Junior Cycle Reform: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

 — notes that the previous Government examined axing the junior certificate examination structures as a cost-saving initiative and that such axing of the junior certificate examination structures was the starting point of the current Government until teacher unions began a campaign of opposition;

 — is concerned that the Minister for Education and Skills is refusing to listen to legitimate concerns of teachers who are expected to deliver reforms, which has created the impasse in the negotiations;

 — notes that strike action by teachers is due to take place on 22 January and further notes that this action is not being undertaken lightly;

 — notes that teachers have engaged previously in strike action and other forms of industrial action on an ongoing basis, which undermines the delivery of the proposed changes, including not attending the CPD training organised in connection with the junior cycle framework proposals; not attending planning meetings associated with the JCFP; not engaging in any aspect of school-based assessment for the purposes of the junior cycle student award; not engaging in any development or delivery of the new junior cycle framework short courses;

 — acknowledges that the Minister for Education and Skills has moved previously on the issue of junior cycle reform;

 — recognises that reform and modernisation of the junior cycle is needed in order that the education system is fit for students today;

 — notes that schools and teachers are stretched beyond capacity within the current educational framework which has suffered enormous cuts to resources under the Government’s austerity budgets, including a further 1% cut in capitation grants this year;

 — commends teachers for continuing to work for their students under difficult circumstances;

 — further acknowledges that students’ education may suffer if teachers are expected to deliver reforms they are not adequately resourced to deliver and in circumstances where, in the absence of agreement, there is ongoing industrial action; and

 — calls on the Minister for Education and Skills to postpone further implementation of junior cycle reform until all outstanding matters are resolved with the teachers.

Before I begin, I must point out that I am not aware of any motion put forward by the Government in response to my party's motion. I presume that the Government will table such a motion, but I have not yet seen one. I will be speaking without having seen the Government's motion.

The Minister must forgive me because I have not had the chance to read it.

In some ways, this debate has been in the making for a number of years. As far back as 2010, the first discussion document on new ideas for the junior cycle was put forward by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. There was a 12 month consultation period following the publication of that document and a further document was then published by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Ruairí Quinn in October 2012 entitled, A Framework Towards Junior Cycle Reform.

Everyone recognises the need for reform of the junior cycle. Everyone, including Members on the Opposition benches and members of the teacher unions, has bought into the idea of reform and agrees that reform is good. There are some aspects of what is being proposed by the Department which we certainly welcome, but there are others about which we have concerns.

Regarding areas of concern, I will not deal with the nub of the issue now, namely, ongoing assessment, but I will come back to it. I wish to begin with the issue of the development of short courses which have huge potential. Some of them will be ready-made courses that may be taken off the shelf and implemented by schools. In other cases schools will have the autonomy to develop their own short courses, although they will have to be certified by the NCCA.

Care is needed on this issue because these short courses are not being developed by the NCCA, which means many of them will be dependent on the resources available to individual schools. For example, a school which offers an advanced music programme and has the resources required to buy equipment and so forth will have a significant advantage over schools which do not have the resources required to develop short courses.

Ongoing assessment is the issue that is creating most controversy. Deputies have discussed the problem with the Minister and her predecessor in the Chamber and in committee. Representatives of the trade unions, departmental officials and a delegation from the National Parents Council Post-primary appeared before the joint committee to give their opinion on continuous assessment, an issue of fundamental importance.

In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister outlined the reasons she believes the reform is essential and listed a number of references. While I agree with some of her points, I disagree with many others. She presented information on the systems in place in other countries as evidence to support her proposal on continuous assessment. However, she did not compare like with like.

Schools and teachers already engage in ongoing assessment of students. I receive such assessments when I attend parent-teacher meetings and my children receive them in their examination results and meetings with career guidance counsellors. Such assessment is critical to their ongoing development. However, continuous assessment becomes a problem when teachers are asked to include their ongoing assessment of students, whether through portfolio and project work, one-to-one meetings, parent-teacher meetings or Christmas and Easter examination results, in the final results of the junior certificate examination. This requirement would result in teachers becoming judge and jury in the junior certificate examination. That is where the problem lies.

Reform of the junior certificate examination is being introduced against a backdrop of continuing cuts in education. Teachers are being asked to implement a reform which the Minister believes will deliver improved educational outcomes against the background of diminishing resources and an increasing student population. Something will have to give and the Minister will have to listen to the teaching unions' professional opinion that the proposal to have teachers become the final arbiter of their students' progression is not the best way to teach.

It is unfortunate that we have reached the point where 27,000 teachers will take to the picket line for the second time on Thursday next. The forthcoming one-day stoppage has not come out of thin air, however. Teachers initially engaged in lunchtime action and refused to engage in training for the implementation of junior cycle reform. This was followed by the first one-day stoppage and a second such stoppage is imminent.

I commend the Minister on her decision to reduce the amount of work assessed by teachers from 100% to 60% and, more recently, to 40%. While I recognise she has moved on the issue, the expert opinion of teachers is that the proposal will have a detrimental effect on educational outcomes. Sinn Féin calls on the Minister to postpone, as opposed to scrapping, the implementation of the proposed reform until all outstanding issues have been resolved. We do so because parents and students place great faith in their teachers and entrust their children to them every day. We value teachers for delivering education to our children and recognise that they are highly professional and have the best interests of our children at heart. When teachers argue that this proposal is not in the interests of our children's education, we must listen to them.

While the other issues raised in the talks between teaching unions and departmental officials can be resolved, something needs to give in the stalemate on continuous assessment. We cannot continue with the implementation of junior cycle reform against a backdrop of one-day stoppages by teachers and a refusal by the Department to move further. All preconditions must be taken off the table and all sides must engage in further talks to resolve the problem. Everyone must take a breath, which requires a pause in the implementation of junior cycle reform.

I will listen tonight and tomorrow to all contributions from Government and Opposition Deputies. I hope at the conclusion of this debate the House will reach a consensus that will allow us to move forward on this issue. As I indicated, the motion recognises the movement made by the Department and the genuine concerns of teachers about junior cycle reform. In light of these concerns, I ask the Minister not to proceed with the implementation of the reform until all outstanding issues have been resolved.

For four years, the Government has shown an insistence that public sector workers do more for less. They must do more work for less money in a shorter period and with less help. Gardaí, in particular, have been victims of this aspect of austerity. The force is being asked to enforce more laws with fewer gardaí, Garda stations and vehicles, less pay and reduced allowances for essentials such as uniforms.

This time, it is the turn of the teachers. Not happy with cuts to all manner of supports for teachers, especially in areas with a history of educational disadvantage, the Government wants to make them work longer for nothing under the guise of junior certificate reform. This move places in jeopardy the supportive relationship that exists between teachers and students. A student struggling with course work will no longer have the same relationship with a teacher who grades 40% of his or her work.

Major questions arise as to the equity of this process and the pressures it may place on teachers. In smaller communities, many secondary school teachers know the families of their students. How can teachers be expected to grade fairly the work of students from families they know? Will the children of teachers be prohibited from attending the school at which a parent teaches?

An external assessment model is essential to ensure reform of this nature is administered fairly and students and teachers are able to work together in a supportive manner. Every student is entitled to a fair, impartial and transparent junior cycle examination system. The continuous assessment model will leave the quality of education and variety of subjects in the hands of schools to a much greater extent than at present, with the result that standards will be open to variation on the basis of the resources at the command of individual schools.

Educational disadvantage and poverty are major issues in my local area where many schools are struggling to keep going. Every day is a battle to keep young adults in school and provide them with the resources they need to learn in the face of many obstacles. Asking such schools to provide additional mini-courses will be a major imposition and will not be feasible in some cases. As a result, schools in more affluent areas will be left at an even greater advantage than currently.

One programme directed at challenging the trend of educational disadvantage and the vicious cycle it shares with poverty is the school completion programme, which is aimed at keeping young people in secondary education. It sets out to increase school participation, attainment and retention among these young people. Low educational attainment and educational disadvantage have been shown to have a highly detrimental effect on the individuals affected, their families, their community and society at large, not to mention the economic problems caused when young people are failed by the education system.

The cycle can be broken, but only by providing resources to educational programmes that take a step towards those affected by poverty and educational disadvantage. In the areas of Finglas and Ballymun, which I represent, we benefit from the wonderful efforts of schools involved in the school completion programme. They have recently been gravely concerned, not about how they can reform the junior certificate or provide more varied course work, but simply for the future of the programmes. The school completion programme in Ballymun gives vital support to approximately 300 children and young people each year.

The schools involved give glowing accounts of the positive impact of the programme. They state that more can be done, but not while less is being given. Since 2008, the school completion programme budget has been cut by 33% and continuous reductions have badly hurt the programme's ability to do its work. During this Government's time in office, the annual budget has been reduced by €5.3 million, which is a cut of 18%. This is a cut to a service for some of the most vulnerable young people in the country and comes on top of other cuts to vital educational supports for disadvantaged children. This year's allocation remains well below funding for 2011, while the top rate of tax has been cut. If education is the key to a decent, productive life as a member of our society, then we must ensure it is open to and supportive of those who are at most risk of being failed by the education system and all the other support systems we rely on.

I have the amendments, or what I call the counter-motions, by both the Government and Fianna Fáil. Few would doubt that reform of the junior cycle is needed so that students at second level receive the best education possible. However, the changes that have been proposed by the Government have been met with dismay by those involved in delivering that education, the teachers. I believe their dismay and concerns are not driven by self-centred interest but by their concern that their pupils receive the best possible education.

There is a problem with assessment. Under the proposed new junior cycle, the assessment is to be carried out by the teachers themselves. If the State junior certificate is abolished, then there must be an external extermination process. It can hardly be fair on students or on teachers that assessment at junior cycle level is made by the teachers themselves. Surely this will lead to discrepancies in the education system, with results and standards varying from school to school, and from teacher to teacher, and it will lead to allegations of favouritism and discrimination.

There is also the question of whether schools are adequately resourced to deal with a change of this magnitude to the junior cycle examination system. Schools are already at breaking point and teachers are already overstretched and beyond their full capacity. Few resources are available to teachers to aid them in transferring over to the new system of junior cycle assessment. Teachers of English received just one day of in-service training in 2014 to familiarise them with the new system. If we want our students to perform to their best, then we need to have our teachers well prepared and well resourced. Austerity has meant that many schools have been pushed past the brink and that some schools are already unable to cope with the system that is currently in place, never mind the pressures which a new system would likely heap on them.

What has been very worrying about this entire process embarked on by the Government to reform the junior cycle assessment method is that there was no consultation with teachers prior to the announcement by the Minister that the State junior certificate was set to be abolished, apart from the issuing of a discussion document. Teachers are the ones at the coal-face of the education system, day in and day out. They are the ones who know what works, what does not work and what will not work. Parents have also expressed their concerns regarding the changes to the system. Parents put their faith in teachers to provide their children with the best possible education. In order to create a happy and successful teaching environment, parents, students and teachers must work in co-operation towards a common goal.

Sinn Féin is calling on the Minister to revisit the proposed system and to put on hold the introduction of the new system until such time as she has talked to teachers and parents groups, and addressed the outstanding concerns they have with the system. Sinn Féin is not against change. We believe change is needed and we want what is best for students. The single most important thing a teacher, a school or a system of education can deliver for students is a love of learning and a passion to progress to further education. It is difficult to see how the Government's handling of this change supports that objective. Respectfully, I suggest to the Minister that we go back to the drawing board on this one.

Education, like every other facet of this society, has taken a hammering due to Government austerity policies. The importance of education cannot be overemphasised and it is a self-evident truth that if an education system does not get it right the first time, it is harder for a person to go back and undo the damage in later life. Children and young people in a progressive society with an adequate education system should come out of that system willing and able to continue their education, and with a positive outlook on that prospect.

Education is too important to mess with. It is unforgivable to propose so-called reforms, when what seems to be the priority is, in fact, cost-cutting, and to run the risk of real damage to people’s future prospects and well-being as a result. The money being saved is not worth the hassle and stress it is causing to parents, pupils and teachers across the board.

With regard to the proposed junior cycle reforms, I do not believe that teachers go on strike unless they feel there is no alternative. They have already taken other forms of industrial action, not because they are against reform, but because they are in favour of progressive and constructive reform. I, for one, trust their common concern for the measures proposed. Schools are already stretched beyond their capacity and this will be even harder to deal with this year, with another 1% of the capitation grant being cut.

Teachers are already working in difficult circumstances. Many are stressed by what is happening as a result of austerity in the schools and due to the effect on the pupils they have worked among for many years. In these circumstances, it is not the time to introduce ill-conceived reforms, which our teachers do not welcome and for which they are not prepared. They believe that the marking of junior certificate exams within the school will threaten equity, threaten the student-teacher relationship and also damage standards. I believe the unions are open to negotiating on different forms of assessment but they are opposed to turning teachers into examiners in circumstances where they are already hard-pressed and are not willing participants in these reforms.

Every student deserves not only a fair and impartial junior cycle examination system, but also one that is administered by people who feel positive towards it. Parents are concerned and teachers are opposed to the proposals. In these circumstances, there cannot be confidence in the new assessment procedures. I call on the Minister to continue to negotiate with and listen to teachers' unions on their concerns.

We in Sinn Féin are not against change. We embrace it, but only when the ground is prepared and the potential outcome is positive. Teachers do not go on strike lightly. Their job and their concerns for their pupils have precedence and they do everything in their power to ensure their students progress to a better place. However, when they are totally opposed to what the Minister is implementing, this affects their morale and that of parents and students. I urge the Minister to reconsider the approach she is taking. I urge her to listen to what teachers have to say and return to the negotiating table and do justice not just to teachers and their students but to society as a whole.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The teachers have made it clear that their opposition to these proposals, to the extent that they are taking industrial action again this week, is serious. The general rule of thumb is that the people responsible for running an institution on a day to day basis are those best placed to know how it should be run, but this is not to say that changes cannot be introduced.

I know the Minister has consulted widely on these matters and discussed them with teachers and their representatives, but the problem with consultation, particularly departmental consultation, is that it can be something of a PR exercise. We have seen that happen in other areas. When Ministers hand the consultation process to officials, this makes matters worse. A Minister is elected, but when officials play too great a role in negotiations, this can cause problems and skew the outcome, leading to a situation similar to that we have currently, where the Government is in confrontation with the two teacher unions at secondary level, the ASTI and the TUI.

The spin in regard to the proposed changes is that they are part of improving the education system and making it more student friendly. However, I suspect more basic reasons lie behind the proposals. This is made clear by the fact that the previous, Fianna Fáil-led Government, which now opposes policies it had been about to implement, was also planning to implement measures along the line of the current proposals and proposed changes to the junior certificate. However, the reason given by the previous Government at the time was that the then proposed changes were being made for financial reasons rather than being to do with the welfare of students or the education system as a whole. It was bluntly stated that the reason for the changes was to save money. At the time, we were told these moneys were badly needed to pay debts and fill other holes in the economy due to the mismanagement of the Government of the time. Recent declassified documents dating from that time reveal that saving money was central to all the proposals and drove the plan to change or dismantle the junior certificate as we know it.

In the face of widespread opposition, the current Government has realised that it needs to put some kind of ideological veneer on its proposals. This was particularly true in the case of the former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. He claimed, as the current Minister will claim, that the proposed changes are based on educational rather than financial criteria. The teachers and increasing numbers of parents do not accept this. I have seen statements from parent representatives of national organisations stating the parents fully support the changes the Minister is advancing. However, opinion polls taken on this issue do not show this. The word I hear on the ground is that parents are very concerned.

I appeal to the Minister to engage in proper negotiations on the proposals to ensure the teachers do not need to engage further in industrial action, which would impact on students currently preparing for the junior certificate. Often when teachers or other public servants who engage in industrial action, there is a backlash from right wing media suggesting they are out to get more money for themselves or improve their pension entitlements etc. That is not the reason for this protest and the Minister knows that as well as I do. The reason teachers are protesting concern education. It is about upholding the integrity of the existing system.

