independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

New era for schools in radical overhaul of exams

Major reforms will spell end of rote learning for students

STUDENTS will get marks for sporting performance, writing computer code or devising mental health campaigns under major changes to the Junior Cert syllabus.

Radical reform of the Junior Cert will provide teenagers with unprecedented opportunities to earn grades for showing what they can do outside the exam hall.

Change is aimed at encouraging students to think and to get away from a system dominated by a single, terminal exam that has spawned a reliance on "teaching to the test" and rote learning.

Eight new optional "short courses" will be rolled out in the coming years, offering 15- and 16-year-olds a suite of options for study – and massive changes in how they are assessed.

Now details of four of the short courses have been revealed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the Government education advisory body which is developing the courses.

Draft proposals have now been outlined for four of the subjects that will be on offer – physical education; computer coding; social, personal and health education; and civic, social and personal education. The NCCA is inviting feedback on the new courses until Christmas.

To date it has produced proposals for:

* A new short course in programming and coding where pupils will learn how to design, write and test computer code.

* A physical education (PE) course where students gain half their marks from their sporting performances.

* An end to the written exam in civic, social and personal education (CSPE), with marks based on work carried out in school instead.

* An option to be assessed in projects as part of social personal and health education (SPHE).

PE, SPHE and CSPE are already available and will continue to be so for students who opt not to take it as an exam subject.

However, the programming and coding course is entirely new as more and more pupils express an interest in computers and IT and the Government continues to push towards more highly skilled jobs.

The NCCA is also continuing to work on proposals for the other short courses: Chinese, artistic performance, digital media literacy and caring for animals.

It is also open to schools and other organisations to develop their own short courses.

When the changes are fully implemented, it will mean that junior cycle students will study between eight and 10 full subjects from a selection of 21.

The new-style Junior Cert will start from next September with a revised English syllabus for first years, who may also have the option of starting some short courses at that time.

English, Irish and maths will be mandatory, but beyond that schools will have flexibility in deciding the number and choice of subjects and short courses that they will offer.

Pupils will have the option of trading a maximum of two full subjects for four short courses.

Syllabuses for traditional subjects are also undergoing revision and teachers will be given training to prepare for the new – more practical – approach to teaching and learning.

Instead of the State Junior Certificate, schools will award their own School Certificate of Learning.

Another key part of reforming the Junior Cert is assessment by teachers of their own students, with the traditional June exams being phased out over eight years.

While there will be a combination of ongoing assessment and a final written exam in traditional subjects – also graded by teachers – there will be ongoing assessment only for short courses.

Developing numeracy and literacy skills, including digital literacy, is a focus of the change and the use of new technology by students and will be a feature of assessment in many areas.

Students will present their own digital recordings, showing ongoing progression in a subject.

The ability to work with others will also be important – and in some cases, marks awarded to students will be based on team, rather than individual, performance.

Ongoing assessment by teachers, common in other countries, is seen as a way of promoting learning by helping students to identify weaknesses and to work on building competency.

Teachers have raised concerns that assessing their own students will put them under pressure from parents, and that sufficient resources are not being provided to ensure that change will be implemented properly.

Teacher training for the revised English syllabus is about to get under way, but in the current dispute between the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) and the Government, the union has directed members not to co-operate with it.

There is also controversy about the threat to some traditional subjects by the introduction of short courses.

After English in 2014, revised syllabuses in Irish, science and business studies will follow in September 2015 and changes in other subjects are due in 2016 and 2017.

By Katherine Donnelly

Irish Independent

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