Junior Certificate Reform and the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy

23rd October 2012

I welcome the Minister’s plans for the literacy and numeracy strategy. I remember working on the National Economic and Social Forum report on this subject. I was alarmed at the figures, with one in ten children leaving school with literacy issues and rising to one in four children in disadvantaged areas. Someone tried to tell me it was okay because other European countries had higher figures but I did not care whether the figures were higher in other European countries. I care about the fact one in ten children leave school with literacy and numeracy issues.

The reports all talk about an all-community approach and how it is not just about the reality in school. In the supermarket, a parent can ask the child to get peas and can spell out the letters. It involves these measures and involving the older generations in the community. While preparing the report, I heard from many parent organisations that, when they bring their loved ones to the school gates, they are told to ensure the children can tie their laces and have a lunch they can easily eat while the teachers will look after the teaching. Parents were told not to teach their children to read because the teachers will have to undo it and reteach them. I heard this going around the country talking to parents groups.

This was the message parents were getting from schools. I do not refer to all teachers. We read all the reports and talk about everyone working together in the community and how education is not just the preserve of schools. It is important that, when examining plans, we should try to involve the community. We have outstanding teachers working with communities but there is also an approach that parents do not have a role in the education of their children.

I welcome the Minister’s plans in respect of the junior certificate. I have examined them quite closely. Continuous assessment is a good principle. I wonder if I am saying this because I think I would have done better on continuous assessment than in exams. Some young people will perform better under one method than another, which makes me wonder whether it is part of my reasoning in favour of it. Continuous assessments are good practice for life and for the ability to deliver consistently. It will have a positive effect on the student’s learning experience, the development of the most-needed skills from an early age and, most important, the capacity to analyse information, communicate, to work in a team and to think creatively.

The proposed focus on the long-term development of literacy and numeracy instead of a one-size-fits-all junior certificate will encourage students and teachers creatively and allow for a more informed and self-aware process of acquiring knowledge. Students will be able to develop their interests and skills without the rigidity of learning specifically for the tests. This will, hopefully, relieve some of the pressure experienced by some students during the formal examination period.

Another proposed reform is the curriculum flexibility, which is great. It will allow schools to design new teaching programmes. Hopefully, they will involve the students in that as they will have a great deal to say. Perhaps there could be subjects on local development, new media and arts programmes. It would facilitate a much wider approach to education.

As far as the proposed assessments are concerned, teachers know their students best and are best placed to reflect on students’ performance, abilities and work. The focus on long-term overview of a student’s development will help parents to see the progress being made by their child. However, I share some of the concerns raised by the TUI and the ASTI generally about the consultation process. Could the Minister clarify this? I have read conflicting reports about it. There have been statements from the Minister’s officials saying they were consulted, while I have heard from the two unions that they have not been consulted.

With regard to the assessment process, I wonder about small communities and the pressures that will come from parents, in a place where everybody knows each other, for a positive assessment. Would we be bringing the concept of clientelism into the school system? How will we ensure that teachers will be trained? I am aware of the Minister’s plans for teacher training, but I am referring to teachers who are already in place. How do we recalibrate how to deliver their training? I would welcome clarification of that from the Minister.

Finally, the Minister talks about phasing this in over eight years. I can understand that on paper but part of me sees it as a slow guillotine descending on the schools over the eight years. How will it work? Will there be a value on the year in which one did the junior certificate? I wonder about the reality of phasing it in and whether we are sometimes better off to just pull off the plaster and go for it. If this is the new system, eight years seems to be quite a long period for it to be introduced. However, I believe we should consider change, and I welcome the fact that the Minister has put the document in the public domain and allowed us to scrutinise it and be part of this process.

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