There has been significant talk about reform, but let us look at what reform has taken place at secondary level. Substantial reform has taken place over the past ten to 15 years, right across the State. Teachers have accepted, embraced and implemented second component assessments, project work, portfolio, practical and oral based work. There is no issue in that regard. Where the problem arises concerns how work is assessed and marked. Teachers do not mark their own pupils for final exams. Doing this would put them under enormous pressure, particularly in the country. If a teacher lives beside a pupil and talks to the parents of that pupil daily, this puts the teacher in a difficult spot in regard to final assessments. This is the issue.

Teachers want to embrace change, but they and parents want assessments to be carried out externally. What the Minister is trying to do is to have them carried out internally. I accept the Minister has moved 60% on this, but we cannot have 60% integrity. We must have 100% integrity. I appeal to the Minister to engage with the unions again in a meaningful way to try to sort this out.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. When considering the long overdue efforts to reform the junior cycle, Sinn Féin has consistently supported the progressive proposals put forward by the Government. We recognise that modernising this important exam is necessary if we are to better prepare our young people for life beyond school so that they are equipped to compete in an ever evolving workplace. If implemented properly, reform of the junior cycle can greatly enhance the school curriculum. However, the ambitious proposals being put forward by the Minister have not been matched by the funding and supports that teachers will need to successfully implement meaningful change.

The majority of our teachers, whose unquestionable commitment within the classroom is universally acknowledged, want to play their part in delivering junior cert reform. Any contradiction of this fact degrades their dedication to our young people. The resistance by teachers to acceptance of some of the changes to the revised junior cycle, particularly proposals around continual assessment, must be seen in the context where in recent years tens of millions of euro have been cut from the education budget.

The Department of Education and Skills has attempted to implement these changes without properly consulting teachers and unions. Its ham fisted efforts at consultation are illustrated by the failure to provide the concrete, practical details teachers and unions have repeatedly sought in order to allow them objectively consider the proposed changes. Concerns have been raised that such drastic changes to the education system, for which adequate preparation has not been made, will cause lasting damage, particularly to individual students. The proposed changes are not realistic in terms of the lack of capacity of many schools to provide the programme in the wake of a litany of cutbacks.

Many schools are hugely under resourced and are already stretched beyond their means to deliver to the best of their ability. Despite this, the Minister, like her predecessor, is determined to enforce radical and fundamental changes to the education system, without providing the necessary resources to allow teachers to implement these changes.

If teachers are not given the proper supports through good teaching resources, including ongoing professional development and whole school in-service, the implementation of meaningful change will fail. Teachers of English who are now required to implement the framework for junior cycle English specification received just one day of in-service prior to September 2014. All teachers will be required to implement the framework and assess their own students in the coming years. This is entirely unrealistic and unfair given the pressures many teachers find themselves under today. It is not news that they are struggling to cope. Unions have made it clear over recent years that increases in the PTR and further cuts to key services are making it difficult to deliver the school curriculum in some cases. The expectation that teachers will also carry out increased responsibilities in exam assessment as proposed is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, it is often the most vulnerable children who are unfairly left behind because they do not get the help they need and schools struggling to deliver will particularly feel the brunt of the new reforms as a result. Many parents also have great concerns. The issue of internal assessment and the potential for lack of bias is a logical worry. Not having external examiners mark 100% of a student's work for the new junior cycle will understandably not sit well with every parent. The notion that students could potentially be assessed on who they are in the classroom rather than how he or she performs in an assessment is not reassuring. The issue of anonymity is important in examinations. Potentially confidence in the examinations could be undermined.

While we recognise that modernisation of the junior cycle is needed, it must be done in sustainable way. Sinn Féin has welcomed the Minister’s engagement with the unions but the concerns of teachers must also be heard. If their concerns are not dealt with and if they are not involved sufficiently in the development of new reforms, any changes will be redundant.

Cuirim fáilte roimh agus tacaím leis an rún atá curtha síos ag mo pháirtí agus go háirithe ag an Teachta O'Brien anocht. I gcroílár an rúin seo tá an scairt atá ag dul amach anseo sa Dáil anocht agus is í sin go gcuirfeadh an athchóiriú atá molta don theastas sóisearach ar athlá agus go mbeadh cainteanna idir an Rialtas, an tAire agus a Roinn agus iad siúd atá ag déanamh ionadaíochta ar son na 27,000 múinteoir ar fud an Stáit. Tá na múinteoirí seo claonta in éadán an athchóirithe nó cuid den athchóiriú seo atá molta ag an Rialtas agus ag an Aire. Níl dabht ar bith ann ach go bhfuil imní ar dhaoine, ní hamháin ar mhúinteoirí agus ar na ceardchumainn atá ag déanamh ionadaíochta ar son na múinteoirí, ach ar thuismitheoirí fosta. Tá imní orthu faoi na ciorruithe atá curtha i bhfeidhm ag an Rialtas seo agus ag an Rialtas deireanach sa chóras oideachais. Tá na ciorruithe seo ag cur isteach go mór ar chaighdeán oideachais ár bpáistí agus ar ábaltacht mhúinteoirí an t-athchóiriú atá molta ag an Aire a chur i bhfeidhm.

Is í an cheist atá ann ná an féidir an t-athchóiriú seo a chur i bhfeidhm agus an ceart an t-athchóiríú a chur i bhfeidhm go huile is go hiomlán. Tá go leor cainte ann maidir le hathógáil eacnamaíochta agus deireadh le polasaithe diana. Ach tá a fhios ag gach aon duine atá ag obair san earnáil sin go bhfuil laghdú ar na deontais chaipitil de 1% á chur i bhfeidhm arís i mbliana. Tá a fhios againn, agus páistí ag bogadh ón dara leibhéal go dtí tríú leibhéal, go bhfuil táillí coláiste ag dul in airde arís agus sin €2,500. Tá a fhios againn nach bhfuil deireadh le polasaithe diana i gcúrsaí oideachais.

