By virtue of his unilateral decision to abolish state certification at Junior Cycle level, the minister has put public trust at risk and has potentially opened the gates to further imbalances in an education system already riven with inequalities.
We welcome the broadening of the curriculum and the new areas of study to be facilitated by short courses. However, we remain unconvinced that sufficient new resources would be made available to enable all schools to offer fair opportunities to all students, irrespective of location or postcode.
Not every school in Ireland is equal, and this poses a raft of problems. Small schools would be particularly at risk in terms of the technical support, teaching time and additional administrative tasks required as part of the new system.
Similarly, schools in areas worst hit by the recession with no option to fundraise in their communities would be further disadvantaged. Has any real thought been given to this issue?
Pupil-teacher ratios have been worsened and school middle management structures seriously curtailed, with thousands of vital posts lost since the block on filling promotional appointments.
Vacant positions such as examination secretary, programme co-ordinator and year head have not been filled and the most vulnerable students have suffered. Schools are struggling to tread water and are ill-equipped to deal with the significantly increased administrative and bureaucratic duties that the proposed changes would bring. There is a real fear that this workload would detract from the task of delivering a quality education service to all learners at all levels.
We have justified concerns around the Junior Cycle's new assessment model, particularly the lack of external moderation that, in our view, is necessary to ensure a fair and consistent outcome that is quality assured for all students. At this juncture of second-level education, students and parents need to know the progress made in advance of the Senior Cycle. It is far from certain that they would have as accurate a barometer if robust external assessment and the quality sign of the state harp were to disappear.
TUI does not object per se to methods of assessment other than terminal examinations, but we have yet to be convinced that the proposed changes would maintain the integrity and reliability of the existing model.
The union has been involved in a series of meetings with the Department of Education and Skills and other partners. As concrete details emerge, we are providing critical analysis and will continue to oppose what is impractical and unreasonable.
With the right resources and supports, teachers will always do a good job; that is not an issue. Yet reform should provide certainty and confidence for the future. It should improve upon the status quo for all and not risk diminishing quality. Regrettably, the Junior Cycle proposals pose more questions than they answer. It is, we believe, a case of too much, too soon.
Gerard Craughwell is president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland