Testing times for teachers as fears loom of Christmas strikes

The education reform debate is entering its fourth year and still does not seem clear cut, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray

Testing times for teachers as fears loom of Christmas strikes

TEACHER union leaders meet this morning to consider if they should initiate strikes and close second-level schools before Christmas.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (Asti) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) are intent on standing firm in opposition to any marking by their members of students at their own schools, for what would now remain a State-certified award at the end of third-year.

But Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan believes her revised junior cycle reform proposals are different enough from what their members opposed, when backing industrial action earlier this year, that they should be considered afresh.

It is not entirely clear how she came to make such an about-turn from the stern position of her predecessor, Ruairi Quinn. Any suspicion it may have been over Cabinet anxiety to avoid the political headache that might come from school strikes, in addition to ongoing water charge protests, is dismissed by education and political sources.

While the Government largely supported Mr Quinn’s reform plans, there may have been a feeling his approach was too rigid. This, suggests one political source, may even have been a factor in Ms O’Sullivan’s selection to take over at the Department of Education in July after Mr Quinn ruled himself out for a place in the reshuffled Cabinet.

But it will have come as a surprise to many — not least teacher union leaders — just how much she has conceded.

Having listened, like they asked, to Asti and TUI concerns at meetings in September and last month, she agreed that independently chaired talks might help broker a resolution. Those talks began under the stewardship of Pauric Travers, ex-president at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, a week ago at the TUI offices in Rathgar.

It was on Monday, when they reconvened in the department, that her officials brought the revised position that two key union demands would be met.

The new award — which Mr Quinn had said would be a school certificate called the Junior Cycle Student Award instead of coming from the State Examinations Commission — would now remain State-certified. In addition, the final written exams, worth 60%, would be marked by the SEC, as currently happens for the Junior Certificate, appeasing one of the central sources of teacher anxiety as Mr Quinn wanted them corrected in schools.

The only element Ms O’Sullivan insists should stay — also recommended to Mr Quinn in 2011 advice from the independent National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) — is the marking of second-year and third-year coursework by students’ own teachers. This would be worth the remaining 40% for each subject, but the in-school marking would be open to random external checks to assure parents, students, and schools of uniform standards.

Crucially, that coursework is the element seen as key to any reforms, giving a chance to students to learn and demonstrate skills not currently catered for because of over-reliance on short exams crammed into a few weeks at the end of third year. Project work, group collaboration, and other activities that engender critical thinking and less-pressured engagement with a subject, are vitally needed attributes that should eventually be scaled up to the Leaving Certificate.

Such was the level of compromise the minister made that union delegations must have been taken aback. But by Monday evening, they were already making clear their response, such that the minister forewarned fellow ministers on Tuesday morning of the likely talks breakdown later that day.

Sure enough, the third day of talks — now moved to Asti’s offices in the shadow of Christchurch Cathedral — ended with unions remaining ensconced in their outright opposition. They correctly state that despite their representation on the NCCA, that body’s wide-ranging reform plans for the three-year junior cycle went to Mr Quinn with a health warning that the unions strongly opposed many elements but particularly those around assessment.

All that aside, however, a key question now is whether the unions can justifiably call for escalation of their industrial action.

Ms O’Sullivan’s changes to the reform plans have drawn support from bodies representing second-level principals, parents, and, crucially, the Irish Second-level Students’ Union. Its president, Craig McHugh, said on Wedensday that the new way of teaching and learning envisaged in Ms O’Sullivan’s proposals “will be far better for our students”.

The fact that Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman, Charlie McConalogue, has deemed the changes worth consideration by teachers is significant. He has politicised the issue strongly in exchanges in the Dáil with Mr Quinn and, subsequently, with Ms O’Sullivan, insisting on meaningful engagement with unions. His view this week is that the new minister has gone a long way to addressing teacher concerns and there should be more discussions, although he says it is up to the minister to take the lead on any further talks.

Her position, as expressed to the Irish Examiner this week, is that she had made significant moves and the onus now is on teacher representatives to meet her part of the way at least on compromise before there should be any further discussions.

The vote by union members last spring (and again in September by Asti members, when backing possible strike action already endorse by TUI) dealt with co-operation or otherwise with the junior cycle framework. Their difficulty is that the reforms on the table now are vastly different to those that were in play since Mr Quinn went far beyond the NCCA plans in October 2012.

There may also be questions for Ms O’Sullivan: Has she gone too far to meet teachers’ demands that the nub of the reforms might be lost? Politically, it could be viewed as a bowing in the face of the strength of the teacher unions.

Whether it be symbolic, or something more, the reinstatement of State certification could scupper a key tenet of Mr Quinn’s approach — the removal of a “high stakes” label attaching to the Junior Cert or its eventual successor.

This has been lost in the mix during most of this debate, now entering its fourth year. But there is plenty evidence that it is probably the most important element. Perceptions about the need to do well in the Junior Certificate — largely driven by parents, in many instances — are what drive schools to focus on exams from as early as second year. They are what reduce many classrooms to study factories instead of places where students have breathing space to learn about the world and their own capabilities. Whatever emerges from all this needs to ensure such a system ends.

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