'Radical' Junior Cert overhaul planned


There is compelling international evidence that students will perform better by moving away from terminal “high stakes” exams like the Junior Cert, Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn has said.

The terminal Junior Cert exam will be replaced with a school-based model of assessment with an emphasis on the quality of students' learning experience. This will be done on a phased basis with English being the first subject to be introduced to First Year students in 2014.

Speaking this afternoon, Mr Quinn said the new “lower stakes’’ Junior Cert will deliver a programme which will allow students to develop a wide range of skills, including critical thinking skills and basic skills such as numeracy and literacy.

The minister described his plan as “the most radical shake-up of the junior cycle programme since the ending of the Inter Cert in 1991”.

Mr Quinn has broadly accepted proposals put forward by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to introduce a new junior cycle programme.

The most controversial plan is the proposal for teachers to assess their own students, which is vehemently opposed by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI).

Other features of the plan include:

- Most students will generally take no fewer than eight subjects and no more than 10 full subjects for certification purposes in the new junior cycle.

- Students will be able to substitute two short courses for one full subject, allowing options such as Chinese or Physical Education or Digital Media Literacy to be taken.

- Schools will also be able to offer their own short courses in accordance with specifications provided by the NCCA. This will give schools the flexibility to tailor the programme to the needs of students in their locality - for example, a short course might focus on an aspect of local industry, agriculture or heritage.

- Standardised testing will be introduced in literacy, numeracy (from 2014 ) and in science (from 2016);

- Parents will get a fuller picture of how their child is progressing at every stage of their first three years at second level

Mr Quinn said the current Junior Cert exam has dominated teaching and learning.

"The Junior Certificate is no longer a high stakes exam, yet we continue to treat it as if it were a 'dry run' for the Leaving Cert - to the detriment of many of our students,” he said.

In the new exam, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will be involved in the assessment of English, Irish and Mathematics in the initial years as recognition of the central role these subjects play in literacy and numeracy.

These subjects will be examined at higher and ordinary level, while all other subjects will be assessed at common level. The SEC and the NCCA will also provide materials to schools to assist in on-going assessment of students' progress and achievement.

Explaining the changes, Mr Quinn pointed out how significant numbers of first years do not make progress in English and Maths - the key building blocks of learning.

"Too many students 'switch off' in second year and never reconnect to learning. We know that the experience of third year students is dominated by preparations for the Junior Certificate exams where the focus narrows to the performance in the examination rather than the quality of the learning. It is high time we changed this - for the good of our students and our teachers."

He said the new changes are not about our schools, students and teachers doing more work at junior cycle. “It is about them doing things differently. Teachers are already doing a great job, but they are often hamstrung by pressure to teach to the test. The new reformed junior cycle will liberate teachers and their students. Parents too will benefit by knowing much more about their children's achievements over the three years of junior cycle than they could ever find out from a State Exam certificate at the end of Junior Cert."

The new focus on assessment will require significant Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers and principals. These programmes of support will begin in 2013.

"I have listened to teachers and principals who have asked for the new junior cycle to be fully resourced. The changes I am announcing today are not about saving money, in fact they will cost us considerably more than if I were to do nothing. However, even in these very difficult financial times, this Government believes in investing in our children and I will provide all the resources necessary to ensure the success of the new junior cycle," he concluded.

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