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.



Reads of 2015

photo2.JPGHere are some of the books – educational and otherwise –  that have made an impact on me in 2015. These are in no particular order, and you may spot that some were published last year or even earlier. My criterion is that I read them for the first time this year, and I admit freely to being chronically behind the curve.

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Maddaddam” by Margaret Atwood.

My contemporary fiction reads of the year. Very different genres, equally engrossing. I sped through the former in less than twenty-four hours. Waters is unparalleled in her ability to recreate distinctive eras from Britain’s past – so much so her novels read almost like contemporary texts of the period  – and this time she turns her attention to the London suburbs of 1922. The Great War has been over for four years and Frances and her widowed mother are still coming to terms with a dramatically changed social and economic order. They do the previously unthinkable and take in lodgers: the “paying guests” of the title. The genteel term is typical of the language of sheltered women who speak mostly in euphemisms; their home, and Frances’ world, is invaded by  a young couple who bring passion and drama along with a gramophone and some cheap “pseudo-Persian rugs”. The plot is satisfyingly clever and Waters’ pacing is impeccable. It is rare indeed to find such a breakneck page-turner so beautifully written.

Atwood’s “Maddadam” is the third instalment in the dystopian trilogy she began with “Oryx and Crake”. I haven’t read the middle book “The Year of the Flood” (on the list for 2016) but caught up fairly lively. Having said that, I do feel that had I not read “Oryx and Crake”, albeit some years ago now, then a struggle with the underlying premise would have undermined my reading pleasure. And what pleasure! Atwood is an adept at this genre; her grotesque inventions always have enough recognisable elements to let them ring disturbingly true. In “Oryx and Crake” she showed us a new world in the not too distant future. It’s a controlled world of surveillance and medical miracles, most notably the engineering and breeding of Pigoons to supply organs for transplant into humans. This corrupt and unnatural order splinters and by “Maddadam” we are roaming a lawless, despoiled landscape only vaguely identifiable as America. Amid the science fiction and the cartoon violence, Atwood fills the book with introspective and very human characters, such as Toby a woman rendered infertile following botched egg-donation, and Zeb, who wonders if the plan devised by his mastermind brother, Adam, will save or doom what remains of humanity. We feel their confusion, their jealousies, their fears and ultimately their hope that some kind of future will emerge from the chaos.

Honourable fiction mentions include Colin Barrett’s “Young Skins”, Belinda McKeon’s “Tender”, Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and Richard Ford’s “Independence Day” (I told you I was behind the curve).

Eric Kalenze “Education is Upside-Down”

I missed Kalenze’s talk at ResearchEd and was quite cross with myself afterwards as it was widely reported as one of the highlights. Reading this book, I can see why. It deals with the US education system and provides many interesting points of contrast and comparison. The book’s central metaphor is that education acts like an upside-down funnel; instead of bringing in those who set out(for whatever reason) on the margins and ensuring they’re ready to participate fully in society and its institutions, the funnel is positioned so these students slide off and only those who start out with every advantage fully profit from the system. Good for them (us, really. I was one such student), less good for society as a whole.

“Making Every Lesson Count” by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison

How excited was I to learn that Tharby – author of this eminently practical and insightful blog  – was bringing out a book? This collaboration with his colleague Allison broadens the English-specific advice in the blog and applies it to all subjects. Allison and Tharby are classroom teachers rather than researchers or academics and this shows in every line of this book. It’s based on six principles – challenge, explanation modelling, practice, feedback, questioning – each of which is clearly explained with realistic examples.

“Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan.

As recommended here by Andy Tharby, this is a very, very useful book on how to extract maximum vocabulary-extending value out of texts used in the classroom. My copy is in school, where I’ve used it this term in conjunction with Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” with my first years. Thanks to techniques in BWtL, the kids are now confident using words like “treason”, “writhing” and “reprehensible”. They also know what “offal”is, though they’re as likely to eat it as they are to enjoy a plate of  “carrion”.

“What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?” by David Didau.

