Disgruntled secondary teachers must change for the better

Teachers’ criticism of the proposed junior cycle misses the point. The current system is not fit for purpose, writes Tony Donohoe            

Disgruntled secondary teachers must change for the better

FOR over 20 years, the Junior Certificate has been little more than a dress-rehearsal for the Leaving Certificate. Yet its over-crowded, rigid, and subject-based approach has come to dominate secondary school teaching. This needs to change.

The proposed new Junior Cycle Student Award is designed to help students develop the type of minds they need to thrive in the modern world. By providing an opportunity for continuous feedback and using multiple methods of assessment, it will help provide a more solid foundation for further study, personal development, and a lifetime of learning.

Despite the clear need for reform, there is a grim familiarity to the rhetoric coming from the teachers’ conferences this week. In contrast to many other professions, change seems to be instinctively resisted by the leadership of the unions, fears are exaggerated, and benefits downplayed or worse, dismissed entirely. This is a grave disservice to the thousands of committed and professional teachers who are prepared to embrace change.

Yesterday the unions described the notion of teachers assessing their own students as “professionally repugnant”. Of course they failed to mention that this is a method favoured by secondary school teachers in most other European countries, and is standard practice in further education and at third level.

Yes, it is understandable that any change will raise some concerns and prompt debate, but the sort of posturing that we too often hear from teacher representatives reflects badly on the profession generally, which is in reality more open to new ideas and innovative practices.

Teachers’ unions have set out arguments in opposition to change that demand a considered response. Firstly, they argue these reforms cannot be achieved without the full support of teachers. This is true. Teacher quality and professional development are the most important factors influencing junior cycle reform. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, and empowering the profession will produce better results.

The proposed reforms provide schools with more scope to customise the curriculum to local needs. And they actually elevate the status of teachers beyond simply implementing strictly dictated syllabi, to professionals with much more scope and authority to innovate and improve the learning experience of their students.

The unions have also suggested junior cycle reform needs more resources to ensure its success. Again this is true, but the suggestion that the new Junior Cycle Student Award is a money-saving exercise and a “cheaper” version of the Junior Certificate is wrong. It actually demands and merits additional investment.

Teachers are right to demand that the Government put adequate resources in place to deliver this training. A generation of teachers, more accustomed to teaching to the test, will require support in terms of professional development and training in new assessment techniques.

For example, significant evidence suggests that teachers are not good at giving feedback. It is not necessarily easy, but giving good feedback rather than a mark and a “must do better” comment is key to connecting students to their own learning and will help make them more independent.

The suggestion that the junior cycle will undermine the profession and the teacher-student relationship is therefore also wide of the mark; the contrary is true. According to the OECD, 23 of 37 countries don’t have any state examination at this stage. It recently argued that “placing a strong emphasis on teacher-based judgements has many advantages: It allows for competencies to be measured that are difficult to be captured in a standardised way”. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of the best education systems in the world, such as Finland, have no external assessment at all.

The focus by teachers on internal versus external assessment misses the point of proposed reforms. The emphasis on developing key skills rather than the mechanistic transmission of subject-based knowledge from teacher to pupil offers new and exciting possibilities.

Successful societies and economies depend on the creation, communication, and understanding of new ideas and ways of thinking. This can be both encouraged — and unfortunately discouraged — at every phase of the educational system.

The junior cycle offers an early opportunity to make these connections while at the same time making much better use of technology in the classroom. It offers a chance to better engage with students whose real life is getting more and more detached from their classroom experience.

In recent months the European Trade Union Committee for Education urged its members, which include the two teachers’ unions in Ireland, to take initiatives that would shape a view of the profession as a highly respected, highly educated body. The new junior cycle curriculum is an example of such an initiative.

The Junior Certificate is no longer fit for purpose and, without reform, pupils in Ireland risk falling behind their international peers. The teachers’ unions should work with the Government to implement reforms that are supported by business, parents, second-level students, school principals, and international experts. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change our education system for the better. It is vital we don’t waste it.

Tony Donohoe is head of education and social policy at Ibec

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