Why the need to reform? What was wrong with the old exam?

Complaints about the Junior Cert have been a persistent feature of education debate.

The exam was designed in 1989. It was intended to be a radical departure but quickly became a mirror image of the Leaving Cert with the same familiar flaws – rote learning, teaching to the test and a lack of critical thinking by students.

Surely the exam told us how our children were performing in school – and indeed how our education system was doing?

If only. For the past 10 years the Junior Cert has presented a happy clappy picture of what’s happening in schools. Grades have surged upward. More and more students have been achieving better and better results.

All fine and dandy except, two years ago, the OECD/Pisa study showed standards of reading and maths among Irish teens have fallen dramatically (from 5th to 17th since 2000 in reading and 16th to 25th in maths). It was the sharpest drop in standards among any developed nation but the Junior Cert failed to track it.

Any positive elements to the old Junior Cert?

Well, yes, it does help to focus the minds of some teenagers and it provides a dry run for the Leaving.

But not everyone wins.

ESRI studies show that boys in particular begin to disengage from education about the age of 14. Many – especially those from disadvantaged areas – never really recover.

That’s certainly regrettable but how am I going to get my teenager to focus in school without the knowledge there’s a big exam at the end of it all?

Here’s the clever part.

The new Junior Cert represents a huge cultural shift in early post-primary education. Your teenager will have to focus all the time because the idea is that they will be assessed throughout the three years.

Most students will take at least eight but no more than 10 full subjects in the new Junior Cycle. They will be able to mix and match from a menu of traditional subjects and new “short courses”. Students can substitute two short courses for one full subject, allowing options such as Chinese or physical education or digital media to be taken. Schools will have a certain amount of flexibility in designing and offering their own courses that may engage their own students.

The emphasis all the time will be on the quality of the students’ learning.

So there will be testing throughout the years, just not a big bang exam at the end of third year?

Exactly. Students will be assessed by their teachers during the three years. There will be an exam at the end of third year but this will be more like a “house exam” than the current high stakes Junior Cert.

English, Irish and maths will be taken at either higher or ordinary level while all other subjects will be taken at common level.

Not all assessment will be school based. From 2014, second-year students will take a standardised test in English reading and maths. Standardised testing in science will also be introduced in 2016. The advantage for parents? They will get a better idea of how their teenager is progressing at every stage. It should also help everyone make more informed choices about their choice of subject in the Leaving Cert. That, at least, is the plan.

Okay, but if teachers mark their own students, how can we be sure it’s all above board?

Initially, the State exams body will provide exam papers and marking schemes for subjects, as well as administering and marking Irish, English and maths exams.

There will be internal checking in schools led by the principal in line with national guidelines.

Results will be returned to the Department of Education and Skills where national patterns will be monitored.

If there is “an unusual pattern” of achievement or underachievement the school will be informed and support offered.

All very well. But I presume teacher unions are up in arms?

You are right. The ASTI say the abolition of the old exam is “regrettable”. The TUI say the whole thing is driven by the need for cost savings. (The Department claims savings in exam costs will be offset by the more than €10 million earmarked for more in-service training.) Both teacher unions say teachers will be expected to implement this new programme without the necessary resources and financial support.

Otherwise, the new measures have drawn a chorus of approval from education experts, industry leaders, university presidents and everyone else you might care to mention.

When will these changes happen?

The new Junior Cert will be phased in from 2014. The class of 2017 will be the first to take the new exam. Before that, Ruairí Quinn says there will be lengthy consultation with all the education partners.