A steep learning curve: A debate on the teacher strikes

Philip Irwin, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, and Jan O'Sullivan, Minister for Education and Skills, debate today's strike action.

FOR: Teachers’ voices must be heard

The exams must be marked externally to give credence to the system, writes Philip Irwin

There are 27,000 second-level teachers represented by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (Asti) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) today picketing outside their schools in order to protect the standards and reputation of the Irish education system.

This is a last resort for teachers who have campaigned on the junior cycle for two years through consultations, petitions, and lunchtime protests. We also sought deferral of implementation of the framework for the junior cycle until agreement was reached, but this was ignored.

A talks process between the teacher unions and the Department of Education and Skills broke down because of the department’s refusal to engage on issues such as resources and training unless we first agreed to mark our own students for junior cycle State exams.

The education minister has restored the State certificate at junior cycle, which is welcome. However, teachers want the retention of external assessment in order to give objectivity and credibility to this certificate. While the minister has moved to 60% external assessment, we believe the objectivity and credibility of the exams process cannot be provided in half measures.

Under the current Junior Certificate exam arrangements, an A grade in any school in Cork is the same as an A grade in any school in Donegal; and a B grade is the same in any school in Galway as it is in any school in Limerick or Monaghan. This is because we have a rigorous model of external assessment which ensures consistency right across the country.

Every year, before students’ exams are corrected, examiners are appointed and trained by the State Exams Commission. There are marking conferences and marking schemes are established which are overseen by experienced chief examiners.

This means students can rest assured that they will be treated in the same way as their peers in every county in Ireland. Any student who feels unfairly marked can appeal the grade. This guarantees transparency for students, parents, and teachers.

Without these standards nobody can know for sure if what is considered to be an A, B, or C grade in one school is considered to be the same grade in another school.

Teachers also believe that the student-teacher relationship will change for the worse. Imagine this typical scenario: A teacher spends two or three years encouraging a student to reach their potential in a subject. The teacher tells the student, “a C is within your grasp”. How can that teacher be the one who determines that student’s grade in a State-certified exam?

Despite assertions from commentators that the Junior Certificate is low status, the fact is that it is valued by students, parents, and teachers. It encourages students to develop goal-setting skills, it motivates students at the mid-point of their second-level education, and it offers students an important objective guide as they enter the senior cycle.

In a Millward Brown opinion poll last May, 60% of the public supported the view that teachers should not assess their own students for junior cycle certification; only 29% supported the change. This strike is also about protecting the student-teacher relationship, which an ESRI longitudinal study identified as crucial to enhancing students’ engagement with learning.

For the minister to suggest that she has moved — and that the teacher unions have not — is a misrepresentation of what is really going on. I wish to state clearly and unequivocally that teachers support many of the proposals contained in the framework for junior cycle.

For example, we support the move away from one terminal written exam. We support the extension of portfolio work, practical work, group work, and other forms of assessment. This is already the case in the current Junior Certificate in subjects such as science; civic, social, and political education (CSPE); art, and music, and they are externally assessed.

We believe that a modern exams system should employ a range of assessment methods. We are willing to engage in discussions on all of these and more. But we believe that such talks should take place on an equal footing. We want talks in which teachers’ key concern is not dismissed from the outset.

The minister has stated that Finland, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia are high-performing education systems where teachers assess their own students at lower secondary and that this is what Ireland should aspire to. However, the link between school-based assessment carried out by students’ teachers and high performance is not scientifically proven.

In addition, Ireland has a higher average score than three of four of these countries in reading, maths, and science. The most recent OECD PISA rankings — which are based on the performance of 15-year-olds — place Ireland seventh in the world (second in Europe) in reading and literacy, 15th in the world (fourth in Europe) in science, and our performance in maths is also above average.

In addition to this, Ireland is identified as one of 16 countries out of 63 worldwide which score well in terms of equity in education, as well as academic performance. In other words, students in Ireland can access a quality education regardless of their socio-economic status.

Finland is perceived by many as having the best-performing education system in the world. In Finland, the Government works closely with the teachers’ union (the Trade Union of Education) on the development and implementation of education change. Teachers are a valued voice on education issues. Allowing teachers — who understand what does and does not work in their classrooms — to have a say in the development of the education service has helped Finland to advance education in ways which work for Finland’s unique social, cultural, and historical context.

This is what members of Asti and TUI want — the best possible education service for Ireland’s unique social, cultural, and historical context. Education reform will fail without the support of teachers.

It is regrettable that teachers have to take strike action in order to try to have their voice heard.

