Sunday, November 6, 2011

Junior Cycle Reform, Here We Come!

Following a lengthy period of consultation with teachers, students, parents and anyone who wished to have a say, the NCCA has put forward a new Framework for Junior Cycle. This has been approved by the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, and is due to be implemented from 2014, meaning that children now in 5th class in primary school will be the last to go through the Junior Certificate as we know it now.

This new model has drawn mixed responses. Given that it incorporates many of the elements which our support group wished for in the Junior Cycle Portfolio which we submitted to the NCCA, we cannot be anything but pleased!

The new framework will, in my opinion,  allow schools and teachers to really get stuck in and do something innovative. No longer will the Junior Certificate be all about rote learning and regurgitation in which success depends on learning how to play the game and know how to score points on the test rather than display knowledge and understanding of a subject. Now, there will be the potential for students to explore areas which interest them to a level which matches their ability. It should be all about learning to learn and being excited by the process, rather than turned off by the whole idea. However, the success of the new model will be very much dependent on the attitude and skill of individual schools and teachers. Schools with enthusiastic innovative leadership and passionate teachers will take it and make it their own. I  imagine that teaching in such an environment will be far more enjoyable too and there are teachers who are already champing at the bit to get going. Success will depend on the ability of each school and teacher to engage students and create an environment in which they want to participate. Enthusiasm is infectious.

There are, admittedly, many challenges ahead. A high level of innovation will be required when it comes to subject choices and time-tabling. If some students are preparing for the end-of-junior-cycle exam in a subject, will all others taking that subject take the same classes with them? Will this stunt creativity in that class? Much will depend on the type of assessment/examination at the end. Let’s hope it doesn’t perpetuate teaching-to-the-test. Cross-curricular modules or classes would be very worthwhile, but how can these be facilitated while also preparing students for the Junior Certificate exams in discrete subjects and at different levels? The ASTI has raised concerns about teachers assessing their own students' work. That will require integrity and professionalism on the part of teachers and trust on the part of parents, but it has been achieved in other countries, so there must be a way.

While it is important that we strive to ensure that as many as possible reach certain minimum standards, recognition for talent in other areas is to be welcomed. There are many valuable life-lessons to be learned from participation in areas beyond the scope of the current education system, such as the arts, technology and sport. No fifteen year old should be made to feel a failure simply because they score poorly in an academic setting. I suppose the question we must ask ourselves, is “what is the goal of second level education?” Personally, I believe that it should be to produce young adults who are equipped to go out into the world and to participate in society as fully, positively and productively as possible, given their own unique skill-set. 

One element about which I have some reservations in the standardised testing proposed for the end of second year. There is value to this insofar as it allows schools to ensure that all students reach a certain minimum standard. However, there is the risk that, once this standard has been reached, the box is considered ticked and all is well. For students of exceptional ability, all is not well at all. What is not often appreciated is that these students  may be able to perform at a level several years above their grade level. Standardised testing allows no room for their ability or progress to be monitored. With a ceiling in place, how do we know they aren’t, in fact, disimproving over time relative to their own ability?

Then there are those exceptionally able students who, for whatever reason, just don’t do well in standardised tests. Some look at multiple-choice questions and, because of their ability to think deeply and around corners, may see several possible correct answers and not know which box to tick. Some may have a learning disability which brings their score down. As long as it falls within acceptable limits, they tick the box and their ability and disability, having masked each other, both go unnoticed.

Having said that, I believe that with a combination of the new Junior Cycle Framework and some basic instruction on the characteristics and needs of gifted students during pre-service teacher training, then such children could be far more easily identified than at present. Indeed, the new model, implemented well, is just the sort of environment in which these children could be allowed to stretch their wings and learn how to use their ability with pride. It’s just a shame that none of these changes will come in time for my own children to benefit.


  1. There is so much I could comment on here that it would take more time that I have just now. So I will just say this much. The NCCAs document lacks all of the detail needed to implement such a programme, so in my humble opinion, no valid comment can be made on it as a 'reform programme' other than it looks like they rushed it out and decided that they would jump whatever number of hurdles they would ahve to jump when they come to them. However, most worrying is the first paragraph of the document which re-iterates the NCCA belief "that development also points to one of the most consistent and universal ironies of the change process in education, namely, that change can happen, but the student experience can remain largely the same. Educational change is one of those processes which has a habit of resetting itself back to how things have always been done." The is nothing more than a pre-emptive excuse in case it doesn't work out.

    One shouldn't mistake educational reform for money-saving schemes - which I suspect this one is. It is all the more odd considering the money which will need to be spent on developing this programme while the government is intent on cut teacher numbers.

    Change is good - even occasionally when it is for its own sake - but it is hard to see any good in this.

  2. I'd broadly agree with Peter. The rush to introduce a new programme seems to due to two things. A perception that PISA scores aren't what they should be and the current DES money-saving drive. Without funding for schools, training for teachers and support for students and their families this framework will be divisive and half-baked.