Priority Questions

State Examinations Reviews

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way he proposes to address concerns regarding school-based assessment at junior cycle; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16613/14]

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

4. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of junior certificate reforms following recent teacher ballots on withdrawing co-operation and non-participation in training. [16790/14]

My question relates to the serious concerns that arise in respect of proposals to reform the junior cycle, and how the Minister proposes to address them.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 4 together.

The junior cycle student award, JCSA, will no longer be a terminal exam with high stakes. Treating it as such has been shown to have an unintended negative backwash effect on

teaching and learning in the classroom and can, in some cases, lead to an unnecessary focus on rote learning. Our 15 year olds do not need a State-certified examination, just as in 1967 it was decided that 12 year olds did not need a State-certified examination at the end of primary school.

Assessment should assist students in their learning and not be regarded as the end point. Assessment is not about "proving" but about "improving" learning outcomes. I am reliably informed by education specialists that unless assessment changes, nothing else will. Any reform must address this and other factors. We must not have students experiencing a junior cycle where there is more focus on rote learning and memorisation than on teaching them how to think critically for themselves, solve problems, communicate and work with others - all the skills that are necessary for further and higher education and indeed for life.

The new junior cycle will develop better learners. Students will be more skilled in areas such as communication, creativity, managing information, self-management and working with others. As the Deputies will recall, these reforms received all-party support in both Houses of the Oireachtas when we debated them in late 2012. I set up a national working group for junior cycle last January as a forum to address identified challenges and opportunities proactively as they arise over the phased implementation time schedule for the junior cycle from now until at least September 2019, when all the subjects will have been phased in.

My officials, through this national working group, are engaged in intensive discussions with the education stakeholders. A subgroup is considering in detail the issue of quality assurance and support for teacher assessment. As part of its remit, this subgroup is addressing external supports for moderation to support teacher assessment and help maintain standards. Some education partners have made detailed written submissions to the subgroup which are under active consideration. I expect to receive a report on these issues from the national working group in May.

I have noted the results of the recent teacher ballots. The national working group and its subgroups are the best place to address concerns that have been raised. In fact, I have already agreed to changes in the phasing in of the reforms in response to concerns raised by education partners. I welcome the continued engagement by the teacher unions with these forums. In so far as continuing professional development, CPD, is concerned, most of the planned workshops for this academic year have already been rolled out.

The junior cycle will roll out to schools from this September on a phased basis, as reiterated in a recent circular issued by my Department. The new specification for junior cycle English will be implemented from September. The level 2 learning programme for a very small number of students with special educational needs will be optional, as will short courses. The first school-based assessment event under the new JCSA for junior cycle English will take place after Easter 2016. In the interim, I am committed to ongoing discussion with the education partners on all aspects of the phased implementation of the JCSA.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We find ourselves in an unfortunate position and one, moreover, which was entirely avoidable. There is widespread agreement in regard to the need for junior certificate reform by making it a lower-stakes examination which would result in a change in how students learn. We should not be in a position in which this reform is being introduced in the face of industrial action by teachers. This dispute is very much a consequence of the manner in which the Minister has handled the process from the outset.

One of the key concerns regarding these proposals relates to the need for ongoing independent assessment. The lack of hands-on involvement by the Minister in terms of engaging with the partners involved in delivering junior certificate reform has led to the current difficulties. The Minister said yesterday that he is willing to discuss the issue of independent assessment and marking of examinations. We have heard this from him more than once, but there has been no real engagement thus far. Will he indicate what he is willing to consider in this regard? Does he accept that there must continue to be independent assessment of examinations? The junior certificate can become a lower-stakes examination but it should not be an inconsistent one.

I thank the Deputy for his question and his support in this matter. Nobody is suggesting that we should go back to the primary certificate examination that was done away with in 1967. It is, in the same vein, a political decision to do away with the State examination for 15 year olds. That decision is my responsibility. In terms of how it is implemented, I am, of course, open to discussion. In fact, we continue to request of the two trade unions representing post-primary teachers that they set down in writing what resources they want us to provide. To give some comfort in regard to their concerns, I have slowed down the timetable for implementation by at least one year and possibly two. In addition, the State Examinations Commission will set and mark the examinations in English, Irish and mathematics for the foreseeable future.

