Junior Cert reform at risk after poll

The votes of fewer than 3,800 teachers have cast doubt over the most radical school reforms in decades.

Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan will expect secondary teachers, whose union rejected the deal, not to be blocked from taking part in training on the new curriculum and revised assessment methods.

But while she is willing to offer clarity on any issues, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) says were behind the 55% to 45% vote against the deal, the minister says the details are not open to any further negotiation.

Just 38% of ASTI’s 18,000 members returned ballot papers up to Wednesday evening’s deadline, meaning 3,762 or 21% of the entire membership voted No.

Not only does it mean ASTI members will most likely not be taking up the related continuous professional development or new assessments of their students next spring, it also raises questions about the ability of Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) members to do so.

TUI’s ballot on the reforms saw the 60% who voted back it by 69% to 31%.

ASTI general secretary Pat King said the turnout was only a little lower than normal, but the figure and the result reflected the uncertainty and thinking of teachers on the proposals.

ASTI general secretary Pat King
ASTI general secretary Pat King

“There may well be a need for more negotiation, but there are things in what was a very complex document that could be clarified; things about teacher timetables and the proposed written task in schools and how the marks will go towards the Junior Certificate grade,” he said.

But the minister said the document hammered out with union leaders over the summer is the final deal on junior cycle reform.

However, as the ASTI’s 23-member standing committee considers this afternoon how to proceed, it is unlikely that it will decide against continuing the industrial action that has seen a ban on junior cycle continuous professional development, in place since April 2014.

Ms O’Sullivan said the ASTI result was deeply disappointing and confusing given the leaders of both unions agreed there was a basis in the deal to ballot members.

“If they want clarification, we have no problem with that. We want people to have continuous professional development, I’m assuming TUI members will avail of it, and I hope ASTI members will be allowed to do so,” she told the Irish Examiner.

Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan
Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan

The results issued yesterday show the first signs of division between the two second-level unions in a long-running dispute. The TUI’s executive last month endorsed the deal and recommended members back it, but ASTI’s central executive council did not follow suit.

TUI president Gerry Quinn said questions about continuous professional development, and what happens in around 100 of the 720 second-level schools staffed by members of both unions, would be considered when the executive meets soon.

He said the document backed by TUI members achieved the key objectives, to reinstate a state-certified Junior Cert exam that is fully externally assessed, and professional time that means no additional workload for teachers. But he declined to comment on the ASTI result, saying it would not be fair to comment on its decision-making procedures.

Dispute over reform has been going on for four years

Former Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe
Former Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe

The results announced yesterday of ballots by the ASTI and TUI represent the latest development in a dispute running more than four years between teachers, the Department of Education and successive governments.

June 17, 2009: Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe initiates junior cycle reform process, asks National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to design revised Junior Ceritificate as no longer high-stakes.

July 2011: Education Minister Rúairí Quinn says there should be an upper limit of eight subjects in which students would be examined. ASTI and TUI raise concerns.

November 3, 2011: Mr Quinn launches and approves NCCA junior cycle reform proposals, and encourages consultations. Main aspects include: maximum 8 subjects, short course options, subjects to be marked on combination of final exam set and marked by State Examinations Commission (worth 60% of total) and portfolio work marked by class teacher (40%). ASTI and TUI state opposition to teachers marking their own students for State examinations.

October 2012: Mr Quinn publishes junior cycle framework going beyond NCCA’s 2011 recommendations. Having bowed to union pressure to increased upper exam subject limit to 10, he plans a complete abolition of State-certified exams at end of junior cycle, saying instead that all assessment be done within schools. Unions react angrily and complain of inadequate consultation.

Autumn 2013: Continuous professional development (CPD) on new English curriculum begins, despite ASTI ban on participation.

January 2014: Mr Quinn announces students beginning second-level in September 2014 will be the first to face new assessment, beginning in spring 2016; sets up junior cycle working group to try to find agreement on implementation but stands firm on main details.

April 2014: Unions begin a ban on participation in CPD and other co-operation with reforms after 88% ballot in favour of industrial action.

October 2014: Meetings between unions and new minister Jan O’Sullivan, but ASTI add mandate for strikes to industrial action menu, authority already given to TUI leadership by its 10,000 second-level members.

December 2014: First of two one-day ASTI/TUI strikes at all 720 second-level schools to try forcing reversal of State-certification abolition. Unions earlier withdrew from talks under independent chairman Pauric Travers in which Ms O’Sullivan conceded Junior Certificate would be retained and marked externally by State Examinations Commission.

January 2015: Second strike by ASTI and TUI.

End-February 2015: Late night talks on further Travers proposals end in rejection by union leaders.

May 2015: Fresh talks lead to deal with further concessions on teachers’ concerns, but details on teachers’ timetabling and other resourcing issues yet to be finalised.

July 2015: Outstanding issues dealt with in final document to be put to ballot by union leaders to 27,000 second-level teachers.

August 2015: TUI executive recommends acceptance of final deal. ASTI central executive council makes no recommendation how its members vote.

September 24, 2015: Ballot results: TUI: 60% turnout. 69% Yes, 31% No. ASTI: 38% turnout. 55% No, 45% Yes.

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