Over the years, the Irish teacher unions have demonstrated a remarkable ability to improve pay and conditions for their members. Periodic threats of industrial action, backed up with the possibility of an escalation to the 'nuclear option' (refusing to mark the Junior or Leaving Certificate examinations) have consistently won the day. As a result, Irish post-primary teachers are now amongst the best paid in Europe and enjoy the developed world's shortest working year - their schools remain closed for 198 days annually.
Having so successfully pursued their legitimate mandate, related to pay and conditions, teacher unions are now attempting to transgress the statutory functions of both the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment (on which teachers are well represented) and the Minister for Education by frustrating the decision to introducing school-based assessment (SBA).
The merits of SBA are recognised internationally. With the exception of Slovenia, France and Ireland, all EU countries use SBA to some extent to assess student performance. Indeed in Finland, whose school system is ranked as the world's best, there is no State examination system, and student assessment is performed solely by the teachers in their schools. Likewise in other EU countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg, where there are no equivalents of the Junior or Leaving Certificate: overall assessment is based on performance as observed by the student's various teachers during the year and the tyranny of a State exam does not arise.
The many benefits of SBA have been so fully documented that there is every good reason to ensure its introduction to Ireland. The most obvious is the provision of an additional means of assessment for those students who find the 'one shot' Junior or Leaving Certificate examination distressing and unfair. There are many additional benefits, because the nature of assessment influences what is taught and how it is taught. The approach to student learning is transformed. Rote learning is de-emphasised. Social skills, so important to the individual and society, such as communication, team-work, consideration for others, leadership, reliability and enterprise can be fostered and recognised.
The teacher unions hold that while SBA works in other countries, Irish teachers and the community are somehow different and influence can be brought to bear: a position that can only raise disturbing questions about their perception of the professionalism and integrity of Irish teachers.
The teacher unions overlook the fact that SBA has been operating on a pilot basis with success for the past three years in a number of Irish schools. The principal of one of them, Audrey Doyle of St Joseph's College, Lucan, has written in glowing terms of the experience:
• Ongoing assessment gives positive feedback to students immediately;
• The teacher can assess the learning and students struggling with learning can be helped;
• Confidence grows and the outlook of the student improves;
• Students are so engaged in learning that discipline problems no longer feature.
Given the widespread international use of SBA, its proven benefits and the successful pilot programmes in Irish schools, one can only wonder what motivates the decision of the teacher unions to close post-primary schools on December 2 and again in January.
Having spent six years chairing the National Council of Curriculum and Assessment and its precursor, I have had an opportunity to observe at close quarters the abilities of the highly-effective union leadership to frustrate aspects of curriculum reform that may disrupt the life-style to which their members have grown accustomed.
Usually a public facade related to the welfare of pupils and the integrity of the Irish educational system is erected, behind which the union leadership goes about addressing its real objectives.
Its objectives in the case of SBA are likely to be both tactical and financial.
In tactical terms:
• If SBA replaces the Junior Certificate examination, the unions no longer wield the threat of disrupting it.
• If SBA is successfully introduced at Junior Cycle, it will inevitably be introduced also at Senior Cycle as an adjunct to the Leaving Certificate, thereby providing the minister with other options were the Leaving Cert examination under threat.
Not all teachers mark the State examinations but those who choose to do so are well remunerated. One examiner, not a teacher, was indiscreet enough to go online and proclaim: 'Corrected Junior Cert history twice to date, first in 2000 and last year. Great money for the work put in, plus all the allowances you are given. To be fair, it is a complete scam, the tax payers are being taken for a ride. I think I pulled about €2,200 for three weeks part-time work.' Fees of over €30m and expenses of over €9m are paid each year to those who participate in the State examination process.
The teacher unions proclaim that they have no problem with SBA, provided the teachers assess students in some other school than their own. Such an arrangement would preclude most of the benefits of SBA, while inevitably leading to significant claims for additional examination and travel expenses: a prospect hardly overlooked by the unions.
Dr Edward Walsh is founding President of the University of Limerick