Eye-catching fuschia antidote to the tuar tairbh we were all fed on during the HDip and which keeps on giving through Department of Education and Skills. Didau, aka the Learning Spy,  provides a comprehensive survey of ideas in education from feedback to lesson observation to how best to motivate students and takes well-earned delight in such heresies as “why formative assessment might be wrong”.  As well as dispelling myths there’s plenty of information here about what might actually work.

“The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal

Not a teaching book, but being able to see the upside of stress is bound to make any teacher’s life easier. Although life’s not supposed to be easy, which is one the book’s central ideas. In the future I intend to draw heavily on McGonigal’s work for my upcoming companion-piece to Didau’s book. Mine will be called “What if Everything You Knew About Well-being was Wrong?” “The Upside of Stress” is a reasoned and compassionate book that recognises that facile calls for “resilience lessons” and “mental fitness” are less useful than seeing that, for most of us, stress is inextricably linked to the areas of our life that have the greatest potential to bring us meaning, purpose and even joy.

“Raising Kids Who Read” by Daniel Willingham.

Another book by the author of one of the my favourite books about teaching “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here, but as the title suggests, aimed mostly at parents.

“Teach Like a Champion 2.0” by Doug Lemov

I’m probably the only teacher on Earth who preferred the original version of this book. That might be because “Teach Like a Champion” was the first ever book about teaching I ever bought (apart from mandated HDip books and useless behaviour-management manuals written by idealistic gurus) and it opened my eyes to the possibility that teacher-led instruction might work better than buzzy, carousel, engaging, groupe-worke, relevant child-minding. In fairness, this probably is objectively better than the original, containing all the information in that one and even more.

“Make it Stick” By Peter C. Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel.

Not a teaching manual like Lemov’s book but of a theoretical exploration of learning. How to make it stick is a question that’s asked scandalously infrequently in teaching; we’re much more likely to be asked to consider how to make it interesting? how to engage pupils? (okay, we’re never asked this, I meant “how to engage learners?”), how can reinvent the group-work wheel? or how many acronyms can I fit into this forty-minute presentation? Making knowledge stick is largely what teaching aims to do, however, and there’s lots here to take into the classroom. One study referred to in the book that I found particularly interesting is about history of art students learning about the “defining characteristics of each artist’s style”. They were tested on how well they could attribute paintings. Interleaved practice, where students studied a painting by one artist, and then a painting by a different artist, was shown in the study to be more successful than massed practice where students studied one artist in a block before moving on to the next. I think this has implications for how we teach Leaving Cert poetry, where traditionally we “do” a poet, then move on to some other part of the course, before returning to “do” another poet.

“Better than Before” by Gretchen Rubin.

I’ve had heated debates about Rubin and her books. At least one friend of mine finds her self-improvement books insufferable, focused as they on the minutae of first-world problems like whether one can justify taking a taxi to the gym. While I disagree with the author and say “no, you can’t”, I also disagree with my friend and say that Rubin’s books are well-written and not meant to be taken too seriously. She does not promise to change the reader’s life and cleverly avoids all discussion of cognitive psychology or neuroscience as she’s intelligent enough to not fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Her latest is a light read that’s strangely satisfying with its mix of pop-psychology, highbrow references, life-hacks and mundane details from Rubin’s own life.

“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.

I studied this for the Inter, and am rereading it to get an early start on my first resolution for 2016, which is to read more classic fiction. More Austen and less Xposé. More Dostoyevsky and less DailyMailOnline. More George Eliot and fewer articles about how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

Happy 2016 🙂







Government-Sponsored Agencies Dispense Harmful Advice

I was slightly bemused a few weeks ago when RTE invited well-known Dr. Harry Barry and Enda Murphy to offer advice on exam preparation, as the former is a GP and author, and the latter a therapist. Were no teachers available? Since then things have become clear. Exams are no longer an educational issue, they’re a health crisis, and preparation no longer means revising, it means getting your head in the right place so to speak.  Here are some examples of exam tips that have surfaced in the past fortnight. All of these organisations receive HSE funding.

“Exam stress can be overwhelming, while confusing and exhausting you”. (ReachOut)

“Extrenal pressures around exams can be huge. These can be hard to deal with”

“Here’s how to keep that stress to a minimum”(SpunOut)

“Stress can prevent you from doing your best. Learn a good relaxation technique and practice it well ahead of the exam so that it will come easy to you on the day. Get help from a counsellor if you need to.” (SpunOut)

“don’t set yourself crazy goals like “600 points or I’m not happy” or “Four As is what I want. If you set the standards very high, you’re putting yourself under massive stress. Look at the results you need for what you want to do and aim for this.”

