I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 4 together.
The junior cycle student award, JCSA, will no longer be a terminal exam with high stakes. Treating it as such has been shown to have an unintended negative backwash effect on
teaching and learning in the classroom and can, in some cases, lead to an unnecessary focus on rote learning. Our 15 year olds do not need a State-certified examination, just as in 1967 it was decided that 12 year olds did not need a State-certified examination at the end of primary school.
Assessment should assist students in their learning and not be regarded as the end point. Assessment is not about "proving" but about "improving" learning outcomes. I am reliably informed by education specialists that unless assessment changes, nothing else will. Any reform must address this and other factors. We must not have students experiencing a junior cycle where there is more focus on rote learning and memorisation than on teaching them how to think critically for themselves, solve problems, communicate and work with others - all the skills that are necessary for further and higher education and indeed for life.
The new junior cycle will develop better learners. Students will be more skilled in areas such as communication, creativity, managing information, self-management and working with others. As the Deputies will recall, these reforms received all-party support in both Houses of the Oireachtas when we debated them in late 2012. I set up a national working group for junior cycle last January as a forum to address identified challenges and opportunities proactively as they arise over the phased implementation time schedule for the junior cycle from now until at least September 2019, when all the subjects will have been phased in.
My officials, through this national working group, are engaged in intensive discussions with the education stakeholders. A subgroup is considering in detail the issue of quality assurance and support for teacher assessment. As part of its remit, this subgroup is addressing external supports for moderation to support teacher assessment and help maintain standards. Some education partners have made detailed written submissions to the subgroup which are under active consideration. I expect to receive a report on these issues from the national working group in May.
I have noted the results of the recent teacher ballots. The national working group and its subgroups are the best place to address concerns that have been raised. In fact, I have already agreed to changes in the phasing in of the reforms in response to concerns raised by education partners. I welcome the continued engagement by the teacher unions with these forums. In so far as continuing professional development, CPD, is concerned, most of the planned workshops for this academic year have already been rolled out.
The junior cycle will roll out to schools from this September on a phased basis, as reiterated in a recent circular issued by my Department. The new specification for junior cycle English will be implemented from September. The level 2 learning programme for a very small number of students with special educational needs will be optional, as will short courses. The first school-based assessment event under the new JCSA for junior cycle English will take place after Easter 2016. In the interim, I am committed to ongoing discussion with the education partners on all aspects of the phased implementation of the JCSA.