Mar dhuine as Tír Chonaill, tá a fhios agam na himpleachtaí a bhí ag na polasaithe sin ar scoileanna, go háirithe bunscoileanna beaga agus scoileanna na Gaeltachta nuair a cuireadh suas na rátaí den méid páistí a bhí de dhíth chun múinteoir a choinneáil sna scoileanna sin in 2012 agus 2013 agus arís i Meán Fómhair 2014. Cuireann a leithéid sin go mór isteach ar cheantair tuaithe. Bíonn imní ar dhaoine nuair a bhogann páistí nó teaghlach as cheantar go gcaillfear múinteoir as an scoil agus go mbeidh ar an scoil dúnadh má choiméadann rudaí sa treo sin.

Má dhírimid ar an fhíor-cheist, agus mar a dúirt an Teachta O'Brien, tá sé seo ag dul ar aghaidh le tamall fada anois. Tá na múinteoirí ag gearán faoi seo i ndóigheanna éagsúla. Níl siad ag comhoibriú leis an athchóiriú. Tá cuid acu nach bhfuil ag freastal ar na cúrsaí atá á reachtáil dóibh. Tá cuid acu ag déanamh rudaí le linn am lóin. Tá a fhios againn go raibh stop iomlán ann ar na mallaibh agus ceann eile beartaithe arís ar an Déardaoin. Cé go bhfuil aitheantas á thabhairt ag ár bpáirtí go bhfuil athrú ann ó thaobh na Roinne de ó tháinig an tAire i gceannas uirthi, níl dabht ar bith ann ach go gcaithfidh an tAire bogadh níos faide síos an bealach sin. Ceann de na rudaí a chur isteach go mór orm féin ná an chuairt a rinne mé go dtí an RDS an tseachtain seo imithe thart, when I visited the BT Young Scientist exhibition. It was uplifting to see so many students and the innovation they were showing and their excitement about their projects as they explained what they were doing. However, along with all the students were the teachers. They probably lit a fuse under them and encouraged them to continue in that direction.

Sometimes when we discuss curriculum reform we forget about the extra-curricular activity engaged in by teachers. This comes down to a basic principle. What is in the best interest of our children? There is no doubt the junior cycle needs to be reformed and teaching at all levels has to be continually reformed. That is accepted and that has happened throughout the decades. However, when 27,000 teachers tell the Minister this is not in the best interest of the students, who do we believe? Do we believe the Minister who says at face value that this has nothing to do with money yet moves from 100% down to 40%? Does she believe it is in the best interest of children that it should be 40% or does she believe it was 100% originally? Should we believe the teachers who convinced the Minister it was in the worst interest of the pupils to have 100% and this is the reason she moved? I believe the practitioners who are in our classrooms teaching our children everything they need to learn to best equip them in society are not striking for themselves. It is not about money; it is about what is in the best interest of their children and our children. As my party has said, there has been a marked difference in the Department's approach to this issue since the Minister took office. However, this is avoidable. The core of the motion is a proposal to suspend the reforms - not to abolish them because they are required - go into meaningful negotiations with the unions, reach agreement to prevent the impending strikes that are in nobody's interest and ensure meaningful reform that has the support of teachers, parents, children and the Minister and her Department.

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;

regrets that:

— 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.

I am glad the Minister concluded her remarks by reminding certain Deputies about what they said in 2012. I sat through most of the debate to which she referred. The then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, received considerable support and praise from Opposition Deputies for his proposals. Some of what these Deputies are now saying stands in stark contrast to what they were saying little more than 18 months ago. As a former teacher, I am very supportive of the move away from rote learning. When I attended Mary Immaculate College in the Minister's constituency it was drilled into me that the child should be an active agent in his or her learning. Children should learn for a reason, and that reason should not be to vomit something onto a page in June, walk out of the exam hall and reboot oneself afterwards, be it politically or educationally, for the next set of exams. That is not what education is supposed to be about.

I would support any effort the Minister can make in her engagement with the unions to avoid unnecessary industrial action. The unions are representative of people like me, who turn up to teach every day out of a love of teaching. They are public servants. Given that people will be following this debate live or reading the transcript, I am glad Sinn Féin has proposed this motion because it is part of a Government in Northern Ireland which is preparing to make 20,000 public servants redundant over a period of four years.

The education budget was increased by £67 million.

I presume those public servants will include people like me, who were trained as primary or secondary teachers, or clerical officers working in education or agricultural offices. These are people who are trying to rear families. I welcome the party opposite to the real world of politics, where it has a budget and is required to make ends meet, whether at national level or in the Northern Ireland Executive.

By agreement, the DUP Minister for Finance is being supported by Sinn Féin in getting rid of 20,000 public servants.

One of the extremely important things in junior certificate reform is the move away from rote learning. I asked the Minister's predecessor and am asking her now to look at the same thing. Rote learning has quite rightly been moved away from at primary level. As a primary teacher, I had to carry out assessments of the children that attended in my class for things like learning support and resource hours. There was a trust between me and the parents, me and the school authorities and me and the Department that when I carried out those assessments in the primary classroom, I was doing so in the best interests of the child. When I calculated a child's STen score, it was to identify whether he or she needed learning support and resource hours. There must be an element of trust at junior certificate level about whatever assessment teachers are being prepared to carry out.