“If exam results stress is getting you down, you can talk to your doctor, ask your doctor to refer you to a counsellor. Alternatively, you can contact the Irish Association for Counselling and Therapy or talk to Samaritans who provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair.” (SpunOut)

“The top issue for Leaving Cert students we see across the whole year is exam stress. And exam tensions impact not only on the student and parents but the whole family so it’s really important to try and keep the home place calm.”  Dr. Tony Bates

Find out which routine suits you the best – alone or with a friend or parent/carer; early morning or late at night; short, sharp bursts or longer sessions; with music or without noise.” (Mental Health Ireland via Dept of Education)

“Set realistic goals. Go out and do something different. Have a positive affirmation “I can do this”. Breathing exercises” (Jigsaw Donegal)

and my personal favourite…

“Knowing what kind of learner you are can help you study effectively. There are three main types of learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic” (Jigsaw Donegal)

Jigsaw’s next leaflet will move on from the three learning styles to the latest medical research that the body is made of four humours. This advice is not only silly and without any basis in educational research or practice, it is creating the very problem it claims to be tackling. As sociologist Frank Furedi wrote recently in The Independent “Advocacy groups intent on raising awareness about an epidemic of exam stress may well unintentionally contribute to its further intensification.”

If students followed the exam advice I’ve come across in recent weeks they’d be so busy going for long walks, meditating, doing breathing exercises under parental supervision, ensuring all meals contain complex carbohydrates, making wall-chart revision timetables, calling help-lines, seeing the doctor, seeing a counsellor, checking out inane infographics, and writing to do lists, that it’s no wonder so many of them are getting an early night, eating a nutritious breakfast (both no longer things we should all do every day but now “exam tips”), checking the timetable and arriving on time, only to panic when they realise “O fuck, I forgot to actually learn anything!!!!”

The Department of Education is colluding in this demonization of the Leaving Cert as detrimental to human health. Rather than writing their own tips for the exams run by the SEC they tweeted tips from an entirely different department. These tips included studying while listening to music, and highlighting. They have been quite open about the long-term plans to reform the Leaving, and are co-opting the exam-stress epidemic to their own ends. Now you can argue quite cogently against the Leaving Cert as a mode of assessment, or against the points system as a means of allocating places in third level education. You could look into the research and thinking around assessment. You could look at other countries’ models of third level entry. You could do some hard thinking around this issue, or you could go with the easy reason “Let’s get rid of the Leaving because it’s stressing out the kids and stress is bad for them.”

The government’s commitment to the stress-justification for assessment reform is seen by their commissioning of the ESRI to write a report “Your Whole Life Depends on It: Academic Stress and High-Stakes Testing in Ireland”. See what they did there? High-stakes testing causes stress and stress is bad so high stakes testing is bad. The stakes are so high that teenagers in Ireland are executed if they get under 550 points, that’s why “your whole life depends on it”.

In the study 6th year students were asked to what extent they agree with statements such as “I feel I’m not playing a part in useful things”, “I’m constantly under strain” and “I feel incapable of making decisions”. The Leaving Cert’s awful, isn’t it? Young people “under strain”? We can’t have it. 6th years focusing on their studies instead of community painting projects and coaching the under-5s? This can’t go on, we need some other fluffy form of assessment, ideally a Nordic-antipodean hybrid.

The authors say that “stress is contagious among particular groups of (often high-performing) girls”. The author use a clever metaphor with “contagious”, implying very clearly that stress is a pathogen. They also miss the blindingly obvious in their observation. These groups of stressed-out girls are the ones who go on to perform well. How can this be if they’re debilitated with anxiety and possibly failing to do breathing exercises before every exam?