Philip Irwin is president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland


AGAINST: My door is open to the unions

The reform proposals offer a significant change to earlier plans, says Jan O’Sullivan

Schools should be open today. The decision by both second-level teacher unions to embark on one-day strikes in opposition to reform of the junior cycle is unwarranted and disproportionate.

I have put forward a balanced, reasonable, and sustainable framework for junior cycle reform. It represents a significant change to the earlier proposal. That would have seen the abolition of State certification at junior cycle and the issuing of a school-based certificate based on 100% assessment by the classroom teacher.

Over recent months, I have listened to the genuine concerns of teachers and other stakeholders. In response, I have made significant changes that address these concerns, while still delivering much-needed reform of the junior cycle.

The revised framework for junior cycle will see:

The retention of a State certificate on the completion of junior cycle;

60% of marks will be allocated on the basis of an exam at the end of third year. This will continue to be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) for all subjects;

The remaining 40% of marks will be allocated for school-based work, such as portfolios or projects;

The marking of these projects and portfolios will be led by the class teacher. Teachers within each school will meet to discuss and compare how they are marking to ensure consistency in the marks awarded;

The SEC will monitor the marking of the school-based work to further ensure consistence and fairness.

Well-being will now be a compulsory element of junior cycle, encompassing areas such as physical education, civic, social, and political education (CSPE), and social, personal, and health education (SPHE).

This revised framework has been widely welcomed. The National Parents Council (Post Primary), the Irish Second-Level Students Union, various management bodies, and employer groups are supportive of the new proposal. We need to reform the junior cycle. In classrooms across Ireland, students — supported by teachers — are engaging in exciting and engaging projects. These projects involve teamwork, problem-solving, and communication.

Our current Junior Certificate model doesn’t properly reward students for these vital skills. We place far too much emphasis on written exams at the end of third year. This focus on final-year exams impacts on teaching and learning. If we put most of our eggs in the final written examination basket, then both students and teachers focus on the test, often to the detriment of the broader educational experience over the entire three years of the junior cycle. This can have serious consequences.

Evidence points to the fact that in second year, a significant number of students lose focus and disengage from school work. This is particularly prominent among boys, and those from working class backgrounds. It can have a very negative effect on a student’s entire school experience and beyond. We need to change. We need an assessment system that can test and reward students for vital life skills such as teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. By changing how we assess young students, we also encourage a change in how our students learn.

The new framework will maintain external assessment, with final exams set and marked by the SEC. Importantly, it will allow other talents to be rewarded with 40% of marks allocated for school-based assessment. School-based assessment is an important element of reform. Every teacher already engages in school-based assessment.

They correct homework, they award marks for exams set at summer and Christmas, they often mark “mock exams” during third year, and the vital advice and guidance discussed at parent-teacher meetings is largely based on the teacher’s assessment of a student.

The new framework for reform will give teacher assessment an input into the formal junior cycle examination process. I believe teachers are best placed to give a fair and objective assessment of their students. They are the professionals who know how much a student contributes in class, how they have progressed over the course of completing a project, and how a student has taken on feedback to improve their performance.

Under the present system, this professional teaching judgement and experience is excluded from formal Junior Certificate assessment. That needs to change. I am proposing it contributes to 40% of a student’s marks. The remaining 60% will be awarded through an externally assessed final-year exam.

The new framework includes the best of both assessment systems — the anonymity and rigour of a final-year exam, together with professionally-assessed project and portfolio work over the course of second and third year. I sincerely believe this new framework will improve the Junior Certificate for our younger students. It will give them a broader educational experience and reward them for a wider range of skills and talents.

Unfortunately, despite widespread support for the proposals, both second-level teacher unions refused to engage in the new offer and are implacable in their opposition to school-based assessment. Effectively, I have been told by the union leadership that I’ve moved 60% of the way to meet their demands and if I just move another 40%, then we can achieve progress. This isn’t negotiation. Negotiation takes movement from both sides to reach a compromise. In an effort to break the deadlock that has bedeviled the important issue of junior cycle reform for years, I made the first move. I have moved significantly to address legitimate concerns.

Unfortunately the unions haven’t budged. Junior cycle reform has been discussed and debated for four decades. There is near-unanimity that we need to improve the current system. I’ve put forward a proposal that can achieve that important goal.

Today’s strike isn’t necessary. The substantial offer I have made remains on the table and my door is open to the unions if they want to engage in meaningful talks. We don’t need any more delays or prevarication. We certainly don’t need any more school closures. I am prepared to get on with the important work of reform. It’s time for both teaching unions to do likewise.

Jan O’Sullivan is Minister for Education and Skills


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