The BT Young Scientists exhibition two weeks ago was the best example if anyone ever needed it of the need for our society to move away from rote learning. As someone who studied chemistry in college, I can see that these kids at 13 and 14 years of age are working outside the box; totally outside the curriculum or anything presented in a book they will be expected to vomit onto a page in June. They are learning that from the guidance they get from their teachers, parents and the school environment. That is the kind of learning experience I would love to see in our primary schools and, following on, in our secondary schools. Whatever reform ultimately comes around - and I have no doubt that there will be an agreement - the Minister cannot allow the junior certificate to hang in limbo while the leaving certificate continues to be an exam based entirely on rote learning. Every child, adolescent and adult can have a bad day. By God, I have had a lot of them when it comes to exams. One can go into an exam hall having spent two years cramming and breaking one's you-know-what to get the points to advance oneself, have a bad day and find that it is all over. That system is in dire need of change.

If the Minister is going to start with the junior certificate and proceed by agreement with the unions, she should not let matters rest there. I have every confidence in the Minister arriving at an agreement with them. She should not let a child move from primary school where rote learning is frowned on to the junior certificate where it is frowned on and then to the leaving certificate where everything is dependent on it. I urge the Minister while she has a reform agenda not to leave it hanging at the 15 year old. She should continue it through by agreement and negotiation with the unions.

The first thing to point out in any discussion on this topic and in reaction to a little bit of the debate that took place is that the House is elected to make policy for this country. We are elected as legislators. We get together, pass laws and have Departments which make policy. While all stakeholders must be involved in those policy discussions, no one stakeholder should have a veto or be able to dictate what policy should be. No more than one would not have bus drivers deciding every bus route or timetable or doctors deciding how everything should run, teachers cannot dictate how the education system is run. They must be consulted and the Minister has done that and will continue to engage. However, we must also recognise that it is the prerogative of the House to set forward legislation and ideas for reform.

It was very evident from what the Minister said that if one looks at it logically, one must agree that there is a problem with the junior certificate. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment looked at the research and international best practice and put forward proposals based on empirical research from countries all over the world. It said that in first year in our schools children have a difficulty in that they are settling in. Second year is where the real danger kicks in and children can get disengaged and lose out. They may possibly never recover from that. In third year, there is the quick rush with the exam coming in June. The grinds are done and people go mental. We are all studying and have this quick burst of an exam. I remember it myself - it is not that long ago - and as soon as it is over one has forgotten what one knew. It is in there for an hour or two and it is gone. That does not work. The council said that if something is to be valued it must be assessed. If we want it to be valued all the time, we need regular assessment.

It was very telling and the Minister was right to point out that there was previous support from all sides of the House for the idea that we needed that assessment. It happens all over the world. I worked for a year as a language assistant in schools in rural Germany and we assessed the children all the time. There were never phone calls or threats and it was an accepted part of the curriculum. To read into it that teachers will be lobbied is almost to say that teachers are not professionals and that they cannot be trusted but will be subject to lobbying and take bribes. It undermines their professional independence to say "You know what, we cannot trust you. You are not independent enough and do not have the thick skin required to be trusted". It is a horrible message where one is talking about the teaching profession because it is not true.

I acknowledge that it is right to discuss this matter given the strike on Thursday about which families, parents and teachers across the country are very worried. However, Sinn Féin put forward a motion acknowledging all the things that have happened and that reform is needed without setting out a single suggestion as to how that reform would proceed while contradicting what it said earlier. Earlier, Sinn Féin said we needed continuous assessment, but three of its speakers said we could not have it because it would put undue pressure on teachers. The Sinn Féin motion should have read that Sinn Féin recognises there is a strike on Thursday, that there is a bit of political opportunity in having a go at the Government on it, that it does not actually have an educational policy, that it will contradict what it said two years ago and that it might get a few votes out of it. That is the essence of the debate we have had tonight.

The Minister could not have been more clear about where she is coming from, why she is doing this, the empirical research, the consultations that have happened and all of the things we know need to happen. She acknowledged that there were problems and worries and, as such, she negotiated and compromised. She cannot be any more reasonable than that. While it will not happen, if the outcome of this were to give in, ignore research and accept bad outcomes to get people off our backs and obtain a few votes in the general election, it would not be politics and it would not conform to why we are in the House. Not all teachers are opposed to this and many are happy with the compromises the Minister has put forward. We will get there because the Minister is doing the right thing, not by doing the opportunistic thing.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important issue and glad to see it getting a proper hearing for it in the House. I commend Sinn Féin on putting the matter down for discussion. I emphasise that Fianna Fáil favours very much reform of the junior certificate and achieving it in partnership with teachers. If one looks at how this came about, a great deal of work was carried out and in train before the Government took office. I am surprised by the first paragraph of the Sinn Féin motion where it is stated that it notes that the previous Government examined axing the junior certificate exam structure as a cost saving initiative and that such axing of the junior certificate exam structure was the starting point for the current Government until teacher unions began a campaign of opposition. That opening comment is simply incorrect.

Much work had gone into preparing for what is widely regarded as a necessary reform of the junior certificate. When Mary Coughlan was Minister she conducted a consultation on how reform would be progressed. A working group was established by the NCCA which included all stakeholders with a view to looking at the research that was there and coming forward with a proposal to achieve real and genuine reform of the junior cycle. That resulted in the publication in early 2011 of the NCCA working group report which was the starting point for the current Government.

