Wednesday 20 February 2019

Teachers are still playing hardball with pupils

Despite their claims, second-level teachers seem to care little for the future of educational best practice

Jan O'Sullivan,TD,the Minister for Education and Skills at Leinster house
Jan O'Sullivan,TD,the Minister for Education and Skills at Leinster house

Emer O'Kelly

You could be forgiven for suspecting the second-level teachers of offering a considered insult to Dr Pauric Travers. Their dismissal of his document, commissioned with the aim of ending the stand-off between teachers and the Department of Education on the issue of reform of the junior education cycle, has an air of considerable bloodymindedness.

The Association of Secondary Teachers and the Teachers' Union of Ireland deny this. The TUI President Gerry Quinn stated specifically that "this is not a mindless attempt to stop reform".

But from where the parents sit, and indeed from where most second-level pupils sit, it looks suspiciously close to mindless to claim that the painstakingly prepared document "is not a comprehensive resolution". This, despite concession after concession from the Minister, but none from the teachers, even before the arrival of Pauric Travers.

The refreshing approach of the former Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, to his brief, included admitting that the international standing of our education system left a lot to be desired. The result was the immediate outraged enmity of the teaching profession.

Fast forward to Jan O'Sullivan as Minister for Education. Ms O'Sullivan announced a programme of junior-cycle reform largely in line with what had been planned by Ruairi Quinn: teenagers at second level to be assessed on their year-round work by the men and women who were closest to it, a kind of monitoring system which would encourage thinking and indeed self-assessment by the youngsters themselves, before they faced into the brutal and necessarily blunt instrument of a single public exam. What emerged seemed to be a rebellious call to arms for the teachers: they had tested Quinn's mettle and discovered that it was alarmingly determined. But now they had someone else. And two disgracefully disruptive days of strike action followed.

No, never, not an inch, not a step from the status quo, howled the TUI and the ASTI. Of course, it was all on behalf of the young men and women who are supposed to be at the centre of our education system. But the language of the statements coming from the teachers' unions sounded suspiciously self-centred, and slowly but surely it began to sound as though the teachers wouldn't really mind assessing their pupils - provided they themselves were trained (at enormous expense) and also paid for the task (at enormous expense). Once again, it was greed.

And the teachers found that they had underestimated Ms O'Sullivan; her patience was not inexhaustible.

Nobody mentioned that teachers are already being paid extremely well for the task of preparing the new generation for life and work. If they are as well qualified for that task as they claim, it should not be necessary for them to receive specific training to assess the work of the youngsters under their tutelage; nor, if they are as dedicated as they claim to their chosen profession, should they fear a change in direction which, by international norms, will produce better educated young men and women.

The Minister engaged in seemingly endless hours of negotiation, while the teachers - while also engaging at long distance in that negotiation - kept claiming that they were implacably opposed to the new procedure, because it was damaging to the educational welfare of the young men and women under their care.

Stalemate. Effectively, the teachers' unions were running the education system. No wonder the Minister finally saw red. Enter Dr Pauric Travers. He was commissioned by the Minister to examine the situation and hopefully, find a way forward. Pauric Travers is an eminent and highly qualified teacher. He was a Colleges of Education nominee to the Teaching Council. He has been President of St Patrick's Teacher Training College in Drumcondra (now part of DCU), and his biography lists teacher education at initial, induction and continuing professional development levels among his educational interests.

A week ago, he came up with a document which offered a solution. There had been more than 40 hours of meetings and negotiations before the Minister approached him; she had made concession after concession. Each time, the teachers refused to move, while still claiming that they were not opposed to reform. Now one of their own offered a solution that went more than 60pc in their favour.

From the original proposal of Junior Cert assessment only on the basis of in-school teacher assessment, Dr Travers' document proposed 60pc of the grade being decided by State certification in the June exams, while the remaining 40pc was decided by teacher assessment, once in second year and once in third year.

The teachers claim that this could "lead to inconsistencies and compromise standards". Undoubtedly it could, but only if teachers are not to be trusted to approach their students' work fairly and without prejudice.

The only argument against in-school assessment is the danger that personal prejudice can be involved; nobody can deny the human element and the possibility that a teacher may dislike a kid's guts, and despite the teacher's best efforts, the dislike can be a factor in assessment.

The teachers' unions, however, vehemently deny that such a factor ever influences teacher judgment and attitudes. And commonsense should indicate that if the in-school assessment is vastly different from the results of the State examination, then there is something wrong.

The teachers have claimed that this painstaking document is "incomplete". The two unions have said: "There is clear recognition by all sides that the document prepared by Dr Travers does not constitute a complete resolution."

Dr Travers said nothing. Is the Minister a "side"? And there's the other, enormous side, sitting in bewilderment - the thousands of youngsters who wonder what the hell is happening to their future while their teachers play hardball.

Sunday Independent

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