Monday, November 7, 2011

The Junior Cert Reform Glass is Half-Full!

The current Junior Certificate was introduced in 1989 with the first exams in 1992. It replaced the Intermediate Certificate and was heralded as being a much more modern qualification. In the interim it has become a content-heavy “Leaving Cert Lite” with parents, students and teachers alike extolling its virtues as being “good practise for the points race”. Reform is therefore welcome and overdue if we are to address issues of curriculum overload, rote-learning and outdated ways of assessment in our education system.

Many of the proposals in our submission to the NCCA review have found a place in the final plan and we are pleasantly surprised at some of the elements proposed. From a “gifted” perspective there is much to be applauded and welcomed. Children learn in so many different ways and this document recognises that all children should get the opportunity to show what they can do within the exam system and outside of it. Of particular interest are the short courses which give students welcome scope to follow their talents and strengths. Many children already take part in activities both in and outside school from sports to music to computers to theatre. Lots of them shine in this their chosen environment. It is a very positive thing that their commitment to participation in a wide range of activities can be recognised and rewarded.

The new system may have much to commend it, but it also raises many questions. How will teachers respond? Will they think it will merely increases their workload? How will they feel about assessing their own students, long a hot-button issue for the teachers unions? Will some subjects fade into obscurity if they are not examination subjects? What implication does the new Junior Cycle have for Transition Year? What will happen to the Leaving Cert if students are examined differently for Junior Cert? Will it have the desired effect on Literacy and Numeracy, and the infamous Pisa study? And the biggest one of all; is this merely a dumbing down, no child gets ahead, minimum achievement proposition?

The jury is out for now, it will probably take a few years to see the results, but I believe that good schools have nothing to fear from the changes. It will finally show parents what the “league tables” don’t. Schools have been telling us for years that a fairer way to judge the education provided by individual schools would be to consider all activities, sports, co-curricular, learning support measures and exemplary school leadership in addition to academics. This is an opportunity to show us exactly that. It will tell us which schools have strong effective leadership. It will separate good teachers from poor ones. It will show us how good school management produces real results. It will showcase innovative, inclusive and imaginative schools. It will identify those schools which genuinely support all types of learners, including those with difficulties and those who are boxed in by the current exam system.

There was a recent article in The Irish Times about a school in County Limerick which in the space of a few years turned itself around from being on the brink of closure to being one of the most desired schools in the locality. It did this through innovative leadership and a strong vision of what they wanted to achieve. This school should be the inspiration for all schools and teachers who look on this new Junior Cert as a negative development. Coláiste Chiaráin was at rock-bottom and used the same resources available to every other school to create a learning environment second to none. They didn’t see the glass as half-empty, they looked to fill it to the brim. I’m guessing they won’t see the new Junior Cert as anything other than an opportunity. I hope other schools can do likewise.

The responses so far have been mixed, but a central theme has been funding. Some teachers of my acquaintance want to know where the money for their training will come from. They say that without huge investment this will never work. I am starting to wonder if that's a prediction or a threat. We have had enough negativity in Ireland in the last few years. It is time to change the way we view the challenges ahead. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, looking for flaws in every new development with our typical Irish Peig Sayers-like keening why don’t we seek out the positives and make them work? The can-do approach which is the hallmark of the most admired entrepreneurs and innovators in Ireland and throughout the world should be to the forefront of our minds as we head into this new Junior Cycle. Enough complaining, let's get on with ensuring that our children have a first-class learning experience. My glass is half-full, how is yours looking?

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