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Unions cannot stand in the way of Junior Cert reform

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Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan

Pupils will have everything to gain and nothing to lose with the new proposed model of Junior Cert assessment, once safeguards are in place, in the event of a grade dispute.

The deal on the table from Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan is reasonable and an important step towards reforming learning and developing a new relationship between teacher and student that can yield better long-term outcomes for students.

The new model of assessment proposes 60pc external state assessment and 40pc teacher assessment, with a state audit on 15pc of the scripts assessed by the teachers. This is a considerable State oversight.

It is really just the tip of the iceberg for teacher assessment when compared with the 100pc teacher assessment in other countries. Additionally, there will be a moderation process where teachers will be shown how to assess scripts so there is objectivity built in. Understandably, some parents, teachers and students may be concerned about the subjective element of the teacher-pupil relationship and how it might impact positively or negatively on the grade allocated by the teacher.

More reassurance needs to be given by Ms O’Sullivan on this aspect so people know there are safeguards built in, in the event students or parents are unhappy with the grade.

When Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg was in NUI Galway last month, I spoke to him about how this issue was handled in Finland, a country that is a leading light in educational performance worldwide. Teachers, he told me, fought to assess their students in Finland despite all of the concerns raised about potential favouritism, lack of objectivity on the part of teachers, etc – the very concerns raised here. On balance, he said the debate came down on the side of the teacher as the professional doing the job. And who could argue with their results?

I fundamentally believe the teacher must be trusted as the professional facilitating teaching and learning. Learning includes not just teaching but also assessment for learning, assessment that will guide the next step in the teaching process. For the teacher to relinquish assessment is to relinquish a key part of their professional role and to give up on finishing the job.

Teacher assessment of the State exam is an opportunity for a new type of conversation with the pupil, where the teacher will be able to say: “Here is what I’ll be expecting and the pupil can discuss how this might be best achieved.”

This is new and different in the Irish context. With the current model of full state assessment, the teacher drops the student at the exam door and hands over the assessment role completely. Opportunity lost.

This doesn’t even happen with much older students at third level.

The problem, of course, is that external assessment has been the norm in Ireland for State exams so this is a considerable cultural change for everyone to come to grips with. But it is only a partial change, a ‘toe in the water’ if you like, because the State will still carry out the majority component of student assessment. At the recent ‘Reforming Learning’ conference in NUI, Galway, it was striking to note that the overwhelming view of students, educators, health practitioners, parents, entrepreneurs and policy makers was for the need to reform learning to develop more independent learners; to achieve more rounded young people, better able to cope with the multiplicity of challenges that life throws at them post-second level. Assessment for learning and opportunities for shared conversations about important business-like assessment is one vital prong of this reform process. We absolutely need to examine closely how other countries ensure objectivity and grade reliability when the teacher does the assessment.

To allay fears it is vital that an appeals process is in place, so that a second opinion is available on the teacher-assessed component of the exam when there is a dispute.

In Finland, when there is as little as a two-point difference between the teacher-assessed piece and the second opinion, the exam script is then given to another external for a final decision. This happens in about 5pc of cases. Ms O’Sullivan should move quickly to provide this type of assurance in the Irish system.

I have met the leaders of the teachers’ unions, who have assured me that their objection to teacher assessment has nothing to do with money. I have met teachers who agree and disagree with Junior Cert teacher assessment. That said, I believe there is such a compelling case to move this issue on for the sake of our teachers and the 350,000 students facing a second strike day on January 22, that it would be worth paying teachers a stipend, if necessary, towards the extra, important work involved.

We cannot let what promises to be genuinely good reform be stopped because teachers’ unions are entrenched and interested in controlling the agenda to the detriment of our young people.

Online Editors