Part of the answer may lie in a new book by Stanford psychologist, Kelly McGonigal “The Upside of Stress”. McGonigal defines stress as something “that arises when something you care about is at stake”. So we shouldn’t be surprised that students who work hard and are aiming high will report higher stress levels than those who have already conceded that they won’t do well. (And I’m suspicious of the ESRI’s sudden concern for female 6th years when we’ve been told along that the students we need to worry about are those 2nd-year boys Ruairi Quinn used to describe as “in the departure lounge”).

McGonigal cites several studies that contradict the advice that students need to reduce stress levels, whether that’s in order to maximise performance or to protect their well-being. One is from the University of Zurich which found that when it comes to exams “those with the strongest desire to avoid stress were the most likely to report declines in concentration, physical energy and self-control”. McGonigal has spoken elsewhere that “if we try to control our inner experiences it almost always backfires. It tends to strengthen those experiences and we feel even more self-doubt and more stressed and more anxious…we get pulled away from the energy we need to simply take action in the direction of our goals”. This is extremely applicable to the run-up to exams when students would be better advised to concentrate on the task at hand than on monitoring and attempting to control their stress levels.

The idea that a little bit of exam pressure is good for you but when it comes to the crunch you need to get your nerves under control, stems from the myth of the elite athlete struggling to focus and avoid choking. But, as McGonigal writes “Contrary to what many people might expect, top performers aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather they have strong challenge responses. The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the released confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance.” It is this “challenge-response”, not a relaxed “exams-don’t-define-me-and-there’s-an-alternative-path-into-every-career” attitude, that we should hope to see in the final lead-up.

Tips on How to Mange your Exam Stress are not just a useless distraction, they may actually be harmful. In the short term fear of stress can impede performance. “The Upside of Stress” features another psychologist Jeremy Jamieson who gave the following pre-exam pep-talk to a group of college students

“People think that feeling anxious when taking a standardised test will make them do poorly. However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance. People who feel anxious before a test might actually do better, This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well”

Even though the group who received the talk showed higher levels of stress bio-markers, they outperformed the control group both in this test, which was a mock, and in the real thing.

One thing I and the Cassandras of exam-stress doom agree on is that exams are not the be-all-and-end-all and that there is more to life. And it is when it comes to life in general that the real damage of the take-it-easy, stress-is-toxic advice is done. For many students, the State exams represent the first serious, stressful event of their lives. (Others, of course will already have met with serious challenges often unfortunately beyond their young coping levels.) What effect is the never-ending stream of media commentary having on their view of this challenge? What does it say that mental-health organisations choose this important time in their lives to bombard them with “tips” on how to reduce their levels of stress? I think the effect is that challenge is bad, and that the government and their schools have little care for their welfare that they put them through such an ordeal. I think the targeting of exam-students by mental-health organisations is venal and irresponsible.  As Frank Furedi writes in the same article quoted above: “Many children do suffer from mental health problems and we should do our best to provide good quality care to deal with their conditions. We should also remember that the constant imperative to medicalise exam anxiety serves to trivialise the experience of those suffering from mental illness.”

Giving students the idea that stress is a sign something is going wrong, and that they need to learn to control their anxiety as a prerequisite to success, sets students on a path of fear and limitation. It is interesting that the ESRI report concludes that girls themselves report the negative effects that stress is having on them; they have been conditioned to think of themselves as inadequate to challenge and to psychologically intense situations. What if instead we acknowledged their stress but saw it as a positive sign of commitment and ambition? McGonigal proposes “Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeing stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.”

In life the stakes are often high, the task daunting and the resources limited. But is only by chasing meaning –  and not safety –  that our students will achieve their goals and contribute to society.

My 33 Questions About the Junior Cycle Reform Proposals

The following is the draft of proposals put forward by Dr. Pauric Travers to ASTI/TUI and the Dept of Education, as shared by Fintan O’Mahony here. Fintan raises 33 pertinent questions, here I add 33 of my own concerns.





