Proposed changes can provide a boost for pupils
Frontline public servants are pawing the ground. After a prolonged period of cutbacks and the erosion of their working conditions, they could be expected to be fatigued and disgruntled.
Having reluctantly said 'yes' to Haddington Road, second-level teachers need to find something to which to say 'no'.
This is the new Junior Cycle programme.
Opposition has centred around the issue of assessment, particularly that of teachers assessing their own students.
Yet there are many examples in Irish education of teachers assessing their own students.
It is the norm in all undergraduate education in the Irish universities and Institutes of Technology. Indeed, the practice of teachers assessing their own students is central to the core principles of academic freedom and autonomy espoused in higher education.
So, while assuming professional impartiality on the part of our third-level teachers, why assume the lack of it in our second-level teachers?
A high-stakes examination may be seen as one which plays a pivotal role in mediating the transition to the next stage in education or to employment. Occasionally, as in the case of the Leaving Certificate, it allocates places on a competitive basis in a subsequent stage in education.
From this perspective, the Junior Certificate is not a high-stakes examination. Over 90pc of those who sit it progress to the Leaving Certificate.
What is important is not the question of state certification, but rather the quality of the education they have received, and their readiness for work, or for further education and training.
There are many underpinning factors to early school leaving of which a general disengagement with the Junior Cycle curriculum and its modes of assessment are central. The needs of this cohort are better served by a more holistic, learner-centred curriculum than by a dogged persistence with the doubtful claims of the advantages or necessity of state certification of a terminal examination for 16-year-olds. This learner-centred curriculum can also meet the needs of that other group not well served – our highest achievers.
As chair of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment when the advice on junior cycle was sent to the Education Minister, I remember the line from a teacher who participated in the consultation: "Unless the examination changes, nothing else will."
We know that in second level, the schools, the students and the parents organise themselves around the two state examinations – regardless of the instrumental value of either.
In so doing, teacher discretion and professionalism are undermined, school autonomy is compromised and the student experience is depleted.
The proposed changes in the Junior Cycle are predicated on a view that teachers can be entrusted to teach and that students actually want to learn when provided with a conducive environment and a relevant curriculum.
DR TOM COLLINS IS FORMER CHAIR OF THE NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR CURRICULUM AND ASSESSMENT (NCCA). HE IS CURRENTLY CHAIRPERSON OF THE GOVERNING BODY OF DUBLIN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY (DIT).