We are talking about an event that is due to take place in June 2017. There is time for us to address teachers' concerns.

I am still waiting for the unions to give me in writing what they want by way of resources.

If the Minister had engaged more constructively from the outset, he would not be in the position of having to ask for this now. The two times he has outlined the timetable for implementation of the new junior cycle student award, he has done so unilaterally and without consultation with other partners. The first time he did it, he found he had to revisit the matter. The second timetable he outlined was not one prepared by way of consultation either. It was one he introduced himself. Given that approach, it is no surprise that the Minister now finds himself in a situation of conflict. The new award will undoubtedly make a significant difference to second level education and will benefit students a great deal. However, there are genuine concerns. We must continue to ensure that there is independent assessment. Will the Minister commit to reconsidering that and taking on board the concerns that exist among teachers and parents?

As Minister for Education and Skills, a responsibility the Deputy may well have himself some day, with a mandate from the electorate and accountability to other Deputies, one cannot be put in a position in which a stakeholder simply says "No, you cannot change the status of exams." That is what the unions have said. The two unions have said they are ultimately opposed to removing the State certification of the junior cycle. They want the junior certificate to remain as it is. That is the responsibility of people in this House. How we do it and how it is implemented is, of course, open to consultation. In that regard, I am still waiting for the unions to give me what it is they want in writing. The autonomy of the Minister for Education and Skills is an interest shared across all political parties. The Minister must be able to act on the basis of the best evidence. I refer the Deputy to an article published recently by Emer Smyth and Frances Ruane of the ESRI. This is the right way to go. How quickly we get there and all the other things will, of course, be discussed. I am open to discussion and we are still discussing it. However, the unions cannot hold a veto over the new destination for education in this country.

Is the Minister saying that despite all of the engagement with the unions and their participation in the working groups, they have not yet given him a firm indication of what resources are needed to roll out the junior cycle reform? There has been a great deal of discussion of self-assessment, which is where the nub of the problem seems to be. Having spoken to teachers, it does not appear that the issue is one of self-assessment per se. Most teachers assess their students by way of Christmas and Easter exams and ongoing assessments throughout the year. The crux of the issues appears to be at the State examination level. There must be an independent analysis or verification of the assessment. That is where the focus needs to be. I wonder how we will get there. I have a daughter who is entering post-primary education this year. She will be one of the first students to do the new cycle. Speaking to parents at the school gate, I see that they do not know what is happening. They do not know what changes will be made and how it will affect their children who are entering first year this year. We need to rectify that as we are running out of time very quickly.

We are tight for time. In fact, we lost the summer months for discussion as one of the unions was re-balloting its members in relation to Haddington Road, a separate issue altogether. I confirm to the Deputy that I have not received formally and in writing from the unions notice of the extra resources they want. We have received from management bodies at post-primary level suggestions about what they need to bring in the changes.

The Deputy is right about the changes. We are very anxious to sit down and talk to the unions to see what kind of assessment can be done and how, but it will be a low-stakes exam. We were prepared to discuss models, suggestions, comparators and indications of normal practice to provide assurance. To repeat what I said to Deputy McConalogue, as an interim transition in the three key subjects of English, Irish and maths, there will be a written exam and there will be assistance in relation to it. It will be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission for the time being. We are talking about something from 2017 onwards. I am open to discussing realistically, practically and in a way that gives comfort and assurance to everybody how to implement this, but I cannot accept a veto on its implementation.

Is the implementation group still meeting and are the unions still participating in it?

Yes. They are still engaging in that forum and we are still making progress.

