Schools ‘should stop focus on final exams’

A SMOOTHER transition for pupils moving from primary to second-level education and less reliance on final exams are key to effective reform of the Junior Certificate, an expert has suggested.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has asked for changes to the junior system to be in place for tens of thousands of students entering first year in just over a year. But work has been ongoing toward possible reforms by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), based on previous research.

Dr Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has headed up the most detailed studies, which tracked more than 900 students who entered 12 second-level schools a decade ago through to the Junior Certificate. She believes that, while the question of subject overload is often blamed for student disengaging from school, this is more of a concern to parents and teachers than students themselves.

Instead, she believes one of the most important moves needed is to make sure second-level teachers are much more aware of what their students have learned in primary. The ESRI’s junior cycle research found variations in such knowledge from school to school.

“The presence of the Junior Certificate exam has such a backwash effect on everything that goes on in the classroom. It raises the question of a need for other forms of assessment or fewer exams and a move to learning methods which might suit all students,” Dr Smyth said.

She suggested that, rather than just a terminal exam, there should be greater focus on project work that reflects the kind of skills such as teamwork that students will need in college and in later life.

“Students are more positive about active learning methods, it makes things stick in their heads if they have done them at a practical level,” she said.

“The changes don’t just need to be to the education system, but also at the school level. We need to look at more diverse teaching methods and a more flexible approach to ability grouping, which can also help address the key issue of a creating a positive school climate.”

Dr Smyth will speak about her research at a conference on junior cycle curriculum change in Limerick on Friday, organised by the NCCA and Educate Together, which has more than 13,000 pupils in its 58 primary schools. It hopes to open its first second-level schools soon but was unsuccessful in its application last year to become patron of one in Gorey, Co Wexford.

Campaigns are also being run to open second-level schools in areas where the Department of Education has said new schools will be needed by 2016. They include parts of Dublin, Ashbourne and Navan in Co Meath, Claregalway in Co Galway, Naas and Maynooth in Kildare and Drogheda, Co Louth, where 900 parents have indicated they would send their child to an Educate Together school.


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