Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann welcomes the Government's intention to establish an Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board.

I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate the newly elected and appointed Senators on their becoming Members of this House. It is a Chamber with which I am not unfamiliar. I spent some eight pleasant and informative years becoming versed in the arts of parliamentary politics within this House and this has stood me in good stead.

The contributions made in the Seanad are very often overlooked in the glare of publicity sometimes extended to the other Chamber. I should like to commend the quality of very many of the debates in the Seanad that I have either read or heard over the past twelve years. I have no doubt that this present Seanad will similarly make its contribution to Irish public life and I would like to congratulate those Members who are here for the first time and to suggest that the business of this House should not be taken lightly. This House has a very important contribution to make to parliamentary procedure. I am very pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to come back to speak in this House as Minister. In the "Programme for Government, 1981-1986" there are a series of commitments given with regard to education. Several of these commitments have already been implemented or are in the course of being implemented. These include the promise to increase substantially the higher education grants scheme which was introduced immediately the Government came into office and the promise to give priority to all aspects of adult and continuing education, where a commission to draw up a national development plan has been set up to report by October 1982. In addition, the Government have indicated their firm intention to abolish corporal punishment in schools.

The commitment of the Government towards educational development has been clearly demonstrated by their designation of education as one of a small number of priority areas for investment and development. The proof of this commitment has been seen in the specific exclusion of teachers from the general embargo on recruitment in the public service, and in the appointment of 300 additional primary school teachers to enable the pupil-teacher ratio to be reduced.

Among the other commitments given in the "Programme for Government" there is a proposal to establish an Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board. The programme states:

The Government will establish an Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board, the terms of reference of which will include school assessment to supplement the exam system.

The present Examination System will be reformed to reduce the pressure on students caused by the Leaving Certificate Examination. The present points system for entry to university, while being fair and unbiased, is distorting second level education and having an adverse educational effect on school curricula. To overcome this problem the Government will give urgent consideration in consultation with third level institutions to the introduction of a National Matriculation Examination.

This examination would be used as a basis for entering third level education and would be designed to be quite independent of the Leaving Certificate.

This evening's debate marks an important step towards the implementation of the proposal to establish the Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board.

There are strong reasons why such a commitment was given. The examination system has been playing an increasingly dominant role in post-primary schools. It is important that the role and function of examinations should be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny and review.

Our system of examinations has remained largely unchanged since their beginnings with the Intermediate Act of 1878, although modified by the Intermediate Education (Amendment) Act of 1924 which introduced the intermediate and leaving certificate examinations.

There is no doubt that examinations exert an enormous influence on schools and on the ways in which teachers organise their programmes. Examinations which are intended primarily as instruments for measuring certain aspects of student achievements, and therefore as an adjunct to the curriculum, have for over a century been allowed to dominate our second-level education, so that those aspects of curriculum which are not examinable or readily amenable to examination tend to lack status and often receive insufficient attention in schools.

The question now to be faced by all concerned in education is whether we are happy with the powerful part that is played by examinations. I believe it is now time for a wide-scale debate on this issue. I hope that in this House this evening we are seeing the start of such a debate which will now be taken up within educational forums throughout the country.

Many parents and teachers have become increasingly alarmed in recent times by the pressures which examinations impose on young people. I, too, am extremely unhappy with the growth of these pressures in recent years. In the run-up period before the intermediate certificate or leaving certificate examinations many homes are all too conscious of the tensions and anxieties which build up, often to grave detrimental effect on the emotional and physical health of young people. This is a serious situation. In the rush for high grades and for university points are we not making a terrible sacrifice in allowing such a position to go unchecked?

The proposal is to establish a board which will have responsibility for both curricula and examinations. The relationship between the examination system and the curriculum is very close. To a considerable extent the examination determines the curriculum. This is not as it should be. Through the design of the curriculum the teachers in a school should be able to plan an educational course which will be relevant to the needs of the children whom they know. If, however, they are following a course which has been laid down in the form of an examination syllabus, into which they can make no input, that course may prove quite irrelevant to the needs of the pupils.

A curriculum which might be relevant in, say, Dublin, may not be at all relevant in many parts of rural Ireland, or even in other urban centres. This suggests a need for flexibility in curriculum design — a flexibility which must also be found in the examinations by means of which student mastery of that curriculum is assessed.

Another weakness of the examination system which is often criticised is the once-off nature of the exercise. Too much depends on performance in one given day, regardless of physical or mental well-being or of countless other individual circumstances.

