Junior Cert Syllabus and Exam Changes – Breakthrough or Disaster?

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is backing a major overhaul of the Junior Cert programme. It is proposed to cut both the number of subjects students undertake in their Junior Cert and the amount the syllabus covers,  with just six written exams worth 60% of total marks, additional points for extracurricular activities and a course for students with special needs to replace the existing Junior Certificate exams.

The first students to affected will start second level in 2014 and the first award of the new qualification will begin in 2017 on a phased basis, probably starting with English and art. The revised programme was drawn up by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which if going by the project maths experiment is nothing to comment it.

Other changes include

* Use of portfolio, continuous assessment and project work, accounting for 40% of final marks in each subject, to be marked by class teachers and external moderators.

* Introduction of short courses prescribed by the NCCA or designed by schools, to demonstrate innovation, creativity and critical thinking. These may include subject areas such as cultural studies, development education, book clubs, personal finance, web design, or participation in a school show. Sounds like transition year. Is this a way of cutting it out?

* English, Irish and maths and possibly science to  be compulsory.

* Three core subjects to be offered at higher and ordinary level but all others will only be examined at common level. This would appear to have a serious potential for dumbing down course standards. Do you hear the sound of alarm bells?

* The grading system A to No-Grade is to be replaced by awards of distinction, merit, pass or ‘not achieved’.

* An option for a student to replace one or two mainstream subjects with two or four short courses which can award marks of up to 25 per cent, and which could mean a student sits final exams in just six main subjects.

* An alternative qualification assessing the five areas: communication and literacy, numeracy, looking after myself, living in a community and preparing for work will be available to students with mild to moderate categories of learning disability.

Proper discussions on implementing the changes have yet to take place between the Department of Education, State Examinations Commission, teacher unions and school managers. Unions are concerned that teachers get proper training to deliver redesigned courses and to ensure schools with fewer resources to offer short courses are not disadvantaged. Expect industrial relations issues over the planned marking of students’ continuous assessment work in their own schools. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland fears the impact of relations with students if members have to award marks to their own students for any elements of state exams, while the Teachers’ Union of Ireland demands payment for such work.

Some teachers believe the reforms could mean a drop in student motivation, increased indiscipline, and the possibility that students could be ill-prepared for future challenges if taking fewer exam subjects. Currently, the majority of students sitting the Junior Cert take 11 subjects. About 2,000 students take 12 subjects or more. The changes, as currently proposed, could mean some students could not select subjects which they have the most interest or ability in.
Rationalisation of exam classes may mean that some schools would have to drop “extra” subjects like Art, Music and Technology.

There is the often quoted concern over the level of rote learning in the education system, instead of a focus on other skills. However, rote learning is an important element of learning, but not in isolation. It has to be combined with understanding and those who rant about getting rid of rote learning have not given sufficient thought to the topic.

We hear much of a crisis in numeracy and literacy skills. Simply allowing more time to focus on literacy and numeracy skills will just be a waste of more time if poor teaching standards are not improved. Two hours of bad teaching is twice as much wasted time as one. Project Maths which was to deal with one component of this is in my view little more than an exercise in spin and an added cost in terms of text books in which the black and white diagrams in the existing text books were replaced by coloured versions of the same diagrams. The same body is now advocating the changes for the overhaul of the Junior Cert, but what is proposed now is much more serious.

The Junior Cert cycle changes must also impact on the Leaving Cert. Does it make sense to implement changes in one without knowing what you are going to do with the other. Should there not be a smaller scale pilot before full implementation to see if it works or where it needs to be refined?

NCCA chief executive, Anne Looney, says schools will have to start work on timetabling and other issues from next year. Teachers are taking early retirement all over the place to save their pension entitlements.  While being fully supportive of efforts to improve education I am afraid that this Looney alternative may be a very serious retrograde step and do immense damage to our children’s education if there is not a whole lot more though put into how it can be implemented in practise. Good intentions are not enough,  whatever is put in place has to work, and it has to be at least be better than the existing system. Otherwise it is at best a pointless exercise and at worse a disaster for our children’s education. To read the NCCA report click here.

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