I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
"acknowledges that the current Government’s only motivation in proposing Junior Cycle reform has been improving outcomes for students;
recognises that the Junior Cycle reforms are based on longitudinal research carried out by the Educational and Social Research Institute and the advice of the statutory body charged with providing advice on curriculum matters to the Minister for Education and Skills: the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment;
accepts that unless there is an element of school-based assessment at Junior Cycle, classroom practice will remain unchanged and real reform of the Junior Cycle and improvements for students will not be achieved;
notes that the Minister for Education and Skills has listened to the concerns of all stakeholders, including teachers, on this issue and has met teacher union representatives on several occasions;
further acknowledges that, on the basis of the concerns expressed to her, the Minister for Education and Skills has significantly amended the reform proposals to meet the concerns of teacher unions;
further notes that compromise suggested by the Minister for Education and Skills proposes 60% external assessment by the State Examinations Commission for all subjects and moderation by the State Examinations Commission in respect of school based assessment;
— notwithstanding the significant movement by the Minister for Education and Skills, teacher unions have not seen fit to make any changes whatsoever in their position;
— industrial action by teachers is due to take place on 22nd January when the Minister for Education and Skills has made every effort to progress discussions and made significant concessions to meet teacher concerns; and
— the industrial action of teachers encompasses measures which impact negatively on students, their parents and teachers themselves who are missing an opportunity to engage in professional development;
recognises that reform and modernisation of the Junior Cycle is needed so that our education system meets the needs of today’s students;
notes that investment ring-fenced for Junior Cycle development in budget 2015 is €9.3 million and that the Government is committed to this essential investment for the roll out of an education for students which is fit for purpose; and
calls on the Minister for Education and Skills to continue implementation of Junior Cycle reform which has been welcomed by education stakeholders including parent and student representatives and school management bodies."
I wish to share time with Deputies O'Donovan and Nolan.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate junior cycle reform in the House. I would like to set out clearly the rationale for reform of the junior cycle and to underline the necessity of implementing these important changes. The new junior cycle is about making fundamental changes in our approach to learning, teaching, curriculum and assessment. The aim is to significantly improve the quality of learning experiences for our students. The new junior cycle gives flexibility to schools by allowing them input into the design of their own programmes, to meet the varying needs of their students. Through the reforms, we are placing increased trust in schools and teachers by giving them more autonomy.
School-based assessment is an important element of the reform. School-based elements, along with the final examinations set and marked by the State Examinations Commission, will comprise the new State certificate. As Sinn Féin Members said, teachers engage in school-based assessment. They correct homework and award marks for exams set each Christmas and summer and the vital advice and guidance discussed at parent teacher meetings is largely based on the teacher's assessment of the work of their students. Many of us are parents and we welcome the feedback given even if it is not always positive. In reality, what is assessed is valued.
School-based assessment will promote a learning culture in schools. It will change what happens in classrooms in a way that external assessment cannot, and it will recognise and reward skills that cannot readily be assessed through externally marked written final examinations at the end of third year. Under the current system, this professional teacher judgment and experience is excluded from formal junior certificate assessment. That needs to change.
I acknowledge the professionalism of teachers and their capacity to assess the work of their students. I also acknowledge their dedication and innovation, as seen in the Young Scientist exhibition recently. I am also mindful, of course, of the need to enhance teacher competences and confidence in this area. Assessment should assist students in the quality of their learning and not be regarded as the end point. Research shows that unless assessment changes, little else will.
The new junior cycle did not emerge in a vacuum. The background work was carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. It was the NCCA, the State body created to advise on reforms in curriculum and assessment, which carried out the consultation, not the Department or the Minister. Its work involved the investigation of international developments in lower secondary education in the OECD countries and specifically in Scotland, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada and Australia. In high-performing education systems such as these, schools have been given greater autonomy and flexibility in the programmes they offer. This allows schools to design their own programmes, mindful of the needs of their students and their teaching resources. In 2011, the NCCA, with the assistance of Department of Children and Youth Affairs, consulted with Dáil na nÓg on reform of the junior cycle. Its findings included the fact that "The majority of young people considered the Junior Cycle curriculum to be too exam-focused and the Junior Cert examination itself to be a negative form of assessment, which causes stress and is essentially 'a memory test'." These are the views of our students.
The ESRI has carried out a longitudinal study of the experiences of our students at second level. That research found that a significant number of first-year students do not make progress, particularly in English and mathematics. In second year, many students become disengaged from the learning process and find it almost impossible to reconnect to learning subsequently. Choices made as early as the first year of junior cycle - for example, to take a subject at ordinary level rather than at higher level - are almost impossible to reverse and may limit the options open to young people for the leaving certificate and after leaving school. This is a particularly important issue for students in lower-stream classes. I would put it to Deputy Ellis, who was particularly concerned about disadvantaged areas, that, in particular, it does not serve students in disadvantaged areas. In third year, the junior certificate examination dominates the experiences of students, the focus of learning narrows and the emphasis is on rote learning. For many students, the examination does not lead to positive learning experiences and outcomes. These are some of the findings that the ESRI has published, capturing again the experiences and views of our students, which really must be central in our discussion of this issue.