Sometimes it is suggested that continuous assessment is the answer to this problem, whereby the performance of a student over the course of a whole school year can be taken into account and then assessment does not depend solely on one day's efforts. Though this alternative may appear attractive there are difficulties and dangers here too. How objective can teachers be about such assessment? How can we standardise the scoring systems which would be used so as to allow for the comparing of results in one school with those in the next? Would continuous assessment impose more pressure on students rather than less? Would it demand too much of teachers and leave them subject to too much pressure from some parents who, perhaps understandably, might wish to exert considerable influence on the allocation of marks or grades?

These kinds of questions indicate just how complex these issues are and how difficult it is to arrive at a system which will be truly equitable. These are the kinds of questions to which an independent board would have to address themselves.

For all their faults the existing examinations have several good features. They are generally regarded as being valid, reasonably reliable and equitably administered. They should not be lightly cast aside until there is convincing evidence available that alternative systems are going to be substantially better.

Questions about the best kind of examination system can only be answered when we have cleared our minds about the purpose which examinations should serve. I suppose we can fairly readily agree that the main purpose of examinations is to assess the extent to which students can perform within the general range of subjects contained within the curriculum. This then brings us back to the question of the purposes the curriculum should serve that is, why is it that children go to school and what do we hope they will get from it?

There are various traditions in Irish education, each with its own aims and objectives and underlying set of values and expectations. Sometimes there is a distinction between a general liberal tradition which fosters the personal development of mind and spirit and which emphasises the more intellectual and academic aspects of education, and another tradition which takes a more utilitarian view and which emphasises the more vocational and skill-oriented aspects.

Does education prepare children for life, for the world to be encountered outside school, for the world of work, for the creative use of leisure time, for the responsibility of living in the community? If these things are important — and I believe that they are — are they reflected in the assessment procedures we use when we certify that children have attained a certain standard in, say, mathematics or history or in some language? What in fact does the written examination assess? Is it just a measure of factual recall which favours the quick thinker and the good memory?

I do not have the answers to these questions, although I have my own ideas about many of them. What is important, however, is that such matters should be debated and the answers which we agree will need to find reflection in the system which we then institute in the schools.

I now wish to consider three questions:

(a) Why do we need an Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board?

(b) How should such a board be constituted?

(c) What should such a board be asked to do?

In answer to the first question I suggest that the establishment of an independent board at the present time would have several advantages:

1. It would enable a fresh look to be taken at the role of schools, the courses on offer and the systems of assessment to be used.

2. It would allow for wider participation in the decision making process affecting the curriculum offered in schools and the forms of examination used. In particular it should allow for a greater input from teachers and other professional educators into the design of courses and assessment systems.

3. It should allow for a close look to be taken at the role of the school inspector. At present a very large amount of inspectors' time is spent dealing with the operation of the examination system. Though inspectors must always be closely involved in such work, if there were a new partnership between teachers and the inspectorate in the operation of an examinations board, the inspectors should then be able to spend more of their time in schools in an advisory and supportive capacity and in exercising their inspectorial function of monitoring standards. I believe that this would be of benefit both to schools and to the inspectorate itself.

What then of the second question: how should such a board be constituted? This is a question on which I would be keen to hear the views of Members of this House and of all other interest groups. There is clearly a major job to be done by this board, one which will require considerable expertise. It is important, therefore, that the very best people are chosen and that the right kind of professional experience is tapped. The membership of the board must be broadly representative of the many interest groups, yet whether the representation would be determined by direct ministerial appointment or by nomination of the interest groups is a matter for discussion at this stage. Obviously the Department of Education must be directly involved. So too must the teachers. As already stated, a major degree of say must be given to those with direct day to day experience of the classroom.

In the composition of the board close attention must be given to representation for what may be termed the ‘consumer' interests. I think not only of those engaged in colleges of further and higher education but also of those who will be the employers of the school leavers and who will use the results of examinations to select people for the various job openings and professional outlets. I would suggest that in the past insufficient attention has been paid to asking employers what skills they would like to see the schools develop in our young people, and whose assessment as part of the formal examination system they would wish to see included in their mechanisms for recruitment.

I am not going to attempt to suggest at this stage an exhaustive list of groups which should be represented on the Curriculum and Examinations Board, partly because this can often lead to emotive reactions resulting from the exclusion from a list of some particular group, but also because I do not think it would be helpful to get too definitive about this aspect at present.

