Junior Cycle Reform: Motion

Wednesday, 18th September 2013

I also wish to support my colleagues, Senators O’Donnell and Mac Conghail in the tabling of this motion, which I fully support. I do not wish to get tied up in knots about terms like “core” or “compulsory” because I welcome the junior certificate reform. My own background is in youth work and much of what we practice in non-formal education is being brought into the classroom and the formal education sector, all of which is to be welcomed. My colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, spoke about the balance between theory and practice and in both my current role and my previous job, I have visited the transition year students of many schools. In this context, there is a great difference from school to school on how transition year is implemented. I refer to that capacity and the capability within a school and within individual teachers as to whether they harness the potential of a transition year student year. There is a similar fluidity to the new junior certificate reform and perhaps that is where part of my hesitancy lies about history not having as central a role as I would wish. While my colleagues have referred to the statements of learning, I can understand the reason, at the joint committee meeting of 12 June last to which my colleague, Senator O’Donnell, made reference, many eminent people expressed fears about history and whether the students would be ready and prepared. It can be taught as a subject or a short course and if the latter, comprising 100 hours of learning. Will that prepare someone to take it at leaving certificate level? Will it prepare them for university to go further in those subjects? How could a short course even get one in? Anyone who loves history will understand the depths and knowledge it has. Senator Moran mentioned students making choices and I have met many students, some very close to home, who have based their choices both for the junior certificate and as they enter into the leaving certificate cycle, on the points. It is purely about points and I understand this drive whereby this is what one needs to do to get the college course one seeks.

This point brings me to the amendment to the motion, which refers to the compulsory subjects, the importance of literacy and numeracy skills and of the development thereof, with which everyone agrees.

All the work I have done on literacy and numeracy, however, tells me one does this in many different ways, not just through particular core subjects such as English. Literacy can mean a parent in a supermarket telling a child to pick up a can of peas, spelling out the word.

I am a little concerned about us jumping to the next thing when we pick literacy. People may have forgotten that in 2008, the Department of Education and Skills and the Council of Europe produced an excellent report on language education policy profile concerning modern languages and their importance, but it was dropped because we are doing literacy and numeracy. I do not say one approach is more important than the other but many of the people being recruited – we are told it is all about growth and jobs – are coming from outside Ireland because we do not have the required modern language skills. Part of my concern in respect of history is the same as that which applies to the placing of modern languages and issues such as how we prepare students for life. Yesterday, I attended a very impressive seminar which looked at the work-readiness of students. Young people are approaching work very differently now. A person from Accenture told us that after a person begins to work, he or she will want to take a sabbatical to go back to further education or to travel and will afterwards return to work. The idea of being in a job for life is changing and we must prepare our young people for this changing environment.

I have a difficulty. In this discussion we may all be on the same side, but when I drill down, I find I do not have confidence that under the junior certificate reforms we will have consistent delivery of the junior cycle in each school, which would be detrimental to students. There might be a teacher who is visionary and able to encompass this new way of learning but there may be difficulties with some who are traditional and not ready for the change. The current sixth class will be the first to be tested in this regard. Will we have consistency throughout the country and will we prepare for it? I believe we need a little more structure. In my view, there are certain essential subjects. History and modern languages are the ones I would like to throw into that pot. That is where my hesitancy lies and if I try to understand it, I find I do not have the confidence I would like to have. I do not want children to be guinea pigs.