The NCCA working group proposed that 60% of the mark of a student in the new junior certificate student cycle would consist of terminal examinations, as in the past, set by the State Examination Commission, SEC, and corrected under its auspices, independently, as in the past. It proposed that the other 40% would be assessed through classroom based activities and project work, which would involve teachers assessing their students. Stakeholders from all the groups were involved and it was accepted by the then Minister, Deputy Quinn.

Unfortunately, approximately a year later, at the end of 2012, Deputy Quinn made a departure of his own volition, and very much of his mind and his mind only. He decided he would not accept or go forward with the proposals that had come forward from the NCCA working group but instead abolish the junior certificate examination. It would no longer be a State examination with 60% corrected by the SEC but become a school certificate. The 60% written papers would be corrected by teachers while the other 40%, as proposed under the working group proposals, would also be corrected by teachers. The then Minister, Deputy Quinn, came out unilaterally, as was his wont, with lights, camera, action at the little house in the middle of the Department of Education and Skills.

The clock tower.

Deputy Quinn was very fond of it.

It is a nice place.

He invited all and sundry along for show-time and told them how it was going to be. Despite the fact that there had been widespread agreement on the proposals that had been worked out with many people, Deputy Quinn said they would go forward a different way and told everybody to row in behind and follow him so he could make his legacy. Our situation is emblematic of some of the approaches Deputy Quinn took, for example his proposals on patronage, which were very similar to the way he handled the junior certificate. The success of the approach is similar to that of junior certificate reform. Again, Deputy Quinn made a big announcement that he was to change the patronage of 50% of national schools. He got everybody’s back up by insisting everybody row in behind and follow him. Deputy Quinn has moved on from the ministry and only one school has changed patronage under his stewardship. His approach has made the diversity required for our school system more difficult to achieve. Junior certificate reform has had similar results.

Deputy Quinn planned to abolish the examination, and Sinn Féin supported the initial proposal. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin, in the initial paragraph of the motion, tried to have a bite at Fianna Fáil because some group had made a proposal to abolish the examination. It was a bit rich considering Sinn Féin had no problem with it when the then Minister, Deputy Quinn, proposed it and it was Sinn Féin's position until recently. Given that, unfortunately, I missed the earlier speeches, I am still not sure if it is still Sinn Féin's position; it might be. The motion it has proposed today does not move away from the position or say what is the party's position on the matter.

My party and I have always opposed Deputy Quinn's plan to do away with the State certification of the examination. We have consistently highlighted the view that the 60% of the examination, which the working group proposed should continue to be set and marked by the SAC, should continue. We strongly believe there should be consistency as to how the junior certificate marks are regarded across the country. The junior certificate is very much respected by teachers and students, and it is important to keep that aspect of it. The initial proposal ensured this by keeping 60% of it as an externally set and marked examination. This would ensure a student would have faith that the mark he or she got through the process in Donegal would have the same value as the mark somebody got in Kerry.. Likewise, it ensured that teachers were not incentivised to mark up their students to ensure they did not get lower marks than the school down the road or the class down the corridor. Everybody felt this was important and the approach would have ensured that consistency and fairness were maintained to a large extent in the new junior cycle.

Had this approach been taken, it would have given the Minister, the previous Minister and the Government much credit in the bank to engage appropriately with teachers as to how the 40% that was to be awarded in the schools would be structured and rolled out. However, the Minister never got to this stage because she was immediately in conflict. Instead of working with partners, they became her opponents. While it was great to hear all the chat about reform, it has not been delivered. The former Minister, Deputy Quinn, had one big gambit, take it or leave it, namely, doing away with the junior certificate State examination. The Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, came in with her take-it-or-leave-it approach, which was going back to the starting point. She proposed to return to having 60% done by externally assessed State examination with 40% internally assessed, take it or leave it. The Minister made a call; she thought they would take it. Whoever advised her - I do not know if it was her Department officials or the former Minister, Deputy Quinn - she took the advice.

While I listen to advice, I make my own decisions.

Sometimes they are the wrong ones.

This time last year, I proposed that the then Minister, Deputy Quinn, delay the implementation instead of going forward with English. Had he delayed it until the following September, the new Minister could have started English alongside science and used the interim period to try to get agreement with the teachers. She could have used the benefit of the fact that she was a new Minister to achieve it. However, Deputy Quinn decided to plough on, despite the fact that he could have delayed. It was a strong-arm tactic. He told the teachers that given they were employed by the Department, they had no choice but to teach the curriculum they were given. Despite the fact that a non-participation approach that was taken meant that not all teachers had participated in training, the strong-arm tactic of starting the process proceeded. Even if it is delayed, it has already started in that English has started and science is due to begin in September.

Unfortunately, the Government has left itself in a position in which it will be very difficult to achieve meaningful reform. There is not long left for this Government. There will be another strike at the end of the week. The teachers should not have called a strike but should have engaged with the Minister to move forward. The teachers were goaded into it by the Government's approach. It will be exceptionally difficult for the Minister to achieve it because of the way it has been done. The Minister made a mistake before the first strike.

The Minister's position with the teachers was that they would be obliged to take it and that, while she would negotiate with them, it would only be on the basis that they would agree to how she wanted the 40% to work. It was not a type of proposal that was designed to bring people to the table. The first strike took place and now, unfortunately, we will have a second strike. What needs to be reformed and those measures that would be highly beneficial for students are now further away than when the Government first came to office. Moreover, there is a chance that by the time the next Government takes office it will be even further away. This is the stark and unfortunate reality we face.

