Exams will be slashed under plans to reform the Junior Cert
Students will be assessed by teachers in radical shake-up of lower secondary education
The number of exams in the Junior Cert is likely to be drastically cut in a major revamp of second-level education due to be announced later this month.
In some subjects in the Junior Cycle, students will no longer be tested by public exams, and there will be a growing emphasis on course-work and continuous assessment.
Under the present system, students commonly sit exams in up to 12 subjects. There is wide agreement that there is curriculum overload.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has already indicated that he would like a remodelled Junior Cycle to start in September next year. This means that pupils now in fifth year in primary school will be the first to be affected by the changes.
The minister has not said much so far about what shape the new Junior Cert will take other than it will be a mix of a new exam and assessments based on course-work.
The reshaping of lower secondary education is likely to be the most important measure during Mr Quinn's term of office.
There is growing speculation in education circles that the number of exam subjects will be slashed to seven.
If the minister decides to be more radical, students might only be examined in four core subjects. These would include Maths, English and Irish.
One thing is certain: the present system of lower secondary education, where pupils follow a curriculum for three years and are assessed almost exclusively by exams at the end, will be dismantled.
The National Council for Curriculum And Assessment (NCCA) is currently finalising proposals for the minister.
Officials in the NCCA have been closely studying school systems in other countries.
Among the models that were studied was the system that operates in Slovenia.
Students take external exams in three subjects -- their mother tongue (equivalent to English), maths and a third subject.
The Slovenian model is likely to be seen as a step too far, both by teachers and parents.
As well as scrapping exams, the minister may try to ensure that the new curriculum eases the transition between primary and secondary school.
Recent research from the ESRI indicates that nationally many students do not make an easy jump from primary to secondary, and this can cause lasting damage.
One of the most radical proposals being discussed by the NCCA is to give schools much more control of the curriculum.
Schools may play a greater role in devising their own courses, and students may even be consulted on course content.
If, for example, a principal decides that there needs to be a greater focus on literacy among his or her pupils, the curriculum can be altered to fit that in.
One education official, familiar with the current negotiations, said: "The NCCA is unlikely to choose a big bang solution with the exams being completely scrapped.
"A reduced number of exams is seen as a compromise.''
Teachers are ambivalent about radical reform. On the one hand, many of them agree that the current Junior Cert curriculum is overloaded.
On the other hand, a battered profession may see the shake-up as a measure that will bring a much greater workload with no compensation for teachers.
And the move towards continuous assessment will also present plenty of practical difficulties.
The education official said: "Many teachers are reluctant to get involved in assessment of their pupils.
"With competition between schools, there will be pressure on teachers to get the best results possible and to give their students high marks.
"It will be difficult to introduce a system that is incorruptible.''
Among the most vocal supporters of Junior Cert reform are employers groups, including IBEC. The need for change was top of a list of priorities discussed at last week's forum, Transforming Education in Ireland. The event was sponsored by Intel, one of the country's biggest multi-national employers.
Peter Hamilton, a senior Intel executive involved in the education side of the business, said: "Research seems to show that, in Ireland, students are strong on recall and summarisation.
"But we need to improve the creativity and problem-solving abilities of students.
"There needs to be more focus on innovation rather than rote learning. The present system is too rigid.
"There should be more emphasis on projects where students collaborate, and assessments based on a portfolio of work.''