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End of an Era – Junior Cert Overhaul

    When it was announced by the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, that there would be a major overhaul of the Junior Cert examination; the country awaited the inevitable response from the teachers unions. It came as two words: ‘deeply regrettable’.

    Through the lens of the unions, these extensive changes, with the end-of-cycle exam being replaced with a school-based model of assessment, are questionable for a number of diverse and quite complex reasons. The most controversial of these proposed changes for the unions will be that teachers will now assess their own students. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland sent a stern message to the Minister that the removal of an externally-based assessment model will impact negatively on what is seen as the impartiality of an externally assessed exam. ASTI general secretary Pat King said: ‘While there is an overwhelming consensus that the current Junior Certificate needs to be reformed, it is most regrettable that the Minister has announced the end of what is for students, parents and teachers: a credible, independent, objective and fair examination’.

    The contentious issues:

    – The reforms were done without the consultation of the education partners: teachers and parents
    – The high status of a final exam will be obliterated with continuous assessment
    – Continuous assessment by class teachers will lack impartiality
    – Reforms are driven by budgetary rather than educational rationale
    – A concern that fee paying schools and those schools based in wealthy areas will have an exclusive advantage over those schools in poor socioeconomic areas

    In response the Minister continues to reinforce the fact that ‘there is compelling international evidence that students will perform better by moving away from terminal ‘high stakes’ exams like the Junior Cert.’  With an end of cycle Junior Cert exam replaced with a school-based model of assessment, there will be an emphasis on the quality of students’ learning experience. It is planned that this will be done on a phased basis with English being the first subject to be introduced to First Year students in 2014. Mr Quinn outlined that the new ‘lower stakes’ Junior Cert will represent a programme which will allow students to develop a wide range of skills, including: critical thinking skills and basic skills such as numeracy and literacy – competencies that are continually pioneered and promoted by the European Union and Educators.

    In the new exam, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will still continue to be involved in the assessment of English, Irish and Mathematics. These subjects will be examined at higher and ordinary level, while all other subjects will be assessed at common level – similar to the current CSPE model. Teachers will be supported by the SEC and the NCCA, who will furnish them with resources to assist in on-going assessment of students’ progress and achievement.

    The general consensus of the pro-changes side is ‘about time’. This announcement by the Department of Education has sparked a huge tug of educational opinions and biases. The general secretary of Irish Vocational Education Association, Michael Moriarty, differs to the teacher unions in opinion when he came out to say: ‘the proposed changes to the Junior Certificate should make it possible for students to engage more with their teachers and with curriculum.’ Whilst IBEC, the group that represents Irish businesses, welcomed the reforms with head of education policy Tony Donohoe stating that the reform, ‘could prove to be the most important education reform of recent years.’

    Adding to the pro-changes debate, Education officer of the Irish Second-level Students’ Union, Brendan Power, said: ‘The new Junior Cycle has the capacity to revolutionise the educational experience of future second-level students in Ireland. I firmly believe that the new Junior Cycle will result in a more practical and functional education for students and prepare them for life and future education, rather than train them for exams.’ The minister did describe his plan as ‘the most radical shake-up of the junior cycle programme since the ending of the Inter Cert in 1991’. Many arguing for change believe that the education system needs more of these type of radical sweeping changes.

    The reality is Ireland needs to start producing employees with a capacity for more than rote learning and who are actively engaged in their education rather than passive assimilators of large chunks of material that they simply regurgitate in a final state exam. Domestic and global companies need graduates and employees with ability to investigate, analyse, communicate, and manage themselves and others. The European Union in 2006 said that schools needed to teach students key competencies that included the basic subjects along with key skills like how to learn, how to communicate and how to engage using other languages apart from their native one. According to those in favour of this new curriculum, there now will be a real opportunity to develop these skills from first year.

    Schools can also choose from a menu of subjects from Chinese, Physical Education to Digital Technology and students will study these eclectic modules alongside Maths, English, and Science etc. This subject combination clearly recognises that students possess any number of different intelligences and not just those related to literacy and numeracy. Up until these proposed changes, students who lacked ability in these two intelligences were let down by an education and exam system that never tested their own individual intelligences that could range from kinaesthetic to interpersonal skills.

    There are certain cohorts of students who are excluded from education because they are not being engaged in the classroom; they often lack the traditional perceived idea of what is intelligence and therefore they fail to stay focused or be motivated for three years – often leaving school early. It is often the case that it is this exam that becomes their first and last experience of a state examination; it becomes a measurement of their ‘tested’ ability. This new state exam will not jeopardise those who normally do well in class tests and exams; infact it will add to their educational experience and personal development. What remains unseen for now but essentially is a real probability; those students who struggle to stay in school will now be engaged and encouraged by a junior cert cycle that recognises multiple intelligences and is supported by continuous assessment.

    The former Governor of Mountjoy, John Lonergan, once said: ‘The problem with the Irish education system today is the fact that we are told what to think, instead of how to think.’ He has witnessed first-hand what happens young men who leave school early with poor literacy and numeracy skills. There is a correlation between these poor skills and criminality, and obviously unemployment. These changes are one step closer to real inclusive education.  The new Junior Certificate will instil in students that there is more to education than points. However, it is ironic that they will have to return to this mind-set when they face the leaving certificate cycle, post Junior Cert – which ironically remains unchanged.

    Catriona Lowry