Of greater importance just now is to consider the third question — namely what the board should be asked to do. One of the complex issues to be teased out is the relationship which would exist between the Department of Education and the Minister on the one hand and the Curriculum and Examinations Board on the other. In matters of curriculum, final overall responsibility must necessarily rest with the Minister of the day but this need not interfere unduly with the independent nature of the board. In many ways there could be considerable advantages to be gained by distancing the Minister from the minutiae of detail in the operation of the examinations. The Department's main link with the board would presumably be via the inspectorate, perhaps primarily through those associated with the curriculum unit. This unit was established in 1977. It is staffed by members of the Department's inspectorate under a steering committee consisting of senior administrative and professional officers of the Department. It spans both primary and post primary education. The following broad aims were identified for the work of this unit:

1. to develop a conceptual framework for curriculum by analysis and evaluation of the existing curriculum and, as an ancillary process, to construct and evaluate alternative models;

2. to establish norms of attainment; to identify and account for deviation from those norms and to propose appropriate action;

3. to evaluate curriculum innovation both in relation to individual disciplines or subjects and to wider areas and, where necessary, to propose initiatives in curriculum development.

This unit has operated to date with personnel drawn part-time from responsibilities in other areas. I hope to strengthen this unit in the future and see it as having an important function in relation to the Curriculum and Examination Board.

To return to the terms of reference to be given to the new board. Again I do not wish to be too prescriptive at this stage but I would make the following suggestion. I believe there is a case for considerable reform of the examinations used in the junior cycle. At present we have the day vocational group certificate examination, usually referred to as the group certificate, and the intermediate certificate examination. The latter examination was the subject of a major study by a committee set up by a former Minister which issued an interim report in 1973 and a final report two years later. I should mention in passing that the interim report included a suggestion for the establishment of an Independent Examinations Board. The final report, which is known as the ICE Report, proposed major changes in the format of the assessment procedures used at the end of the junior cycle. The committee also set up a research project known as PEEP, the Public Examinations Evaluation Project, which undertook research in new forms of examining in the areas of history and mathematics — a system involving direct teacher participation. The report of this project was submitted to my predecessor earlier this year.

It is a matter of concern to me that the work done by these committees has never received the kind of publicity it deserves.

Without necessarily implying acceptance of the specific proposals put forward, I believe that the ideas advanced in the ICE report and in the PEEP report should become the subject of widespread debate in educational circles. Such reports should not be submitted and then left to gather dust on shelves.

There was also a committee set up by the last Minister to consider the problems associated with transfer from the primary to the post primary school. This committee reported last June and their findings are also highly relevant to the question of the future structure of curriculum and examinations at post primary level.

The Curriculum and Examinations Board might consider the establishment of a new intermediate-type examination to be available to all students who complete a junior cycle post primary course and which would be open to any citizen who had already left school. The certificate would be a guarantee that one had mastered the basic essentials of education.

I would envisage that this new examination should replace and in some sense combine the existing group certificate and intermediate certificate examinations. It would need to be a broad enough examination to encompass the range of ability levels — perhaps offering examinations at higher, ordinary and basic levels. It should also be flexible enough to enable schools to engage in programmes of curriculum innovation, subject to specific control limits imposed and monitored by the board. We have had, in recent years, the benefit of considerable experience gained from the curriculum projects undertaken by the curriculum centres in Shannon — the SESP Programme — and in Dublin — programmes developed in humanities, integrated science and outdoor pursuits organised by the unit run by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee and based in Trinity College. The future of such centres is currently under review in my Department.

At senior cycle level there is a great need for the board to look closely at the leaving certificate examination. The role of this examination has changed in recent years. Originally it was an examination, primarily academic in content, which was taken by that minority of students who stayed to the end of post primary education or who went beyond it to university. However, since free post primary education was introduced in 1967 and since all second level schools adopted common curricula a far greater number of students now take the examination. This means that we should now call in question the suitability of the examination for all the students who take it.

The weakness of the leaving certificate at present is that it is expected to serve too many purposes and to perform too many roles. The major contradiction exists in that it purports to be a measure of general education and, at the same time, is used as a selection instrument for entry to higher education and to many forms of training and employment. There is a sense in which, in trying to do too many things, it does none of them well. University and other third level teachers frequently complain about the standards of entrants, while employers complain about what they consider the irrelevance of such course content. Teachers claim that syllabi are unduly influenced by third level requirements; and the widespread demand for experimental programmes such as transition year, pre-employment and career foundation courses suggests that schools are normally compelled to omit from their curricula elements that they consider necessary for young people at present.

