Monday 14 October 2019

Katherine Donnelly: 'Time to knock heads together - or abandon much-needed reform that's been 36 years in making'


(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The scenario painted in the report on Leaving Cert science practicals is not only would they be the straw to break the camel's back, but that the camel knows it and thinks it wiser not to lift it.

The strain on the exams system, at least in so far as it relates to orals and practicals, is evident with increasing difficulties recruiting teachers to act as examiners in a school other than their own.

There are a number of reasons: a shortage of science teachers makes principals reluctant to release them in the months before the written exams, when their own students need them, and unions argue examiners' pay rates are not attractive enough.

The surge in school enrolments means more pupils will be sitting the State exams in the decade ahead, making it an even greater logistical challenge. And that is without adding practicals in biology, chemistry and physics.

Orals and practicals also disrupt school life at a busy time. So what about running them during the Easter holiday or February mid-term and take the pressure off schools?

Exam chiefs have been tossing such ideas around with the various stakeholders, including school managers and unions. But the report asks even if teachers were prepared to forego their holidays, what would the cost be?

A suggestion of holding science practicals in December, ahead of the 'mocks' and orals and practicals in other subjects, is not favoured because students may not have covered the syllabus sufficiently.

It would be hard to find anyone who does not agree that school-leavers should have their knowledge and skills in the sciences tested in a real-world way, and not be assessed purely on material that can be learned off and regurgitated.

The SEC report reminds us that it is 36 years since the idea was first mooted in Ireland and it has been supported in several reports since.

There was strong agreement from the 1,000 students covered in the SEC trial that they would pay more attention to practical work if such an assessment was introduced.

The SEC makes clear that rolling out Leaving Cert science practicals using the current model won't work because the capacity is not there.

So how else could it be done? What are the options that the SEC wants explored?

An obvious one is asking teachers to assess their own students in tests such as practicals, which is common practice in other countries. This is the issue that was at the heart of the dispute over Junior cycle reforms. It was not resolved and the eventual Irish solution to an Irish problem led to a complicated dual system of assessment that is contributing to the burden on schools.

Similarly, teacher unions have dismissed the idea of their members assessing their own students for the Leaving.

The report is as yet unpublished and we don't know how the Department of Education will respond. If Education Minister Joe McHugh takes the advice of the SEC, he will have to explain the lack of follow-through on expectations that, 36 years on, practicals are finally about to happen.

The alternative is to knock heads together and for all involved to put the interests of students first. That includes coming up with money for decent science labs in every school.

Irish Independent

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