Saturday 1 October 2016

Junior Cert reform must not drain resources from senior cycle

Clive Byrne

Published 14/10/2015 | 02:30

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan has long called for a junior cycle that encourages critical thinking and learner autonomy
Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan has long called for a junior cycle that encourages critical thinking and learner autonomy

All education partners agree that change to the Junior Cert is necessary. It is not currently fit-for-purpose. The Junior Cert, like the Leaving, is all about exams: exams that put an overly strenuous burden on the shoulders of our 15 year olds.

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The Junior Cert consists of rote-learning, hyper-analysis of previous papers and guesswork in an effort to predict what questions will appear in the next exam. It is less about independent thinking, problem-solving, creativity or innovation and more about the ability to memorise.

A system of teaching, learning and assessment is needed, far from the 'strait-jacket' approach that is the current Junior Cert. A system where value is placed on creativity as opposed to regurgitation.

Pupils should be developing skills that will equip them for life, not for an exam. Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan, and Ruairí Quinn before her, have long called for a junior cycle that encourages critical thinking and learner autonomy.

The proposed changes to the Junior Cert go far to encourage more creative teaching practices. Under the proposal, final exams will account for 60pc of marks while the remainder will be rewarded through school-based assessments. The final Junior Cert exam grades will be influenced by the students' own teachers.

Essentially, over time, the Junior Cert is being transformed from a high-stakes exam to a school-based system where teaching and learning will be at the heart of the awarding system.

The State Exams Commission will set exam papers in traditional subjects, but schools will be free to mix and match these with a menu of new "short courses". This proposal is broadly in line with the practice in other countries like Finland and New Zealand. It ensures the junior cycle is less reliant on a single terminal exam and reflects well the increasing and successful practice at third level of continuous assessment.

Progress is already being made on this initiative. Classroom-based assessment is now part of the English course and current second years will the first to experience this. Science and business studies are the next subjects in line in a planned subject-by-subject roll-out.

This phased approach to reform makes common sense. Change is never easy and often not accepted by many. However, a "walk before we run" approach gives the time for the change to be incremental, and space for even its strongest opponents to see and accept its value.

Currently, the introduction of these reforms in practice remains somewhat unclear, with one teacher union supportive and the other against. It is imperative that we avoid a dual system whereby pupils in some schools are moving ahead and some pupils are not.

It is important to recognise that with the changes to teaching and learning methodologies, teachers are being asked to assess the children's work, not the children themselves.

A final critical part of the reform jigsaw is the provision of necessary continuous professional development (CPD) - the upskilling and training needed to ensure that the reforms are fully understood and effectively implemented.

Teachers will have 16 in-service days to get to grips with the changes that are coming. These are necessary and fundamental to the success of the reforms. However, the Department of Education must adequately resource schools to ensure that education in the classroom for senior-cycle students does not suffer in the drive to implement reform.

The prize of meaningful reform of our education system and enhancing our children's future deserves nothing less.

* Clive Byrne is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD). The NAPD Annual Conference takes place tomorrow and Friday.

Irish Independent

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