Residential Institutions

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of applications received by Caranua to date; the number of advisers appointed; the number of applications granted and the number refused. [16789/14]

I understand from Caranua that between 6 January and the end of March it received 2,345 applications. The first part of the application process is to verify that an applicant is eligible to apply. To the end of March, 2,145 applications have been verified as eligible and 20 deemed ineligible. The remaining 180 applications are still being examined. Following the initial assessment, Caranua confirms an applicant's identity. By the end of March, verification of identity had been completed for 504 applicants. Caranua has contacted 113 applicants by telephone to discuss what the applicant wishes to apply for. Of these, 73 have been assigned to an applications adviser. The intention is that the remaining 40 will be assigned an adviser shortly. The adviser provides assistance and further information about applying for services.

At this stage, assessments can be arranged if necessary or an applicant may be referred to someone locally who can provide face-to-face assistance. I understand that by the end of March, 26 applications for approved services had been approved for medical and dental services, orthopaedic equipment, home repairs and education grants.

The Minister's reply referred to just over 2,000 applicants. In a previous statement to the House, he said that approximately 15,000 people might be eligible to apply. What steps is Caranua taking to contact the additional 13,000 persons?

The number of applications approved at the end of February was four, and it is now up to 26. It seems like a very low number given the number of applications which have come in. Only 73 applications have progressed to the advisory level. It seems to be a very slow process. The Minister will be well aware that many applicants are elderly and time is of the essence for them in accessing services. Has anyone mentioned the fact that it is such a slow process?

As with all new organisations, there were some teething problems in the establishment of Caranua. The chairperson of the board had to step down for personal reasons. Notwithstanding that, we have a director in place and approximately 15% of the potential 15,000 eligible persons have applied. I will discuss with the board whether the information provided to the interest group has been sufficient to ensure that people are not deterred from applying and are aware of how to apply. I will report to the Deputy on that.

A person attended my constituency office last week who had made an application. Unfortunately, he was turned down. There is a limit of €5,000 per year for back-to-education grants. The course he had applied for was a cookery course which exceeded that limit. On that basis, he was turned down. Is there any flexibility built into the system? I acknowledge that Caranua is an independent statutory agency and the Minister has no power in relation to it, but is there any flexibility for individuals? It was a one-year course.

If the Deputy wishes to give me the details of the case, I will explore it within the context of the independence of the organisation itself.

Teachers' Panel Rights

Charlie McConalogue

Ceist:

3. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of teachers that are participating in teacher exchanges between primary schools in the current academic year; if he will agree to change the current situation where time spent on teacher exchange is not counted towards panel rights for teachers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16614/14]

At primary level, a teacher exchange scheme exists whereby a teacher may voluntarily exchange with a teacher in any other school. The minimum period for which an exchange may occur is one year and the maximum is five years. There are 25 exchanges involving 50 teachers currently in place in primary schools.

Given that such exchanges are for limited periods of time, it is not appropriate for such teachers to have panel rights in respect of their new schools.

The exchange scheme was agreed to under the auspices of the Teachers Conciliation Council, the body established in accordance with the terms of the conciliation and arbitration scheme for teachers. The council is composed of representatives of teachers, school managements and the Departments of Education and Skills and Public Expenditure and Reform and chaired by an official from the Labour Relations Commission. Any change to the exchange scheme is, therefore, a matter for the council.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he indicated, the teacher exchange programme can last from one to five years, which makes it temporary. Other temporary teachers in the areas in which a person is participating in an exchange can acquire panel rights, in that, after a certain period, they have the option to apply for jobs in these areas. Participants in the exchange programme may develop ties and commitments in their new areas. While most will want to revert to their base schools, those who do not should, after a certain period, be treated like other temporary teachers in these areas. If they decide not to revert to their base schools, they could have an opportunity to seek alternative employment in other schools in their exchange areas, bearing in mind the fact that the teachers with whom they exchanged will probably want to return. Would the Minister be willing to consider this suggestion? Has he given consideration to a permanent exchange programme or would he be willing to do so?

I must confess that suggestion has not crossed my desk. However, in the light of the Deputy's question, I am happy to consider it. I will review the position and write to him. The initiative is probably with the teachers' unions and representatives, but I will send a more comprehensive answer to the Deputy. He can then decide on the best way forward.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to do this. I look forward to engaging with him further on the matter.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 1.