Wednesday 28 September 2016

Teachers all agree change is needed - this new junior cycle will give very best education to pupils

Padraig Kirk

Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30

Junior Cert students studying at East Wall in Dublin city
Junior Cert students studying at East Wall in Dublin city

The wait comes to an end today for just over 60,000 students as they collect their Junior Certificate results - a momentous day. However, from next year, junior cycle students will start collecting a very different set of results, because the junior cycle is changing.

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The Junior Certificate is being replaced by a Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement, or the JCPA. The JCPA will recognise a much wider set of student achievements. No longer will everything hinge on how a student performs in a written exam paper in June. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with final examinations. Indeed, they have their place and will continue to be an important feature of the new junior cycle. However, when exams become a major focus of what happens in classrooms this can have a negative effect on the teaching and learning. There is both national and international research that shows this to be the case. One of the aims of the new junior cycle is to shift the focus from the examination process to the actual learning that our students should be experiencing.

The current reform of the junior cycle is not a case of 'throwing the baby out with the bath water'. On the contrary, many of the really good aspects of the old system are being maintained. All of the different subjects that schools currently offer, for example, will remain in place, innovative teaching methods practised in classrooms will not change, while the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will continue to administer external exams. The new junior cycle simply takes all of these good aspects, builds on them and leaves us with a modern and progressive system of education for our young people.

The first subject to be introduced as part of the new junior cycle was English. This subject was introduced in September 2014. New Science and Business Studies subjects have just been introduced for first-year students, while next year will see a different group of revised subjects being introduced. By 2019, all 21 subjects will have been introduced.

Each new subject will be assessed in a new way. Students will undertake two classroom-based assessments, or CBAs - one in second year and one in third year. The CBAs provide for the development of skills that are difficult to assess in a pen and paper examination, for example, teamwork and verbal communication skills. The CBAs will be assessed by a student's own teacher, who is best placed to assess these type of skills because they can observe and support their development and growth first-hand.

Students will also receive quality feedback on their work, not just a 'good' or 'well done' comment, but more helpful feedback that will provide them with real pointers on how to improve their learning.

Students will also complete a written Assessment Task towards the end of their third year. This task will ask them to reflect on the learning experiences they had while undertaking their second CBA and will be worth 10pc of the overall mark for the relevant subject. At the end of third year, students will sit the familiar final SEC exam in June.

It's often said that if the examination doesn't change, then nothing else will. Well, the examination, or the way students are assessed at this level, is definitely changing. No longer will junior cycle students be expected to sit in exam halls and write solidly for up to five hours at a time. The maximum length of final written examinations under the new system will be two hours.

Also, the old predictability chestnut associated with some examinations is being removed; perhaps forcing all of us in the school system to rethink how we teach and how students learn.

The new junior cycle will give every student a chance to shine. The introduction of a new common-level assessment system will prevent students from being pigeon-holed early in their second-level schooling into either foundation, ordinary or higher-level streams. Indeed, when I did the junior cycle (or the Intermediate Certificate as it was called then) there was no level distinctions in subjects - this was postponed until our Leaving Certificate to no adverse effects.

Further, the new junior cycle will place a focus on a new area of learning called wellbeing. This move alone brings into focus the importance of mental health and wellbeing.

Schools will place greater emphasis on important key skills such as working with others, communicating and managing information, and thinking, and will have greater flexibility in offering students a more diverse curriculum. Short courses in a range of areas may be introduced, including coding, performing arts and philosophy, and these can appear, up to a maximum of four, on a student's JCPA.

Indeed, student engagement and/or achievement in a whole range of other learning experiences outside of the formal timetabled curriculum may be referenced in a student's JCPA, including areas such as debating and sports. In this way, all of our students' achievements will be recognised, rewarded and reported on.

Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT) is a schools' support service and our role is to support schools in implementing the new junior cycle. This is not going to happen overnight and we have some road to travel. My experience to date of working with teachers who have engaged with us has been very positive. We're all in agreement that change is required and we're all working together to achieve one common goal - to ensure that our students experience the best education possible.

Padraig Kirk is director of Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), a Department of Education and Skills schools' support service

Irish Independent

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