I believe the Minister and the teaching unions must continue to engage. I ask the teaching unions to put aside industrial protest and engage with the Minister. Moreover, what must happen is that this must be done through the prism of the student - that is, what will the actual curricular end result look like for the junior cycle student who will be taking it? How will such students be fulfilled and developed appropriately by the type of curriculum that will be offered to them? Consideration through a black-and-white prism of whether a particular type of project or activity is externally accessible will not necessarily achieve a curriculum that is to the greatest benefit of the students. I believe this is the method by which both sides must thrash out the detail in this regard because, unfortunately, detail has been absent at all stages of this process and political bravado has been to the fore. As a result, essential reform - the delivery of which is supported by my party - has stalled and it appears as though it may not be delivered without a change of approach on all sides. Consequently, I ask for this to happen. The Minister should note that teachers have genuine concerns, while there also is valid research in respect of the reasons for the proposals put forward. Both sides must try, in a spirit of partnership, to come to an accommodation that will deliver a reformed curriculum, which will benefit students, facilitate radical change in the education cycle and ensure the students get to develop their personalities and develop as people with multiple talents and different skills throughout their secondary school careers. This is something that the current formulaic and restricted curriculum does not achieve in the way it could.

First, I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this important motion and commend it. I totally support reform of the educational services and all aspects thereof, and urgent reform is needed. My one major objection is that independent objective assessment also is needed in State examinations. As far as I am concerned, class teachers should not grade their own pupils in State examinations. An independent outside examiner does not know whether a pupil is rich or poor or is male or female. The Minister should think carefully before scrapping a system that is professional, objective and, above all, above suspicion. If the Minister is interested in reform, she will note that 27% of secondary school teachers are on temporary contracts, often with part-time hours and no job security. In addition, 52% of teachers under the age of 30 are in temporary jobs. Consequently, if the Minister cares about reform, she will care about that. In respect of the junior certificate, teachers will not implement proposals that are educationally unsound and will have a serious negative impact on students. I say "Yes" to reform and to modernisation but "No" to teachers assessing their own students for State-approved qualifications.

In 2011, the plan of the NCCA recommended that teachers assess 40% of students' grades, with 60% being assessed through a final examination. I note that 5,447 appeals were made in respect of the leaving certificate examinations and, as a result, 18% of these students got higher grades. While one must ensure that teachers' professionalism is respected in this debate, I also refer to respect for the students. Teachers guide and nurture pupils, and, when it comes to a State examination, do not wish to be in the position of assessing them. As for productivity, I note that at second level, Ireland's net teaching time of 735 hours compares with the European Union average of 622 hours. In the OECD PISA rankings for reading ability among 15-year olds, Ireland is ranked fourth. One should look at these if one is interested in reform. Ireland also is ranked ninth in science literacy, which is an increase on its previous ranking of 13th. Recently, the Minister wished to establish the position with regard to literacy and numeracy in primary schools. She got an outside group to go into the schools to assess the teachers' work and assess the pupils and then she got a national feel for the improvement in literacy and numeracy skills. However, it was carried out by an external independent assessment group from Drumcondra.

It was in conjunction with the teachers. The teachers were involved.

In addition, while the Minister claims to be listening to parents and teachers, last May an Irish Independent-Millward Brown poll showed that 60% of the public supported the view that teachers should not assess their own students for certification. If the Minister is listening to parents or to teachers, she should withdraw this particular aspect of the proposals, and then she will go a long way.

I have listened to the National Parents' Council Post-primary.

I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion and for the chance to speak on it. I am fully in favour of reform. One can talk about it or throw whatever one wants at it, be it a right boot, a left boot or a reboot-----

No boots over here.

-----but the bottom line is that I am in favour of reform. Second, I note that the Minister has made a better attempt at this than did the previous Minister, who tried to ram things down people's throats. As everyone is aware, a dispute is no good to anyone, and ultimately it is the students and the parents - who must arrange babysitters or whatever - who will be in disarray in a few days' time. People must keep talking and this problem must be resolved. All over Ireland, and in rural Ireland in particular, school competition is getting ever stronger as numbers fall. I am on a board of management and, as everyone knows, in order to get kids into a school one must drive as hard as one can to get one's school to have the best name in the area. It is deeply unfair to ask a teacher to mark his or her own exams because, at present, there is so much pressure whereby one's school must be deemed to be one of the best in an area to make sure one gets the students into that school. This issue requires a radical look. I have examined and weighed up this matter and I am a firm believer that schools could be pooled in certain areas and exams could be shared among different schools. This could be a workable solution. I am throwing the idea out to the Minister that four or five schools in an area could work together and each year different schools could mark different examinations. This could be a way of moving the whole thing forward. I have visited the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and have seen the enthusiasm of those young students. That should not be tarnished but should be driven on. If reform is being undertaken, I would ask another thing of the Minister. I note that in marking examinations, summer examinations and so on, retired teachers are being brought back. As there are so many young teachers who have no jobs, they should be given priority in this regard.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

While one talks about reform, I refer to something else that is needed, for which it may be necessary to take a step backwards. I see many youngsters aged 15 or 16 who, at one time in the past, when they went through the vocational system and learned many different skills, went on a different route. Although not everyone will become a doctor or a lawyer, we have concentrated a great deal on this and have gone in a different direction. However, when one looks back at the results that were achieved in the vocational schools, one sees that if reform is to be undertaken, the entire concept of the manner in which kids are taught must be examined.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 10 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 January 2015.