EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has criticised plans by teacher unions to hold an unexpected lunchtime protest next month over Junior Certificate reforms.
In a surprise move, it has emerged that the two second-level teacher unions are asking their members to stage rallies outside the gates of more than 720 second-level schools for 30 minutes on Tuesday, March 11.
The minister described the proposed action as "premature" and called on the unions to engage constructively in continuing discussions about the changes being proposed.
The planned protest will take place while the unions are in the middle of balloting members on industrial action because of their unhappiness with elements of Junior Cert reforms.
A statement issued on behalf of the unions said that teachers believed the proposals for change posed serious threats to education standards, and the objectivity and transparency of Junior Cycle examinations.
Many teachers are particularly opposed to plans to replace the traditional Junior Certificate June exams with in-school assessment of students by their own teachers, leading to a new junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA) awarded by the school.
They fear it will put them under undue pressure from parents to deliver good grades and could also lead to inconsistencies between results in different schools.
The stoppage, by up to 27,00 members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), is not intended to disrupt classes or other regular school business.
For instance, teachers who are scheduled to carry out lunchtime supervision in the school will be exempt from the planned action.
However, Mr Quinn said unions should move beyond protest and towards active engagement in resolving any outstanding issues relating to the JCSA.
"It is now time for them to move beyond expressions of frustration and calls of protest to using the forums which have been especially created to address their concerns.
"I have listened to their concerns. I have changed the pace of the roll-out of the new JCSA and increased the training available to schools and teachers.
"I acknowledge that there are outstanding issues around resources and assessment, but the working group is the right forum to address this – not protest groups outside the school gates.
"This lunchtime action is premature, particularly given the unions have signalled their intention to ballot on industrial action relating to the JCSA."
Mr Quinn added that 15-year-old pupils were currently suffering from a "high stakes exam system" which places "unacceptable pressures on young people and their families".
"We don't need such a pressurised exam system," he said. "Thankfully young people are not leaving school at 15. We don't want them to.
"Rather we want to capture all the talents and abilities of our young people over the first three years of second-level education, and the new JCSA will do that."
Meetings of the working group and its sub-groups, which are aimed at addressing any outstanding concerns of the education partners, will continue as planned.