WHO decides education policy - the teachers' unions or the minister for education? That's the fundamental question now arising as both sides head for a collision on changes to the Junior Cert educational qualification.
Strike action is now going to go ahead, despite significant concessions offered by Minister Jan O'Sullivan. The unions want more and are preparing to disrupt the education of 300,000 pupils and discommode their parents to get it.
The unions rightly sense a government weakened by the public loss of confidence in its handling of the Irish Water issue.
But that same public will not take kindly to having schools closed for one day before Christmas, with the prospect of further closures to follow. In the battle for hearts and minds the unions have their work cut out for them in trying to get the parents on their side and shift the blame onto the minister and the government.
They singularly failed to convince National Parents Council (post-primary) president Don Myers who took a brave stand in supporting Minister O'Sullivan's compromise plan. The parents' group and the Irish Second-level Students Union (ISSU) said her plan provided a very sound basis for finally breaking the impasse in the long-running controversy. A plain-talking Kerryman, Mr Myers said that issuing the joint statement was something that had to be done. He was not alone. Even Fianna Fail supported the minister and has urged the unions to step back and consider what is on the table.
The problem is that the leadership is in no mood to do just that and union members may need their day in the sun or in the rain on the picket line to make their case. But what is that case and how can strikes win, the public will want to know.
The logic of the unions' position is that there are only two acceptable options - force the government to retain the existing system without any change or else force it to pay teachers to come into schools and assess other teachers' pupils. This would be a logistical and financial nightmare and would undermine the basis of the original proposals, which was to involve teachers in assessing their own pupils.
Before looking at 'what next' it's worth recalling the need for reform in the first place. We have a generally good education system with well-trained professionals in our classrooms but, like any system it has its faults - and, arguably, the junior cycle is the weakest aspect. When Ruairi Quinn took on the education portfolio and me as his special adviser in March 2011 we were made aware of important research which showed that too many 13- and 14-year-olds switch off in second year and never re-engage with the learning process in any meaningful way. As long as I can remember there have been calls to replace the Junior Cert system. Indeed, many in the Teachers Union of Ireland were long the greatest advocates of school-based assessment, whereby teachers would assess their own students. When Mary O'Rourke merged the old Intermediate and Group Certificates in 1992 an opportunity was missed to introduce an element of such assessment.
Ruairi Quinn came up with a bold plan to do just that. As his special adviser for three years it was fascinating to see and be part of the process of preparing the plan which caught the unions off guard. They had been saying they did not want to assess their pupils for state exam purposes. So we said, right, assess them for a school certificate - after all, the really important cert in post-primary school is the Leaving.
The plan was not drawn up to save money. but it was a plan too far for the union leaders- who gazumped each other in terms of militancy on the issue. They protested they had not been consulted about the detail, but decades of discussions had not yielded much progress and further consultation would only drag out the process indefinitely.
Minister O'Sullivan has no option but to stick to her compromise plan. Under this, the traditional State exams will account for 60pc of the marks while teachers will be responsible for the other 40pc through school-based assessment of portfolios and other criteria.
The last word should go to the representative of the very people the reforms were designed for - parents. ISSU president Craig McHugh said students "were hungry to see this significant reform on the ground in our schools. The current model isn't fit for purpose".
John Walshe is the author of 'An Education - How an Outsider Became an Insider and Learned What Really Goes on in Irish Government'.