A Framework for Junior Cycle: Motion (Continued)

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 784 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien] The cuts have an impact on how this reform is implemented and we need to be conscious of that. Last year's cuts and the cuts that will be announced this year will have an impact on front-line services. The greater the impact on front-line services, the more difficult it is to implement reform at this stage. We need to be conscious of that point. Notwithstanding that, there is a sense of nervousness or anxiety about the changes from some of the stakeholders. We need to examine in a constructive way what is being proposed. We need to work collectively towards implementing an improved school curriculum and the reform proposed by the Department. We are talking about the future educational attainment of our children. The Minister stated the need to improve the future life chances of students in school is central to the reform of the junior certificate. This involves shifting from the rote learning system to a system that improves the quality of student learning and the outcomes. For that reason, in principle we welcome the move away from the terminal exam, where the focus is on one exam.

The focus on continuous assessment will reap dividends. The research shows that ongoing continual assessment of students' progress is better over a longer period of time rather than assessment through a one-off, final exam. The Minister mentioned some of the models in his contribution and the one that comes up most when I speak to people is the Finnish education model. The success of the model exists where the school has no standardised testing because it narrows the curriculum. The focus is on testing rather than the teaching process. The change in the curriculum is not without challenges for stakeholders. Some of the concerns raised by previous speakers notwithstanding, it is a step in the right direction and I appeal to everyone to work together constructively and try to implement this as quickly as possible.

The Minister referred to going beyond some of the recommendations and he outlined the reasons for that. Regarding the concerns raised, some people are talking about this leading to league tables and schools' assessments not being an accurate reflection of students' abilities. It remains to be seen whether these genuine concerns are well-founded but they need to be factored in. We need to address these points if there are genuine concerns. One of the key considerations behind the proposed new approach is to expand the number of options schools can offer students. The Minister touched on one of the key elements: flexibility. It is critical because without that flexibility the Minister cannot hope to achieve what he set out to do. Within the three-year cycle, schools may be able to implement a combination of subjects, short courses and other learning experiences. It will provide a much better tailored junior cycle, which can be matched to schools, baseline demographics and student profiles. This is critical. All of this is being done to enhance the involvement of students and their parents in shaping the programmes that will best serve the students. That is what we need to retain in focus. If we do so, it will be a progressive measure and the benefits will be borne out in the longer term.

The Minister referred to the potential of priority learning units. They are important aspects of the reforms. They will allow students with learning difficulties to attain the best possible outcomes. It is a key part of the reform and we welcome it.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn It will also form part of the national qualifications framework.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I think they can achieve level 2. Maybe we can consider going beyond that to level 3 qualifications.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Yes.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien It is a key part of it and it is important. Another aspect focuses on additional teacher training. This poses challenges for the Department in respect of how we will resource it. Additional funding must be found to enable teachers to upskill. It will require rethinking on the part of the Minister. Some criticism has been levelled at the Department, correctly, in respect of some of the proposals that disincentivise teachers from upskilling. I refer to the pay differences of new teachers coming in, which has an impact on teacher morale. There is a challenge for the Department, the Minister and all of us. We have collective responsibility to address it.

A previous speaker referred to concerns about history and geography. We need to take on board such concerns.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn There is no proposal to prohibit people from doing history and geography.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I know that. There has been media commentary to that effect, which is why today's debate is important. It allows the Minister to set out an answer to the criticism. History and geography are vital and the Minister has said that it is not his intention to downgrade these subjects. We all know the advantages of history and geography and the Minister is well aware of it.

The unions have raised some concerns around how this was announced. We addressed the matter during Question Time on Tuesday when the Minister said he was meeting the unions. The unions met officials from the Minister's Department on Tuesday and outlined their concerns. We cannot change what has happened but we must work in the collective manner to which I referred earlier. We must take on board the concerns and address them as best as possible.

We will see the benefit of these proposals in the long term. We cannot look at this in isolation. We must consider the overall reform the Minister is trying to implement. I appeal to people to work together constructively and to be open-minded about proposals. What we are attempting has not been done before. There will be challenges in doing that.

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