Accommodating Difference

“I welcome the aspects of the proposed curriculum that will allow schools something that they currently do not have. It will allow schools flexibility to design their own Junior Cycle programme. This will empower schools to meet the interests, and the needs, and indeed the curiosity of their students. This is how we can accommodate difference in our society. This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.”

Thus spoke Ruairí Quinn addressing an NCCA conference in 2012. It’s a vision that’s still alive and is reiterated in last week’s Circular to Schools.

The document contradicts itself. It speaks of subject specifications (which are replacing syllabi) as being “designed to be as universal and inclusive as feasible, providing meaningful and valuable learning opportunities for students from all cultural and social backgrounds and from a wide variety of individual circumstances”. But what does this actually mean? The document goes on to say that while subjects and short courses may be designed to be universally appropriate to students, schools are to feel free to decide for themselves that they’re not really suitable for their student body, based on the children’s “backgrounds, interests and abilities”.

The Framework document itself is also clear on this point: “The greater degree of flexibility afforded by the Framework will allow schools to take account of the  school’s local context and the backgrounds, interests, and abilities of their students when planning their junior cycle programme.” [italics mine] A principal is free to decide that, given his students’ backgrounds, they mightn’t have much “interest” in studying history. They might also decide not to offer geography to lower-ability students. The document implies that there are schools where the general ability level of the students is so much lower than average that this will influence curricular decisions. Or perhaps the converse is true, and principals may decide that the pupils’ cultural and social background calls for a short course on Chaucer or particle physics.

Common courses in all subjects apart from the big three will pose a problem as the bar below which children are deemed unable to study academic subjects will be raised. I have very successfully taught Ordinary Level Junior Cycle History to a small group; I was able to do that because of the support of management and the SencCo in my school, who recognised that knowledge of our country’s past should not be the preserve of an intellectual elite. Those pupils would have struggled with a common course and would most likely opt instead for learning how to care for a notional pet.

I’ll return now to Quinn’s speech and its idea of “empowering schools to meet the curiosity of their students”. “Empowering” is a lovely word, isn’t it? But perhaps we should talk less about empowering schools and more about empowering children with powerful knowledge. The kind of knowledge they might not be curious about, but which will serve them in life, and serve us all by having a knowledgeable citizenry. “Curiosity” is another lovely word, bringing to mind miniature Ken Robinsons, little light-bulbs over their adorable heads, enraptured by individualised projects and driven by the love – the sheer joy- of learning and discovery. Except we tend to be curious about things we already know quite a lot about. Knowledge drives curiosity, not vice versa. Children who have been to France tend to be more curious to learn French, children whose parents discuss politics with them tend to be more interested in history. Middle-class children with university-educated parents will quite likely be curious about things that will help them achieve academically. Disadvantaged children may not only be less curious about science and geography; they might never even have been to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The difference in interests and aspirations that arises from difference in social background should be something the education system seeks to combat, not reinforce. Surely a child’s chance of studying the Renaissance, or German, or the structure of a plant cell, should not be eliminated before she even reaches first year, on the basis that the curriculum in her local school has been “tailored” to exclude subjects thought unlikely to interest some-one of “her background”? The framework for Junior Cycle still states explicitly that the range of subjects to be offered in the junior cycle programme “will vary in accordance with the teaching resources in the school and the needs and interests of the students.” Differences will not be challenged; they will be “accommodated”. Once the curriculum is established within a school it will be difficult to steer it in a more academic direction, if that doesn’t fit well with “the teaching resources”. Students from different backgrounds do not have different learning needs and there is nothing wrong in coercing children into studying subjects that do not pique their passing interests.  References to “the local context” do not make sense when we remember that, as Michael Fordham  (@mfordhamhistory) expresses  eloquently,  “teachers are there to lift children up into a global conversation about the reality in which we live.”

“This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.” This quote from Quinn is a bit dated now, and you might wonder why I rely on it. I’m including it because I think this vision for accommodating and enshrining educational inequity remains central to Junior Cycle reform. Inequality is a huge challenge within the system. So is motivation. It is tempting to imagine that the behaviour crisis felt in certain schools will be resolved once the learners are engaged in relevant, “real-life”, skills-based learning. It is tempting to throw up our hands and pragmatically decide that as long as enough schools opt to tailor their curriculum along academic lines, and continue to offer the maximum number of real subjects and the minimum of short courses, then the country will not run short of educated professionals. It is tempting to pretend that it’s unfair to impose an academic curriculum on children whose parents aren’t already steering them on the path to third-level education. It is a temptation we must resist. The Department should remove all reference to interests and social background from the Junior Cycle Framework and instead insist on all mainstream schools providing a curriculum based on breadth and balance.



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