We also know that assessment at the end of junior cycle in Ireland is out of line with best practice in many countries with high-performing educational systems. Research shows that the learning experience of students is narrowed if an assessment system is restricted to assessing them solely through external examinations and testing. This occurs because both teachers and students focus on learning what is necessary to do well in final examinations rather than on pursuing an educational programme designed to meet students' needs. Multiple studies over time clearly show the significant impact that classroom assessment has on student learning and achievement. The OECD reviewed evaluation and assessment in 28 countries to produce a report called Synergies for Better Learning. That report recommends that countries should "maintain the centrality of teacher based assessment and promote teacher professionalism". It identifies teacher-based assessment as having many advantages. These include allowing for competencies to be measured that are difficult to capture in standardised assessments. Most importantly, the report suggests that teacher-based assessment is more authentic than examinations and has greater potential to be used for subsequent improvements in learning and teaching. I have cited just some of the relevant research here this evening. I have previously provided to both Opposition spokespersons a list of some of the significant pieces of research that were drawn upon in the development of the NCCA proposals. The NCCA has indicated that it can provide further such material if that is requested by members of the House.
A red herring has been recently introduced into this debate and was raised again tonight by Deputies Ferris and Stanley and others, which I want to address directly. Each year, a range of budgetary proposals are considered by the Government of the day. In 2009, the previous Government considered abolition of the junior certificate as one such proposal. The proposal was rejected by the Government at that time. My proposals for junior cycle reform are not the proposals on abolition which were put forward in the past. Savings have not been realised to date and there is no expectation that the new proposals will deliver savings. In fact, the reform will cost an additional €9.3 million in 2015, and I have repeatedly stated that I will secure the resources necessary to support this reform into the future. The reform of the junior cycle is about changing and providing a high-quality teaching and learning experience for our students. It is not a cost-saving exercise. There were several references to cuts. There was actually an increase in the Department's budget for this year.
The NCCA is very much a partnership body. The members of the council are drawn from the teacher unions, management bodies, parents and representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and business. Since the NCCA made its proposals, we have continued to have significant engagement with all education partners on this process. Indeed, the pace of change was slowed in January 2014 to address some of the concerns that had been raised. Since I came into office, I have been engaging with parents, students, school leaders and management bodies, as well with the teacher unions. I have met with the leadership of the teacher unions many times. In November, I appointed an independent facilitator, Dr. Pauric Travers, who was nominated by the unions, to oversee negotiations between the two sides. On 10 November, during three days of intense negotiations, officials from the Department tabled my compromise proposals. My proposal aimed to unblock the obstacles to reform which were identified to me by the teacher unions while maintaining the integrity of the reform proposals.
The main elements of my proposal are that final exams in third year will account for 60% of junior cycle marks, that these exams will be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission, that 40% of junior cycle marks will be awarded for project or portfolio work or orals during the latter half of second year and at Christmas of third year, that this 40% would be assessed by classroom teachers within agreed criteria, and that the State Exams Commission check a proportion -10% to 15% - of these marks in our schools to ensure consistency and fairness. This combined approach to assessment, involving a school-based component and external examinations, will have external checks and balances. It will lead to State certification on completion of the three years of junior cycle. It will have integrity and validity and teachers will be supported in this change. I should also note that well-being will now be a compulsory element of the junior cycle, encompassing areas such as physical education, social, personal and health education, and civic, social and political education. This is in line with Government policy as set out in the Healthy Ireland framework. The health and well-being of our students are of the utmost importance. The imparting of information and an understanding of healthy life skills at this critical stage in their development are essential. They are every bit as important as exam results.
I am glad to report that my proposal has been welcomed by the National Parents' Council Post-primary and the Irish Second-level Students' Union. It has also been welcomed by the management bodies, representatives of school leaders, the education and training boards, academics and employer representatives. The teacher unions acknowledged that my November 2014 proposal was significant. They stress that they welcome many aspects of the new reform, including the emphasis on group work, project work and orals. However, they continue to maintain the position that teachers will not assess the outcomes of their own students for certification purposes. This remains the main point at issue with the teacher unions at this stage.
My revised proposal for a significantly increased role for the State Examinations Commission in respect of the overall assessment was a considerable move to address the concerns that had been expressed. I am very disappointed that the teacher unions have not responded positively to my revised proposal. Progress needs both sides to be willing to move on previously held positions. It is regrettable that the unions have decided to ignore the compromise available and instead decided to proceed with their one-day strike on 2 December 2014 and a further strike this Thursday. This is unnecessary and disruptive for schools, students and parents. I know there is a lot of concern that this strike is going ahead on Thursday. The unions have argued that they need this strike to demonstrate the strength of feeling among teachers on this issue.
