SECOND-LEVEL schools are facing a new threat of industrial action by teachers after unions decided on plans for ballots in opposition to changes in the Junior Cert.
As schools closed for the mid-term break, unions announced that they would be asking their 27,000 members to vote next month on possible action, which could affect schools in the current year.
The results of the ballots will be announced on March 26, and if there is a "yes" result, options for action range from non-co-operation with training and planning for the proposed changes up to strike action.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn (pictured) expressed regret at the yesterday's decision of the leaderships of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI).
He insisted that he was committed to beginning the roll-out of the new-style Junior Cycle from September, starting with a new English syllabus for first years.
Mr Quinn said he would issue a circular to schools shortly, outlining the changes so as "to ensure that students, parents and teachers have clarity on what will be happening from the start of the new school year in September 2014".
The controversial reform plan involves new ways of teaching with greater use of technology, new forms of assessment and new "short courses" in subjects like Chinese and computer programming.
A key element is the gradual replacement of the traditional state exams and the Junior Certificate with in-school assessment of students by their own teachers, culminating in a Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA).
Many of the concerns expressed by teachers are based on worries that the ending of the state exam will put them under pressure from parents to deliver impressive grades, and lead to wide variations in results between schools.
They also question the time scale for the introduction of the proposals and the capacity of schools to implement significant change after the cuts in resources in recent years.
Teachers have also stressed that the proposals are likely to worsen inequalities between schools around the country.
In the face of teacher opposition, last month Mr Quinn announced a slow-down in the timetable for reform as well as the allocation of some extra resources, but unions said the measures did not go far enough.
The unions claim the changes "pose serious threats to education standards and to the objectivity and transparency of Junior Cycle exams".
ASTI general secretary Pat King said teachers believed that several aspects of the proposals were educationally unsound.
TUI general secretary John MacGabhann said they believed that student achievement in the new Junior Cycle must be externally assessed and nationally certified by the State Examinations Commission.