there was an ambitious timetable for reform and that the Minister hoped the new course could be rolled out from September 2012, with the first revised Junior Cert in 2015.

Under the proposals students would complete a maximum of eight subjects in the revised exam. At present, it is not unusual for pupils to take 12 or more subjects.

In the revised Junior Cert, all students would still take a written exam in June in their eight subjects. But this would be accompanied by a portfolio component assessed by the school and externally moderated by the State Exams Commission.

The ASTI will not agree to any system where teachers are assessing their own pupils. The department hopes they can agree to a system where work is assessed by other teachers, under the overall supervision of the exams commission.

But the union may be slow to co-operate with the new proposal.

Under the council for curriculum and assessment proposals, students would also complete “short courses” which would be assessed within their schools. Some of these courses would be specified by the council, but schools could also develop their own short programmes locally.

According to the briefing document these might include:

* Curriculum-based courses such as cultural studies or European studies;

* An integrated theme such as innovation or sustainability;

* Areas of personal competence such as assembling an electronic portfolio;

* Drama or health week events;

* Inquiry-based learning around a theme of the students’ choice.

The council says that the new junior cycle will “come to be more about the learning” than about the exam. Students would have a “more positive engagement” with learning which is promised in eight key areas.

These are: arts, language, mathematical thinking, moral and religious education, scientific approaches, social studies, technology and wellbeing.

The council envisages two qualifications for junior cycle students: one a replacement for the Junior Cert and the other designed for students with general learning disabilities.

Surprisingly, the council document envisages that the time allocated to Irish, English and maths (about 240 hours at present) should not increase.

Mr Quinn has made the case for more tuition time for English and maths as part of an effort to boost literacy and numeracy.

The Junior Cert was heralded as a modern, user-friendly exam when it replaced the Inter Cert more than 20 years ago. But it became a mirror image of the Leaving Cert, with the same emphasis on rote learning and exams.

Economic Social Research Institute studies have found widespread dissatisfaction with the exam among students and teachers, with a significant minority of pupils disengaging from the exam course.

Mr Quinn sees Junior Cert reform as the first step in a process that will also mark the overhaul of the Leaving Cert and the CAO system.

Next month, the council and the Higher Education Authority will host a conference on the transition from second to third level.