Saturday 7 December 2019

We have to take strike action to protect our students

Schools will close on Tuesday to facilitate the strike
Schools will close on Tuesday to facilitate the strike

Gerry Quinn

Innovation is a daily necessity in the modern classroom and teachers are supporters and pioneers of quality educational reform. The most recent Chief Inspector's Report shows that 87pc of parents are happy with teaching standards in second-level schools. Separate research shows that out of 34 countries, Ireland enjoys the highest level of public satisfaction with the education system and schools - 82pc compared to the OECD average of 66pc.

The independent assessment of the examination process co-ordinated by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) plays a vital role in underpinning such public confidence. Teachers do not want to put this at risk. The SEC ensures objectivity and that an A grade has the same value in Donegal, Dublin and Cork. This is not an issue of teacher honesty, it is an issue of maintaining objectivity and consistency. According to a national opinion poll carried out by this newspaper last May, a majority of parents support our opposition to school-based assessment, ie teachers marking their own students work for certification purposes.

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has cited Finland, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia as examples of high-performing education systems with school-based assessment at lower secondary level. However, a causal link between school-based assessment and high performance is not proven.

In addition, it is worth noting the most recent OECD PISA rankings, which assess the performance of 15-year-old students. Ireland has a higher ranking than three of those four countries (Scotland being part of the UK) in reading and science and a higher ranking than two of those countries in mathematics. International research on school-based assessment is limited but there is evidence of emerging problems and concerns. Recent developments in England, Sweden, Queensland in Australia and Bavaria in Germany throw serious doubt on the practice.

Teachers fully recognise the importance of not relying exclusively on a terminal examination. Project, portfolio and practical work already form a significant part of many subjects, but all elements are assessed externally. We are prepared to favourably consider the extension of this practice provided it is done in a way which does not create more pressure on students. We will also look at changes to classroom activity and the rolling out of new short courses. Yet the Department of Education and Skills refused to engage in any discussion of resourcing in the most recent negotiations with the TUI and ASTI. Teachers are also aggrieved at their second-class role in the development of subject syllabi. We were effectively told to buy the car without looking under the bonnet. This is unacceptable.

Class sizes have increased and programmes that benefited disadvantaged students have been restricted. The school support system has been dismantled with deep cuts to guidance counselling provision and the erosion of vital positions such as year head. Is this really the right environment for blind acceptance of major educational change? Our industrial action does not seek to secure additional money for teachers. However, teachers remain unconvinced that saving money is not a concern of the Department of Education and Skills in promoting school-based assessment. Irish teachers have supported improvements in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

We regret that we have to take strike action, but our mandate is strong. Teachers voted for industrial action on the clear basis of opposition to marking their own students for state certification. Their views have not changed. They also voted on the understanding that strike action could only be a measure of last resort. We must take a long-term view in asserting our principles of fairness, equity and standards.

Gerry Quinn is president of the TUI and holds a Doctorate in Education. He has taught in Ireland and Britain. He has two daughters in second-level education.

Irish Independent

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