I should like to see the Curriculum and Examinations Board explore ways in which the leaving certificate examination could be extended in scope. I should like to see a way found in which credit can be given for courses followed in the area of general education alongside the existing syllabi. I think, for example, of courses in media education, health education, consumer education even political education.

Civics has been a subject which has been treated less than seriously in too many cases. It is a subject which should offer great scope to the teacher to help young people to become more aware of the many influences within society which affect them and of the way in which State and political institutions exist to serve the needs of the people. I should like to see a much greater emphasis placed on the development of this subject. I do not understand why it has been largely restricted to junior cycle classes. It seems to me that students at an older age will appreciate more readily the significance of many of the issues which can be included.

As we all know, the leaving certificate is offered in the various subjects at both higher and ordinary level. We should look at this division and see whether the basis of that division is correct. In essence the lower level syllabus is a shortened version of the higher one. The question might be asked as to whether those taking the ordinary level need a different kind of course altogether.

Another major issue to be faced is that concerning the use of leaving certificate as a basis for selection for higher education. Here is where one finds the greatest pressure on students. However as there will always be more people seeking places in certain competitive faculties than can be accommodated there must be some selection procedure used. For all its weaknesses I am satisfied that no equitable and acceptable alternative has yet been found. The question can be asked: should this pressure of selection be removed from the leaving certificate as such? The Government programme offers a suggestion for consideration that a new examination, a national matriculation examination, might be introduced to be taken one year after leaving certificate and that this examination should be taken by those proceeding to degree courses and be used as the competitive examination for entry to such courses.

I would be interested to have the views of this House about the merits or otherwise of such a proposal. I would also be keen to gauge the reaction of people at large. I hope that all those interested in education will make their views on this subject known.

There is one point to bear in mind when considering the idea of an additional examination. Such a development might mean a downgrading of the leaving certificate which over the years has achieved a certain general recognition and international standing. It is important to safeguard the interests of those who currently hold the certificate and who would not wish to see its perceived value lessened. The value of any certificate depends on its standing in society at large.

I have so far talked mainly about the examination system in the second level school. I would like to make brief reference at this point to primary schools. It is some years now since the old primary certificate was abolished and the new curriculum was introduced. I hope that the Curriculum and Examinations Board will have as part of their brief an ongoing review of the curriculum of the primary school, in particular as regards its alignment with the curriculum at post primary level. It is important that we view the education of our young people as a continuous process throughout all the years spent at school.

At the same time we must ensure that our assessment systems are designed in such a way as to be diagnostic — particularly to ensure that those who have reading difficulties, for instance, are identified in time. I understand that it is estimated that some 100,000 people have gone through the formal educational system without reaching a basic level of functional literacy. This is a terrible indictment of the system and is a situation which we must solve as a matter of the greatest urgency. This is why I stress so strongly the part played by assessment procedures in detecting those who are missing out while there is still time to take the appropriate remedial action. Teaching and assessment are inextricably linked. This is true at all levels within the system.

There is one other aspect of this topic which must also be mentioned. That is the question of training and retraining of teachers. The kind of changes which are needed in the curriculum examinations require a commitment to in-service education and teacher development. There is a departmental committee currently looking at the whole question of in-service courses. The matter of initial training courses must also be raised and I propose to undertake a review of the existing provision in the near future.

In the debate which is being initiated here today I hope that there will be a full participation by all groups who have an interest in the issues which I have been discussing. We must face seriously the question of whether schools are being sufficiently responsive to the needs of our time. There is a need for a greater emphasis in the curriculum on practical training by means of subjects such as woodwork, metalwork and in art and crafts and technical drawing. It is a matter of considerable concern to me that we have a crisis of teacher supply in these areas which will make if difficult for us to meet the expansion needs. I found on arriving in the Department that I had inherited a situation of serious under-provision in training teachers of such disciplines. This problem has arisen for two major reasons:

(i) the introduction of four and three years courses of training in Thomond College, as against the two and three years previously by way of Department courses, with the consequent loss on one year's output. This will create a short-term difficulty which is unfortunately impossible to correct at this stage.

(ii) the increase in demand from schools for provisions for the teaching of such subjects. This is a welcome development but it will take time to make the necessary adjustments in numbers in training in order to meet the increased needs.

We have many traditions to be proud of in Irish education and we have a very firm base on which to build. Yet the time is appropriate to ensure that our school curricula keep pace with changes in society at large. It is my firm conviction that the establishment of an Independent Curriculum and Examinations Board will be an important step towards this end.

Debate adjourned.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Thursday, 5 November 1981.