The problem w ith the Junior Cert reform is that students m ay think teachers are biased
Father, teacher and president of the TUI, Gerry Quinn, tells Andrea Smith about the challenges ahead
The way the Junior Cert is currently marked, using external examiners, has all the benefits of anonymity and objectivity. Maintaining objectivity in exams is so important for planning, and for preparing, students and parents for the Leaving Cert cycle. The main concern for teachers is around marking our own students' work."
I'm in Coman's in Rathgar, having tea with Gerry Quinn, the newly-appointed president of the Teachers Union of Ireland.
We're discussing the new junior cycle reforms, which begin with the English syllabus the new first years will embark on in September.
With his own daughter Sinead among those starting secondary school in a few weeks, Gerry's concerns come from being a parent as well as a teacher and union president.
Earlier this year, the Department of Education announced that current Junior Cert programme will be phased out over the next eight years, and replaced by a school-based model of continuous assessment. Under the new reforms, 40pc of examination marks will be based on coursework, and 60pc on a final written exam, which will be administered and corrected by the students' teachers. The only exceptions are English, Irish and Maths, which will be corrected externally for the first couple of years.
As anyone who has ever gone through the Irish examination system can attest, its best feature is the complete anonymity and fairness of the marking system, where nothing could be accused of influencing the grade obtained.
If teachers were to mark their own students' work, surely this leaves them open to the possibility of accusations of bias or unfairness?
After all, the perennial cry of the teenage student, dating back to my own schooldays is, "that teacher HATES me".
Might a weak teacher be tempted to inflate grades to disguise their own teaching flaws? Or could an irate parent vent their fury at a hapless teacher who fails to give darling Johnny top marks on a project that counts towards his final grade?
"Yes, there could be a perception problem there," admits Gerry, who says that teachers fully agree in principle that the exam system needs to be overhauled, but want to see it happening in a way that is sensible and properly planned.
"It's not that you can't trust teachers, because they will be absolutely fair and conscientious, but the relationship between teachers and students is critical and we want it to be maintained.
"Standardisation across the country is very effective for measuring the progress of students, and the external system of correction that we currently have has public confidence and our confidence. It removes any doubt."
As the students return to school, they and their parents will be concerned that 88pc of teachers in ASTI and TUI have voted for industrial action, if the reform goes ahead without meaningful engagement between them and the new minister, Jan O'Sullivan.
As it stands, teachers have stated their intention to boycott training days on marking their own students' work for certification, which Gerry says is regrettable, but necessary.
"There is a window of opportunity for the minister to engage with us to try to sort this out," he says. "We have expressed our opposition to the plan for the final correcting of the paper, and what we are saying is it doesn't represent reform, it is just about saving money."
It may seem that Gerry (48) was destined for a life in teaching, given that he grew up in Clones, Co Monaghan, as the eldest of primary school teachers Ben and Nora Quinn's six children, but he says that he was unsure of what he wanted to do. While he attended school locally, he went to a boarding school in Monaghan town for the final two years, and sat his Leaving Certificate in 1983. He went on to study history and geography at Maynooth, and "fell into" doing a HDip in teaching as lots of his friends were doing it.
"I hadn't planned on becoming a teacher but I'm delighted now," he says. "I taught in a number of very diverse schools in Ireland and England, including an all-girls, upper middle-class English school, where there was a strong emphasis on academia, and an all-boys school in London, where there were high levels of disadvantage, and the objective was to maintain some level of discipline in the classroom.
"I learned early on that even though we all have the same qualifications as teachers, we really could have different experiences depending on where we worked."
Gerry has taught for the past 20 years at the co-educational St Fergal's College in Rathdowney, Co Laois. Does he think that single-sex or mixed schools are better for students? "Personally I think co-ed is better," he says.
"It's a more natural setting." He got married in 1992 to Joan, who teaches in a primary Gaelscoil, and they have four children, Daire, Niamh, Sinead and Ailbhe, who are aged between ten and 20.
Mind you, being a teacher didn't quite prepare him for fatherhood as much as one might imagine.
"Becoming a dad was a shock to the system," he admits. "I was overjoyed, but the practicalities were hard, to be honest. I didn't anticipate the 24-hour schedule. When Daire came home the first night, and woke up to be fed during the night.
"I realised that you can clock off with any other job, but not with kids. You adjust though, and you become so conscious of their well-being, and my kids have good opinions about things like the junior cycle reform and educational issues."
Having a teacher as a parent can be difficult at times for children, but did becoming a dad influence Gerry's approach in the classroom? "I always admired teachers who weren't authoritarian," he says. "Like parenting, there are all different types of approaches, and I came from an approach where you try to build positive relationships with the children.
"Having my own children probably made me realise that you have to achieve a balance between structures, boundaries and communication."
Gerry became involved in the TUI, as the democratic aspect of the union appealed to him. He took on the position of president on July 1. This means that he will take a year off teaching, with an opportunity to extend the term to two years. It's more challenging then daunting, he says, as it's a big responsibility.
As he lives with his family in Portlaoise, he discussed the ramifications with his wife Joan prior to taking the position, and she was fully supportive. It will mean a change to family life, as he'll be commuting daily to the office in Dublin, and there will be events all around the country that will lay claim to his time.
Mind you, if he gets stranded late at night in Dublin, he can always doss on his son Daire's sofa, we joke, as his eldest son is moving to the capital next month, hopefully to study pharmacy at Trinity.
When we see the teachers' conferences in the media, images and footage of teachers heckling the minister tend to be the ones that linger. It is not impressive, and draws criticism from the public, but does the president approve?
"It's important to explain that militancy comes from a genuine care about what is happening in our schools," he says. "I think it's understandable that teachers are frustrated at the way the profession has gone, because there has been a lot of damage done to the education system in the last few years through cuts.
"The recession has possibly encouraged a more dictatorial approach from the department that has been quite damaging. I would like to see a partnership built on a genuine respect for the teaching profession, and feel that our voices should be heard about reforms in education."
Gerry says that one of the biggest issues facing students today, compared with when he first started teaching, is that there are more platforms for bullying. It is a very worrying situation, he says, and something teachers always aim to prevent.
"I have seen teachers who have picked up on something, even though nothing was brought to their attention," he says. "Discipline has become more challenging now, and the whole emphasis is on positive codes of discipline, opening lines of communication and constructive relationships.
"It is not just simply about winning consent, as there are certain things teachers need to be firm on, but there is an emphasis on having a respectful environment for everyone involved."