Thursday 22 March 2018

Parents side with teachers against Junior Cert reform

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn

Fionnan Sheahan and Kevin Doyle

PARENTS have overwhelmingly backed teachers in their opposition to proposals to have them marking their own pupils' Junior Cert papers, an Irish Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll reveals.

In the biggest blow to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's planned reforms of the exam, a whopping 60pc of those polled said teachers should not assess their own pupils.

The opposition is highest amongst women and young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who have just emerged from the secondary school system.

The new system – with more marks for coursework and students to be assessed by their own teachers – is being introduced on a phased basis from next September.

The largest secondary teachers' union, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), last night welcomed the survey results, saying it hoped Mr Quinn would take note. "You would hope that it's now obvious that the feelings about this are not just very strong with teachers, it goes beyond that," ASTI spokeswoman Gemma Tuffy said.

Under the reforms, rather than being a state exam run by the Department of Education, the Junior Cert would change to a school-based set of exams and projects marked by the teachers.

The final marks in the new Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA) would be based on a mixture of continuous assessment and exams.

The theory behind the reform was to offer pupils a broader educational experience instead of one focused on exams.

It is long believed the points race for the Leaving Cert is a negative influence in the secondary school system, as children are picking subjects as soon as they enter secondary school based on what they believe they will need six years later.

Subjects also tend to be taught based on the predicted exam questions. To avoid what is known as 'teaching to the test', students would experiment with different subjects.

The changes will have no impact on the current batch of Junior Cert students who will begin their exams on June 4.

However, students entering secondary school in September are due to work under the reformed system with the first written exam scheduled for 2017. With the exception of English, Irish and Maths, which initially will continue to be marked by the State Examinations Commission, there will be no external examiners involved.

The new Junior Cert cycle is due to be introduced on a phased basis starting with English from next September and will be fully rolled out by 2020.

The reform came from a National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, a body that brings together experts with interest groups in the sector.

However, both the ASTI and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) fear the system of teachers assessing their own pupils for a new school-based JCSA will undermine standards.

They are also concerned it may put teachers under undue pressure from parents.

They say recent cutbacks have left schools without the resources to take on change on the scale envisaged.

ASTI spokesperson Gemma Tuffy told the Irish Independent that teachers understand the need for Junior Cert reform but they object to the minister's plan.

"You would hope that he'd listen to the message that parents also want to preserve the good parts of our education system. Everybody wants reform but we don't want to lose the good parts of our system.

"We accept that teachers are professionally capable of assessing their own students. They do it every day in the classroom.

"Our objection is that it will interfere with the student-teacher relationship. It's interesting that parents seem to understand that relationship. Second-level education is a unique stage and teachers try to provide a holistic service," Ms Tuffy said.

General Secretary of the TUI, John MacGabhann, told the Irish Independent that the poll showed the value of public trust in the education system.

"Public trust is a valuable asset that should not be discarded lightly," he said.

"We don't doubt that it's the minister's intention to provide the best educational system possible. We just disagree with the manner of teaching and method of assessment.

"Our members will be teaching the new syllabus which starts with English this year. We do favour organic reform."

Last week, Mr Quinn revealed outside assistance may be employed to ensure "quality assurance" in schools.

He said external moderators could be used to ensure student work is accurately and fairly assessed as part of a radical reform of the Junior Cert Cycle.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Mr Quinn said there should be a shift in teaching that provided pupils with "structured feedback" on their learning.

He said the position of the unions would only serve to create "difficulties and pressures" for pupils and suggested teachers were "nervous of change".

The minister said the need for far-reaching reforms had never been greater, as a significant number of pupils in second year became "disengaged" from the learning process and fell into the "departure lounge" of education.

Irish Independent

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