On Thursday October 4th an event occurred that made us all a bit older. Most of our parents speak of when they did their Inter-Cert and we thought they were old; when we speak to our children of our Junior Cert we too will be speaking of a past soon to be gone. Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn TD announced to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment for the implementation for the new framework for Junior Cycle Education and no more Junior Certificate. What does it entail?
Firstly, the amount of subjects is reduced and supplemented with short courses, where two short courses will have the same weighting as one subject. The subjects changed to short courses are: Social, Personal and Health Education, Physical Education and Civic, Social and Political Education. These short courses will have no traditional exams and be assessed in school by the teachers. The other main subjects will all be examined where the written paper only makes up approximately 60% of the marks; the rest will be awarded from coursework in school. There have been many concerns raised about having teachers assessing their own students in the interest of fairness to both student and teachers. Everyone can remember a teacher they didn’t get on with and now this teacher could significantly affect your results.
An interesting addition to the Junior Cycle is the Priority Learning Units (PLUs). These are designed to aid students with learning disabilities in five key areas: Communicating and Literacy, Numeracy, Personal Care, Living in a Community and Preparing for Work. The Department of Education and Skills is using this to help aid the ever increasing numbers of students that are disenfranchised by the current narrow examination based course. The option of short courses and PLUs is described by the Minister as bridging the gap between high and low performing schools by giving the school autonomy in selecting the courses best suited to their students.
The short course option of Coding and Programming and compulsory Science testing is as the Minister puts it ‘in response to growing industry demand’. Although most students of sciences will agree with this change, we must cast our glass as far back as 2002, where the construction industry was advising that construction studies become a compulsory element in schooling as it was the major growth industry. Where is that industry now? We should be sceptical at education being driven by economics as we can very easily treat our students as economic entities rather than individuals and industry can be changed far quicker than an education system.
A key element of the reforms is the reduction of the narrow based exams which the ESRI has commented as being one of the key factors for third year students becoming very negative in their outlook for education. The widening of the exam base and more marks given by project and practical work can be seen as a positive step forward for the education system, but it also has drawbacks. The less significance given to the Junior Cycle Exams could be seen as widening the already large gap between the Junior and Senior Cycles. The only way to combat this is to reform the Senior Cycle and to try to bridge the two curricula, a link that is non-existent between any of the four current curricula in practice from Early Childcare to Senior Cycle.
The response to the announced changes has been argumentative. Both teachers unions the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and the Teachers Union of Ireland have come out against the changes stating that in-house assessment will significantly undermine the impartiality of grades and criticized the Minister in the way that the changes were announced. In contrast, IBEC and the American Chamber of Commerce have strongly endorsed the changes.
Minister Quinn, popularly known as ‘Quinnochio’ for the lies he told the Union of Students in Ireland pre-election, has stated that this change is not a political move or a cost cutting measure. Initially it looks like that there will be no cuts evident in it but the fact remains that reducing the amount of subjects taken reduces the amount of teachers needed in schools and limits the variety of the Junior Cycle education forcing students to pick their career paths much earlier in life. We as a people should welcome the change which was so badly needed, but should always be wary when a politician with no teaching background makes a decision that is welcomed by economists and challenged by teachers.