My willingness to compromise and to continue discussing these reforms with them is clear evidence that I am aware of the strength of feeling among their members.
Proceeding with a further strike this Thursday is unnecessary and only serves to damage the education of our students, many of whom are preparing for exams later this year. The threat of further strike action continues to loom large but I hope the unions will not continue down this road. It remains my intention to seek agreement. As recently as last Wednesday, January 14, I met the unions again to find a basis for progress. Teachers are vital stakeholders and I have been working hard to seek a consensus with their representatives. However, no one party can have a veto on progress and change in the system. A clear research base shows that we can do better for our students and I have a duty to listen to the views of the many stakeholders who also have a vital interest in this reform and want to see it happen. I refer in particular to parents and school students.
The reform of the junior cycle has already commenced. It started this September with a new specification for English and some short courses. The reform is being introduced in a phased manner to enable schools and the education system to prepare for the changes. This will continue to be the approach throughout the implementation process. I recognise the need to lay the ground carefully and to provide the information, training and support necessary to enable teachers to absorb and deliver the required change over time. The junior cycle for teachers, JCT, team of trainers has been in place for almost two years and will be in place for the foreseeable future. Teachers usually teach two subjects at junior cycle and will receive up to 16 days of continuous professional development, CPD, over the next five to six years, including subject specific CPD and whole-school CPD. Elective workshops will also be made available. Resources will be provided by the JCT on its dedicated website, which teachers can consult in their own time. In January 2014, additional commitments were given to increasing the resources at both subject specific and whole school level. The team is ready to work with teachers and school leaders. Time is allocated officially for this CPD. Unfortunately, however, the industrial action by the unions includes a block on participation in such CPD by their members. This is the most regrettable form of industrial action because it prevents teachers from improving their own education.
Extensive and careful work is also ongoing in developing the subject specifications, assessment criteria and moderation toolkits for the reformed programme. The NCCA's approach includes all of the education partners and is based on building consensus. The involvement of the State Examinations Commission will provide reassurance and confidence for teachers, parents and pupils in the assessment process. They will be involved in setting and marking the final assessment component and in moderating the school based component in each school.
I have spoken at some length about the research which underpins these reforms and the negotiations which we have undertaken with the unions. I have outlined the supports which are available to schools and teachers as they implement these changes. Day after day, I hear calls from the Opposition benches for reform. Reform of our politics, and reform of our society are the clarion calls of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, and the rebooters and freebooters on that side of the House. It strikes me, however, that when it comes to implementing any actual reform, their response is to shout "Stop." Attempting to introduce real and meaningful change is important but it is not easy. There will always be opponents of proposed reforms. The job of the Government is to implement reforms that will benefit all of our people instead of simply pandering to individual groups or vested interests.
In December 2012 this House debated a motion on junior cycle reform, which was supported by all sides. For the benefit of members of the House, I will quote from the contributions made to that debate by Deputies Jonathan O'Brien and Charlie McConalogue. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien stated:
We will see the benefit of these proposals in the long term. We are talking about improving an aspect of post-primary education and making courses more suitable for students rather than gearing them towards one examination. What we are beginning will shape future educational experiences for hundreds of thousands of students who will come through our system.
Deputy McConalogue stated:
As the Minister will be aware, my party has been very much in favour of reforming the junior certificate. There is a strong body of evidence to support the need for radical reform of the junior certificate.
Both Deputies, on behalf of their parties, referred to the research I have cited to support the implementation of junior cycle reform. As we edge closer to a general election, it is disappointing to see these parties seek to cast that evidence and research aside in pursuit of political advantage. I put it to the House that reform is not simply a word that should be bandied about during political debate. It involves considering radical and far-reaching changes to long standing institutions, and carrying through on those changes for the benefit of all of our people. Deputies who support the Sinn Féin motion are effectively walking away from reform. The motion tabled by Sinn Féin this evening is a conservative call to support the status quo.
Agreement on junior cycle reform can and will be reached. We want the hearts and minds of our teachers to be committed to this reform and we will continue our discussions with them to reach that end. Further strikes and disruption will serve nobody's interest, particularly the interests of our students. This reform is about providing a quality learning experience for our young people that acknowledges their wide range of skills. Such an educational approach will prepare our students for a very different world of work and life to that which most of us entered when we left school. In view of this, it is instructive to consider the history of the last junior cycle reform. The first reports on the then newly unified junior cycle in 1990 suggested a mismatch between the curriculum and the exam. The assessment reforms associated with the new curriculum were not delivered, leading to a new curriculum being strangled by an old examination system. In the absence of assessment change, the system reset itself. In seeking to improve the education of our young people, we must not make the same mistake again.