Reform of the Junior Certificate – 8th November

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Yesterday I spoke in the Seanad about the proposed reforms of the Junior Certificate that are being proposed by the Minister for Education. Further information on the proposed reforms can be found here.

 

Senator Averil Power: I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for his opening remarks.  Fianna Fáil welcomes the proposals published by the NCCA.  We appreciate that it has been the culmination of much work, both by NCCA staff under the direction of Anne Looney and by the consultative board led by Tom Collins.  I also appreciate that these proposals represent just one part of work being carried out on the junior cycle, senior cycle and the issue of entry into third level, and that this has to be seen in the context of the continuum of second level education and the entry process for higher education.
  There is no doubt that change is needed at all levels if we are to move the focus of our second level education away from an excessive emphasis on rote learning and towards the acquisition of key skills, the kind of skills that people will need for the jobs of the future, as well as life skills.  These skills include critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.  To be effective, change must involve both curricula and exams.  We have changed the curricula in different courses over the years, but we never fundamentally changed the examinations.  As a result, we have not had success.  We can tinker as much as we like with the curriculum, but as the Minister pointed out on other occasions in the House, there is always a pressure on teachers to teach to the test, even when it goes against their best professional judgment .  Pressure is put on them by students and parents to get the best test results, even if that flies in the face of what is the best education for the young people involved.  There is no doubt we need change across the entire second level programme but it is right to start at junior certificate level, because the stakes at leaving certificate level are obviously much higher.
  I welcome the move away from measuring everything in one examination at the end of third year.  The 40:60 balance between examinations and school-based work is appropriate.  Teachers are the best judges of students’ standards and abilities.  With proper training and support, they should be in a position to assess their students’ work without leading to a distortion of the traditional student-teacher relationship.  The class teacher is the one person who has an opportunity to observe his or her students over a sustained period of time, performing a range of different tasks, including essays, demonstrations, team work and so on.  Unlike the external examiner who can only deal with the paper before him or her, which is an attempt by a student on one particular day in a few short hours, the teacher can make a judgment on the student’s real ability as demonstrated to that teacher over the full cycle.

 

I fully appreciate that teachers have concerns that parents, particularly in small towns, will put pressure on them to give students good results.  However, we can and must educate parents and students on how doing that might serve some short-term goal but, in the long term, it is against their best interests.
  We are not dealing with the leaving certificate and it will not determine someone’s entire future and what course they take.  The group certificate and intermediate certificate exams midway through second level used to be the final exam for most students and was their passport into the world of work.  Therefore, there was significant pressure surrounding them.  However, for most students this is now just an opportunity to get feedback halfway through the cycle as to how they are getting on, get guidance on areas in which they are good and skills that they should be looking to develop in the senior cycle.
  I understand the concerns which have been expressed as this constitutes very significant change.  As the Minister said, a fully externally accessed examination system is unique in international terms.  However, it is what we are used to.  People need to have confidence in the education system because it is so important.  It is difficult to bring people along with such a significant change.  Students are concerned and teachers and parents want their students to do the best.  It is important to inspire confidence and I appreciate the concerns.  However, with the right supports those concerns can be addressed.
  The Minister has aluded in some of the commentary in the newspapers in recent weeks to a possible role for IT, not just in the external modulation but perhaps in the small town environment.  The Minister might respond on that.  I am not sure if that was what the Minister meant but there was a remark made about the use of online systems for marking papers.
  Teacher education is so important as the Minister will be aware.  As I understand it, assessment is not a major component of the training programmes at pre-service stage.  I am not sure if much has been done on this in terms of in-service training.  There has been a move over the last few years to try to move to assessment for learning but I am not sure if it is at the stage we need in order to make changes as significant as those we are proposing.  There will be a need for in-service training and for resources to be provided for it.  I hope the Minister will give us an idea of his thinking on this and whether it has been costed and if the resources are available.  For this to work we have to be confident that the training will be there in good time.  I understand that work is being done on restructuring pre-service training for primary and post-primary teachers.  This is long overdue and I hope that assessment for learning will be a key part of that process.
  I welcome the proposal on short courses.  This is an exciting opportunity for students to develop a wide range of skills and talents in areas such as drama, music, ICT, and skills of relevance to the local economy, such as fishing, agriculture or other industries.  It also provides a great opportunity to recognise the role of programmes like young social entrpreneurs, community involvement and so on, which should be as equally valuable as a student’s achievements in particular subjects.  There is great scope in this regard and I am confident that many partners, such as IT companies, would be interested in working with the Department to progress this issue.
  Flexibility is positive but it is important that we ensure the necessary quality is present.  The Minister will be aware from reviews of transition year that some schools do an amazing job, but in others the students do not get a very positive experience.  Some programmes are being developed nationally by the NCCA.  It is important that the programmes developed by schools are validated by a national body so we can be confident of their quality.

 

 
  I support the cap on the number of subjects for examination purposes and I do not necessarily believe that everything should be assessed, provided the full range of subjects are genuinely on offer.  In his opening remarks, the Minister stated the subjects would be available but there have been reports in recent days about alarming cutbacks in the number of second level teachers.  Theory is one thing but if the teachers are not available the schools will be simply unable to offer the subjects and we run the risk of making it impossible for schools to provide the subjects we claim students can study and we run the risk of jeopardising the success of the excellent proposals under discussion today.
  I hope the Minister will take on board the call I am making today for science to be made compulsory.  I appreciate that the Minister has every subject teacher group in the country, including history and geography teachers and every one else, suggesting that their subject is the most important but there is no doubt that awareness of scientific issues is central to achieving the targets set out in the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2006-2013 and the national skills strategy.  I appreciate that 87% of students are taking science in the junior certificate cycle at the moment but I believe strongly that everyone should get the opportunity at least to experiment with it at the start and then decide whether they wish to take it on in the senior cycle.  I highlight the need for information and communications technology to be better across all areas although I am aware it is in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, document.  Resources and training will be key issues in this regard.
  Fianna Fáil supports the document and we realise a good deal of work has been done on it.  We have concerns with some areas but with the right implementation plan it can be done.  I am keen to see a detailed implementation plan as soon as possible with resources earmarked and genuinely set aside so that they will not be subject to cuts in the budget next year or the year after.  This is necessary so that those in the system can have confidence that the Government is serious about seeing this through and ensuring it can be effective.

 

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