A year on, vastly different education reforms are agreed

Some six years after the idea of junior cycle reform was floated, there has finally been an agreement, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray

There is a gaping distance between whatever level of reform teachers are likely to vote on in September and what was being proposed a year ago. After more than a year of industrial action, which has included two strike days, 27,000 members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (Asti) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) learned this week that their leaders have come up with a deal that they and Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan all endorse.

In May 2014, the then education minister, Ruairi Quinn, was resolu te that teachers must mark their own students on all aspects of assessment for what was to be an entirely school- issued qualification. In the last week of May, recognising that the teacher unions were equally entrenched in their stance on the junior cycle issue, he announced plans for talks that never happened before Ms O’Sullivan replaced him in July.

Since Wednesday’s news of a breakthrough, there has been much talk of certified school-based assessment being completely removed from the plan — but this has been the case since February.

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The proposals from Pauric Travers in February were rejected by unions but accepted by the minister. Under these proposals, elements of student work to be assessed by their own teachers were no longer to be included in the Junior Certificate. So the idea of a 60%-40% split between marks awarded for work assessed externally and internally, respectively, has been effectively off the table for three months.

The unions may dress it up today as a victory if publication of the agreed plan confirms there is to be no formal record of how junior cycle students fare in assessments conducted by their own teachers. However, the difference between a report of those outcomes directly to parents, and their inclusion in the previously proposed Profile of Junior Cycle Achievement alongside results in the written Junior Certificate exams, seems to hardly merit distinction. If it is enough to convince teachers to accept this latest reform package, then there will be few complaints.

Another crucial consideration is whether students beginning second year in September will undergo the new assessments in English next spring, as had been intended, on a new curriculum being taught over the past school year. Professional development for teachers of the subject has been disrupted by the unions’ industrial action since April 2014, precluding members from participation. A key question that students and parents will want answered is whether those classes will now undergo such assessment or if the minister has conceded to the unions’ request for its deferral.

Whatever the answer, there are two ways of considering the political handling of the situation by Ms O’Sullivan and her predecessor.

On one hand, the Limerick Labour TD could be deemed politically weak by how much ground she ceded to unions on the reform package.

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A year ago, the entire assessment for junior cycle was to be conducted in schools by students’ own teachers and none of it would have been carried out or certified by the State. Mr Quinn’s plan for Junior Cycle Student Assessment has been consigned to history, with a final written exam marked by the State Examinations Commission now retained, although some commitment is likely for teachers to formally assess their own classes in second and third years.

On the other hand,, it should be recalled that what Mr Quinn put forward in October 2012 went several steps beyond what was proposed to him by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment a year earlier, following lengthy consultation. It must be acknowledged that even their recommendation of a 60%-40% split between work assessed externally and internally was opposed by teachers.

It was the tunnel vision of Mr Quinn over the following 18 months that paved the way for an escalation to industrial action and the two strikes that closed the country’s 730 second-level schools last December and January.

It was ironic that Asti and TUI announced the first of those just after Ms O’Sullivan’s first rowback — but not enough for union leaders — after engaging in talks that her predecessor never held. She made further concessions by accepting the proposal of Mr Travers, who cleverly removed the obstacle of teachers marking their own students for State certification, only for teachers to suddenly widen their demands.

Despite all of that, Mr Quinn said in an interview on RTÉ radio yesterday morning that the latest development is “a significant breakthrough” on a long journey.

“I think we had to start somewhere, there had been an absolute block on even beginning the journey for the last 20 years,” said Mr Quinn. “Teachers’ concerns are being addressed, first and foremost they are being consulted by their unions... and many teachers are open to this.”

It was another predecessor, Batt O’Keeffe, who started the junior cycle reform process as far back as June 2009. In another measure of how long change takes in Irish education, most children who were finishing primary school that month will begin the Leaving Certificate in 10 days.

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