Learning the hard way about changes to Junior Cycle reform

Learning the hard way about changes to Junior Cycle reform

The proposed Junior Cycle programme has run into strong opposition from teachers. How radical are the changes and what do they mean, asks Education Correspondent Niall Murray

IT HAS been the subject of controversy in education circles for almost 18 months but Education Minister Ruairi Quinn looks set to plough ahead with his radical changes to how students are assessed on their first three years of second-level education.

While much of the focus has been on the substantive — and very important — question of who should examine students, the bigger picture of the wider proposals may have been lost on the general public, particularly to parents and students.

The key principle underlying the Junior Cycle Framework document, published by Mr Quinn in October 2012, is to change the focus of those first three years from exams and results to what and how students learn. This has received wide backing, including that of teachers, but anxieties remain about aspects of assessment and resourcing.

The following is a summary of the main elements of Mr Quinn’s plan.

-The Junior Cycle Student Award will replace the Junior Certificate from 2017 and eventually all subjects will be marked by students’ own teachers. However, in the initial years and possibly beyond, the State Examinations Commission will continue to mark the written exams in English, maths, and Irish.

-For each full subject, 60% of marks will go for the final exam near the end of third year, but the remaining 40% is to be awarded for school-based assessments, likely to be twice and at the same time nationally — in the final term of second year and before Christmas in third year, replacing normal in-school tests and mocks.

For English, this is to include testing of oral communication followed near the end of junior cycle by assessing a collection of students’ written coursework.

This component was always intended to be marked in-school, even in the proposals in 2011 to Mr Quinn from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on which teacher unions are represented, whereas it had proposed the final written exams continue to be marked externally through the SEC.

-In response to teacher concerns, an extra day and a half of continuous professional development (CPD) over three years is being planned above that already underway since late last year for teachers of English. Theirs is the first subject for which a new curriculum is being rolled out, beginning next September, with assessments beginning in 2016 and final written exams in summer 2017.

The Department of Education is also allowing for up to four days of CPD for teachers of each other subject as they are being introduced, to cover the new curriculum for a subject as well as school-based assessment requirements, although teachers remain of the belief these provisions are inadequate.

A further one day per year will be allowed, during which schools may close, to facilitate whole-school training on the wider issues around the new assessment regime.

-The final written exam will be just one paper of no more than two hours’ duration and, with the exception of English, Irish, and maths, will be taken at one level and during the traditional school year, in the second week in May. For non-core subjects, the papers will be set by the SEC but marked by teachers, with school-based moderation supported by a common toolkit to support assessment.

-In the early years of the JCSA, English, Irish, and maths will be taken at either higher or ordinary level, and will be timetabled in June during the same period as the Leaving Cert. The papers will be set by the SEC, which will also be responsible for their marking.

-The NCCA is finalising a new curriculum in science, to be phased in for those starting second-level schooling in September 2015. Business studies and Irish were to have been added in the same year — with both new curriculums also nearing completion — but this was adjusted in January in recognition of teacher concerns, and they will now be introduced instead from September 2016 and have final exams for students completing third year in 2019.

Revised curriculums for two more subjects — art and modern languages — instead of four will be introduced from 2017, with remaining changes following in the next two years.

-Students will generally take eight full subjects or their equivalent for the JCSA, but from the first-year intake in September 2015, schools must limit the number of full subjects that students can take for certification purposes to 10, or the equivalent mix of full subjects and short courses.

-As well as traditional full subjects, schools may also offer a range of short courses. A combination of two short courses could be used instead of one full subject to meet the certification requirements, meaning a student could complete assessments in six full subjects and four short courses.

Short courses would be taught over 100 hours (compared to the 200 to 240 hours needed for other main subjects) and the NCCA is designing six optional courses that schools can choose to offer if they wish from next autumn: Chinese language and culture; civic, social and political education; social, personal, and health education; physical education; artistic performance; programming and coding; a personal project; caring for animals; digital media literacy.

Schools can also devise their own short courses, as long as they satisfy the learning principles underpinning the junior cycle framework.

-The current grading system for the Junior Certificate — A, B, C and so on — will be replaced by the following awards:

-Achieved with distinction (90% to 100%);

-Achieved with higher merit (75% to 89%);

-Achieved with merit (55% to 74%);

-Achieved (40% to 54%);

-Not achieved (0% to 39%).

For small numbers of students in specific categories of mild or moderate general learning disabilities, schools can begin from next September to include priority learning units (PLUs) which also form part of the junior cycle framework.

A programme to include PLUs can be put in place for students in mainstream schools where their special needs prevent them from accessing some or all subjects or short courses. This should lead to an award at level 2 of the qualifications framework, one stage below the level 3 currently given to the Junior Certificate and proposed to be given the JCSA. The five PLUs — communicating and literacy, numeracy, personal care, living in a community, and preparing for work — focus on the basic social, pre-vocational and life skills of the students involved.

-Part of the Government’s literacy and numeracy strategy, which requires teachers to focus on these aspects of learning across all subjects, is incorporated in the revised junior cycle.

Beginning with those starting first year in 2015, students must take standardised assessments in English and maths in second term of second year, beginning in spring 2017. This is happening a year later than originally planned, and will be followed by the first testing of second-year students in science in spring 2018, when students in all-Irish schools will also be tested in the language in addition to English, maths, and science.

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