Junior Certificate Reform

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I welcome the Minister to the House. I will begin where he left off, with the reform of the junior certificate. The Minister referred to some of the work done by the NCCA, and the ESRI report last year pointed out quite strongly the deficiencies in the current junior certificate, providing a very strong evidence base for the reforms being brought forward. The ESRI report followed a cohort of 900 students in 12 schools from first year to completion of the leaving certificate in what was the first longitudinal study of its kind of a cohort of second level students. The evidence it provides about the student experience feeds into the motivations behind the reform and tells us what we must be considering.

The report indicated that under the current structure, young people’s experience of junior cycle is quite fragmented between first, second and third year. First year involves much turbulence for all students coming into a new environment, with new classmates and curricula and an increase in the number of subjects studied. One expects first year to be difficult for many reasons. Worryingly, there is evidence that second year is a key time as people, particularly young men, begin to disengage from the curriculum. At such a young age, there is a process where one can be alienated from the school environment, bored by subjects, put off by the excessive focus we currently have on rote learning and the grind towards the leaving certificate. Our focus is on a terminal and high stakes exam with the junior certificate.

It is important to note there is a strong evidence base for change, and I welcome the reforms put forward in that context. They are positive and bold, which is good. We should not be boxing off second level students so early into an exam system where they are making choices prematurely about subjects and levels of learning. We should be opening their minds and give people access to as many short courses as possible. We should do our best to educate and develop the whole student, and I welcome the emphasis in the NCCA report on well-being. We have discussed that issue much in this House in debating mental health and the need to ensure we equip young people with coping skills, mental wellness and all the skills they need for life, rather than setting out in third year a mode of education where they must cram for a test.

The reforms are positive and I welcome the move towards continuous assessment. As the Minister indicated, it already happens in other years within the existing cycle and it works perfectly well not just in other countries at second level but in the third level system. Moreover, third level institutions are used to giving students marks in important assessments conducted within an institution. I accept that teacher unions have concerns, and although some are unnecessary, others are a genuine reflection of a worry that we have not yet seen an implementation plan.

We need to see how that assessment will work, what supports will be put in place for teachers from a professional development point of view and, in terms of assessment tools, what procedures will be in place to ensure a similar metric is used across schools and that there is not too much scope for difference depending on who is teaching particular classes within a school and not just across schools.

My main question on junior certificate reform is about the implementation plan. When will we see a detailed implementation plan? That is essential in terms of seeing the costings for all of this. When the reform document was published, the Minister made a commitment that he would secure the money. I suppose everybody in this House hopes that is the case but we would like to know the amount of money, if it is secure and if the Minister has put in costings for it. I appreciate there is a long implementation period but we should be looking at teacher professional development as soon as possible to ensure they are ready, at the development of short courses and so on. I understand schools will have flexibility but there is a need for national work to be done there as well.

Has the Minister put in a pitch for next year’s budget in that context? If he thinks there will be expenditure next year, has the Department pitched for it and, if so, for how much and for what? When does the Minister foresee a detailed implementation plan being published to provide the reassurance needed for teachers, students and parents that this is beyond being a great idea, which it is, and to ensure it works in reality? I do not think anybody disagrees with the idea but there is a great deal of concern about making sure it works in reality.

We welcome the literacy and numeracy strategy. Publication of the final strategy by the Government followed on from the draft published in November 2010 by the last Government and the work done on that. The targets in the strategy are important but, more importantly, I welcome the emphasis being put on teacher education. That is something the Minister has been working on and it is probably the most important issue because regardless of what curriculum one teaches, the most important thing in education is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. That is a crucial issue and this side of the House will support the Minister in placing as much emphasis as possible on teacher training and driving through the reform agenda.

I welcome the fact that there will be standardised testing in maths, science and English as part of the junior certificate but also feeding into the overall literacy and numeracy programme. Perhaps we have rested on our laurels a little bit in terms of our previous performance in PISA surveys and our literacy results. The 2010 PISA results gave everybody a bit of a shock. Some of that has been explained by issues like changes in the composition of students and the fact that we have a more diverse set of students sitting those tests than heretofore. Maybe that addresses some of it but certainly not all of it. It is important we take it as a wake up call and ensure we make the bold changes needed to drive up our literacy and numeracy rates, get them among the best in the world and keep ahead of the curve. Rather than being satisfied with how we have been doing over the past ten years in all of these issues, we need to look at where we want to be in ten years time, where other countries are going, the investment they are making in education and the difference that will make for their young people and, in particular, their workforces in the coming years.

Our main concern around the literacy and numeracy strategy would be in regard to resources, in particular some supports being cut while others are announced. We have discussed last year’s DEIS cuts on many occasions in this House and I accept the Minister acknowledged that they were a mistake. We need to be very careful heading into the next budget. It is great to announce a new scheme but if what we are doing strikes out something that works, it is crazy. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that DEIS will not be touched again during the lifetime of this Government because the evidence is there that it works and pays for itself several times over. That must be a core part of the literacy programme.

I refer finally to Project Maths, which has been the most significant reform of the science and maths curriculum. The project has taught us lessons about what works and what does not as we try to move to a system that is based more on critical thinking, problem solving, investigation for other subjects. It is positive that the take up of higher level maths and student engagement with the subject is good. I acknowledge concerns and criticisms were expressed as well but perhaps we can learn from them as we roll reform out across other junior certificate and leaving certificate subjects.

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