Junior Cert reform is both necessary and overdue. Curriculum reform will only succeed if it is accompanied by simultaneous assessment reform - otherwise teaching and learning will revert to an exam-driven model.
This was the experience of the late 1980s when the old Inter Cert became the new Junior Cert. What changed as a result? Not a lot, apart from the name.
The 95 member schools of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) support the proposed changes to the Junior Cycle curriculum. Community and comprehensive schools support the approach to assessment proposed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) that includes an in -school component which will focus on the development of skills, on the learning process rather than the end product. Unfortunately, it is not possible for external assessment alone to pick up on this learning process. In fact, the classroom teacher is the person best placed to see and assess this learning as it happens in the classroom on a daily basis. External moderation will ensure both the reliability and objectivity of such classroom-based assessment - while relying on and trusting teacher professionalism. The process of assessment by teachers will provide additional benefits, including valuable professional development for teachers. This in turn will build capacity in schools.
Schools in the community and comprehensive sector which have been exploring skills at junior cycle tell of new kinds of learning conversations, with parents also involved in evaluating their child's contribution in their own learning experience. In these real cases, teachers find that they are affirming success, and not correcting the same errors each week. Students recognise their own learning, and mistakes or errors, but they also understand clearly their responsibility in the learning process and in improving learning. This kind of dialogue allows the focus of assessment to be moved away from what the student has done in the past and places it firmly on how greater success can be achieved in the future. In these situations, we see students using detailed feedback to set goals and targets in their own learning.
We know that there is trust in teachers and in their work in schools. In a recent report, the Chief Inspector, Dr Harold Hislop, presents a national compilation of survey results conducted with parents and guardians. In this survey, 91pc of parents report that their child feels safe and well looked after in school and 92pc say school reports give a good picture of how their child is doing. Parents trust schools more than most institutions in the State - because they trust most teachers and school leaders. Parents have no doubt, and show overwhelming trust in school reports. These reports are rooted in 100pc school-based assessment. Furthermore, the ACCS firmly believes that the skills that are at the core of the Junior Cycle reform - which are not valued in the current system but are vital to the development of the well-rounded young person - will once again be lost if the system continues to prioritise examination preparation.
We have clear evidence - from the ESRI and others - of poor engagement by young people with a system which is outdated and has little meaning for them. This disengagement has real and costly consequences far beyond school - consequences for further learning, for democratic citizenship, for society and for the economy.
Feedback from initial introduction of the new junior cycle suggests that there is immediate benefit for student engagement, for deeper learning and also for teacher professional freedom, growth and renewal. The combination of a reformed curriculum (with less content overload, based on key-skills) and modes of assessment that are more continuous and closer to the learning have led to immediate positive impact on engagement.
These moves in the direction of reform are only initial - and attempts to assess their effectiveness have been delayed by the unions' directive to teachers not to engage with Junior Cycle reform. Nevertheless, conclusions can be drawn from the initial assessment of the various ways in which the reform has already been trialled.
A small number of schools have introduced the new junior cycle already in a limited number of subjects. One principal, for example, who organised an independent, externally facilitated appraisal of this approach, reports that teachers involved are identifying numerous benefits. These include: greater engagement by all students, including those previously disengaged, greater inclusion of children with learning challenges, greater equity, deeper learning and teacher invigoration. The ACCS recognises that reform requires time, support, training and resources. We reiterate our challenge to Minister O'Sullivan to ensure that all schools are resourced adequately in terms of planning time, renewed middle management structures, enhanced technology capacity and professional development provision. We also challenge the teacher unions to review their position on Junior Cert reform - they need to think again about their position on teacher assessment.
Eileen Salmon is general secretary of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools