A NEW approach to breaking the impasse over Junior Cert reform is expected in talks arranged for next Thursday.
A one-day strike by 27,000 teachers in opposition to plans for them to take on any responsibility for grading their own pupils in a new-style exam saw almost 350,000 students out of school for the second time in two months.
The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) have warned of a possible third stoppage, but now hopes are emerging that next week's meeting kick-starts a process that averts that threat.
The talks have been arranged by Dr Pauric Travers, former president of St Patrick's teacher training college, Drumcondra, who has already held a number of meetings with the unions and Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan and her officials.
Dr Travers struck the most optimistic note yet in this dispute in the wording of the invitation he sent to the minister and unions for next Thursday's talks.
He said while the previous meeting between the sides, on January 13, "did not produce a successful outcome, there was, I think, some indication towards the end that further talks might be more productive".
And there were signals from both sides yesterday that they saw next Thursday's meeting as the start of a different process, which would focus, in the first instance, on the detail of what needed to be done rather than who would do it.
The dispute is centred on plans to get teachers to assess their own students twice - in the course of second and third year - for 40pc of the marks in the Junior Cert, with the traditional June exams accounting for the only 60pc of the marks.
ASTI general secretary Pat King told the Irish Independent: "I actually think it is coming to crunch time or solution time. At this stage, both sides know exactly what the other's position is.
He said maybe there was a lack of understanding in the department that the unions were committed to a lot of the proposals relating to junior cycle reform, and that they could deliver.
But Mr King said they were in favour of different points of assessment and an end to the dominance of the terminal exam: "We are up for group work, project work, orals, portfolios; we know this has to happen."
However, while unions remain opposed to teachers taking on the role of assessing their own students for 40pc of the marks, he said they were interested in seeing how the shared objectives of both sides could be achieved.
The ASTI general secretary said technology could play a role in facilitating the assessment of students by examiners, other than their own teachers: "We will find ways of transferring information, which is what this is about".
TUI general secretary John MacGabhann said there had to be discussions with the practitioners as to how to achieve the aims: "It didn't happen; it is happening now".
The minister insisted yesterday that junior cycle reform was important and was a policy priority, and that one education partner could not be allowed to block this important reform.
However, responding to Mr Travers's invitation, she said that her department would "engage in these talks in a constructive manner".
Taoiseach Enda Kenny also insisted that reforms had to go ahead. Speaking in Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum, he said: "This is a small element of assessment in the Junior Certificate examination. It's got to change and be reformed. Everybody accepts that".
THE Thursday session of Leaders' Questions has long been the forgotten child of parliamentary business, an unglamorous fixture which plays out in the absence of a Taoiseach who only has to field impertinent interrogations from the opposition rabble across the Dáil chamber on three successive days of the week.