Galway parents might well wonder why both second level teacher unions have major concerns about Minister Ruairi Quinn’s proposals for a new Junior Cycle programme. Is this a case of teachers being afraid of change? Isn’t the Junior Certificate well past its sell-by date? Surely teachers should get out of their comfort zones and just get on with it? Why bother organising a public meeting on the issue?
Parents should know that, as practitioners, teachers will always support any change that guarantees improvement on the status quo. However, in the case of the proposed new Junior Cycle, they remain far from convinced that the Minister’s plan offers any such guarantees.
The Minister’s focus seems to be to get the programme up and running regardless of its defects, and there are defects. We in the teacher unions have identified problems but there has been no meaningful engagement by the minister or his department with teachers in resolving these problems. For example, the critical issue of assessment has not yet been resolved or indeed addressed in any of the teacher in-service training courses. Yet the programme is to commence in September. This is simply not good enough and our children deserve better. If my child were entering second level next year, I would be extremely concerned at this “it will be alright on the night attitude” being adopted by the minister.
Teachers’ concerns are based on their day-to-day awareness of the capacity of second-level schools to implement the significant change. This capacity has been greatly reduced by the slash-and-burn austerity cuts that have stripped schools of teachers and other vital resources over the last six years.
Teachers are very concerned about the timescale for the introduction of the minister’s proposals. If the system is not set up properly for the introduction of the new English programme in six months time, what are the chances of getting it right for the following years and additional subjects? There is a suggestion that teachers will assess their own students in the proposals but this runs the risk of turning the Junior Cycle programme into a glorified house examination with no external moderation, and, crucially, no assured consistency from school to school.Teachers will only accept a quality assured assessment of learning under the control of an independent body such as the State Examinations Commission. The education of our children cannot and must not become the victim of penny-pinching.
The current Junior Certificate examination is an effective induction into the formalities of a quality assured state examination process. This is an invaluable experience for students in the context of the continued high value placed on the Leaving Certificate for access to third level education and the labour market.
The current Junior Certificate results allow students to select their Senior Cycle subject options in a rational and informed manner.
The new Junior Cycle proposals do away with the current higher level, ordinary level and foundation levels. This could have serious implications for the development of student confidence and progression, especially for those students who struggle academically and need a stepped approach. One size does not fit all.
In addition, teachers believe that the proposals are likely to worsen inequalities between schools. For example, the new Junior Cycle would introduce short courses in areas like computing and the teaching of Chinese. If these were fully resourced, they would be a most welcome addition. But parents must ask questions. How is this to be done? Where are the resources? Many second level schools do not have broadband or modern computing facilities. Assuming we can find teachers of Chinese, where is the funding to pay these teachers? Schools that can attract private funding to supplement state funding would be further advantaged. Schools that rely on state funding could struggle. Smaller schools will be at a disadvantage.
Teachers will tell you that second year in second level is the age and stage that students are at their most vulnerable in terms of academic engagement and behaviour. The current Junior Certificate exam has traditionally provided a much needed target in terms of maintaining student focus and engagement. The minister’s proposals put this at risk.
The proposals as set out pose serious threats to education standards and particularly to the objectivity and transparency of the Junior Cycle. Exasperated and dismayed by the failure of the Department of Education and Skills to provide full, concrete information on the proposals – even as late as last week – the national executives of both TUI and ASTI have decided that 27,000 teachers will be balloted in March on non-cooperation with the new programme.
Change for which adequate and appropriate preparation has not been made can cause lasting damage to the education system and particularly to individual students, our children.
We urge parents of school-going children at primary and post-primary level and other interested parties to attend a public meeting in the Radisson Blu Hotel, Galway on Tuesday 11 March and take part in this debate.