Representatives of the Minister for Education and Skills and of the Teachers Unions have engaged in prolonged and constructive discussions under my chairmanship on a new structure for teaching, learning and assessment at Junior Cycle. While some progress has been made, no agreement has been possible to date and an impasse has been reached.   At the request of both parties, I have reflected on the positions advanced by the Minister and her representatives and by the Union groups. I offer the proposals below as worthy of consideration by both sides as the basis of a way forward,

The main part of this document is structured in the form of a draft agreement which it is hoped captures the essential elements of a reformed Junior Cycle.   To avoid ambiguity, these elements are elaborated in some detail. In the event that the proposals are acceptable to both sides, further discussions will be needed at a number of levels to finalise matters and make arrangements for implementation. In those circumstances, the agreement provides that the Minister should delay the implementation of the revised specifications for Science and that the Union groups should suspend their industrial action.

The proposed reform of the Junior Cycle is based on the need for fundamental changes in our approach to curriculum and assessment to improve the learning experiences of students.[1] Such ambitious reform requires the wholehearted engagement of teachers – otherwise its chances of success are limited. The timing is not propitious. The response of teachers has been influenced by a range of issues – some related to the proposals themselves, others with deeper roots. A decade of rapid social, demographic and educational change followed by salary cuts, deteriorating career structures and casualization have left many teachers alienated and distrustful, even of initiatives which may be to their professional benefit. [2] Addressing such alienation lies beyond the scope of the current process but it is an urgent requirement for the well-being of our schools.

Some of the immediate concerns of teachers about Junior Cycle reform appear more tractable. While the initial reform proposals of the NCCA followed progressive, international practice, they have been criticised for taking too little account of the distinctive Irish educational and cultural context. The well-articulated concern[3] that school-based assessment for certification would expose the teacher to undue pressure can be addressed and teachers supported.   The use of standard descriptors, internal and external moderation and validation, and the continued existence of an independent State examination all offer some protection.[4] Similarly in the area of resources: with schools and teachers working at or near full capacity, the price of meaningful reform may be meaningful support and resources.

Since the current process commenced, there have been thirty three hours of talks at five plenary sessions. I have also met the parties separately on ten occasions. Both sides have expressed support for Junior Cycle reform and for enhancing the quality of the learning experience of students. However there have been significant differences as to how these shared aims can or should be achieved. In early November, the DES tabled a proposal from the Minister which restored state certification of the Junior Cycle and provided for a final examination accounting for 60% of the marks and school based assessment completed in second and third year accounting for 40%. While the Unions agreed that this proposal was significant, they rejected it as it ‘did not address the fundamental objection of teachers to school based assessment for certification purposes.’

In recent meetings, the discussions have focussed on trying to honour the core principles of both sides. On the one hand, the Minister’s representatives stated as a minimum requirement that assessment should capture the total learning experiences of the student[5] while on the other the Union groups refused to countenance school based assessment for certification. One possible option which would find favour with the Unions would, in effect, abandon school based assessment and broaden the external assessment to include projects and portfolios and other assessment tools in addition to written and oral examinations. The Minister’s November proposal represented an alternative approach. Whatever the other merits of these two options, they run counter to the core principles articulated by one or other of the parties.

The way forward suggested below has the advantage of meeting the key stated requirements of the DES and the Union groups. It acknowledges and addresses many of the concerns of teachers while retaining some of the most progressive elements of the original reform proposals. It is by no means an ideal solution but it provides the basis for an honourable settlement. It demands compromise, movement and good-will from all sides. The alternative is continued unrest and untold damage to students, teachers and the education system. I commend it to the parties for their consideration.

Pauric Travers

Independent Chairperson

12 February 2015

Draft Agreement between the DES, ASTI and TUI on the Implementation of Junior Cycle Reform

  • Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Junior Cycle
    1. Junior Cycle should provide students with a broad and balanced learning experience, incorporating the development of a range of knowledge, skills and competences[6]. The Statements of Learning and the Key Skills identified in the Junior Cycle Framework (2012) and in the earlier NCCA document Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle (2011) provide a clear basis for the kind of programme that students need in the twenty-first century. [7]
    2. Improving assessment at junior cycle will contribute to improving the quality of students’ learning.[8] The revised Junior Cycle programme will build on best practice in teaching, learning and assessment already in place in schools and will involve a balanced use of Assessment for Learning and Assessment of Learning. [9] We recognise that teachers are unwilling to engage in assessment for State certification. We also recognise that State-certification of some elements of assessment has an important role to play. We believe that other elements of assessment need not be State certified, but teachers, parents and students will legitimately expect assurance and support to ensure that this assessment is consistent, equitable and fair across all students and all schools.[10]
    3. The Junior Cycle programme will encompass learning in subjects or a combination of subjects and short courses. It will also encompass a range of other learning experiences. These are as set out in the Junior Cycle Framework (2012), with the following changes:
  • Students will study a maximum of 10 subjects for state certification; each subject will require a minimum of 200 hours of learning[11] other than English, Irish and Mathematics which will require a minimum of 240 hours of learning
  • Schools may offer students the opportunity to take a small number of short courses (using either short courses developed by the NCCA or short courses developed by the school); these short courses will be assessed through school-based assessment and will require 100 hours of learning so that two short courses will be the equivalent of one subject
  • The possible combinations of subjects and short courses will be as described in Junior Cycle Framework (2012)
  • It is not the aim or intention that short courses should undermine or replace existing subjects. If necessary, the DES will issue a circular clarifying the matter.[12]
  • Students must also undertake learning in a new area entitled “Well-Being”. This area of learning will incorporate Physical Education, SPHE (incorporating RSE) and CSPE. New programmes will be introduced for each of these elements of Well-Being and 300 hours will be available for the area[13]
  • Students may undertake learning in additional subjects that are not for state certification[14]
  • As originally envisaged, a range of Level 2 qualifications will be available for students with very significant special educational needs
  • Assessing and documenting student learning

 2.1 Teaching, learning and assessment are inextricably linked and assessment will play an important role in supporting and documenting[15] student learning and achievement across all aspects of the programme in which students engage.

2.2  So that assessment can support and document student learning in a balanced range of knowledge, skills and competences, a variety of assessment methods will be used in each subject. For most subjects, these will include:

  • A number (usually two) of school-based assessments completed in second-year and third year and reported upon to students and parents by schools
  • A State-certified examination completed at the end of third year
    1. These arrangements will be adjusted as follows for the suite of[16] technology subjects and Art where practical and performance components currently represent the major part (more than 50%) of assessment for the subject:
  • One or two school-based assessments completed in second-year and reported upon to students and parents by schools
  • A short written or practical examination and/or the submission of an artefact or project leading to State certification
    1. The new specifications (syllabus) produced by the NCCA for each subject will incorporate clear details of its assessment arrangements, including details of the knowledge[17], skills and competences that can be expected of students at different levels of performance.
  • School-based assessment components within subjects
    1. School-based components will provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their level of achievement in aspects of each subject.
    2. Normally, a maximum of two such school-based components will be completed and documented over the course of second year and third year.
    3. Typically, the school-based assessment components may include oral performances/ presentations; written work of different types; the making of artefacts (e.g. in technology subjects); artistic performances (e.g. in Visual Art, Music, Drama)[18]; scientific experiments; projects; or other suitable tasks
    4. School-based components will be defined by the NCCA and will be undertaken by students in a defined time period within class contact time[19] to a national timetable. The NCCA will be requested to ensure that the nature and extent of the components will be realisable within these constraints. They will also be requested to pay particular attention to avoiding ‘over-assessment’ and the cumulative burden on students and teachers of multiple assessments across the full range of subjects.
    5. School-based components will be assessed by the students’ teachers, externally verified by an independent verification process[20], and reported to students and parents by the school.
    6. To support teachers in the assessment of school-based components and to ensure uniformity of standards and equity of treatment across all students and all schools:
  • Teachers will have available to them the detailed specifications for the subject including guidance on assessment[21]
  • Teachers will have available to them examples of annotated student work at different levels of performance
  • All teachers of each subject involved in teaching and assessing the school-based components in the school will engage in formal Subject Assessment Review meetings where they will compare their assessments of students’ work and ensure uniformity of teacher judgements/grading across the school[22]
  • Assessments will describe the achievement of students using a nationally determined, common set of descriptors (not marks) to describe the student’s achievement
  • Schools and teachers will be provided with advice and support from an independent Assessment Support Service that will advise on standards and provide independent verification of the outcomes of school-based assessment. The support, advisory and verification processes will entail the following:
  • Data on all students will be collected from schools; a sample of circa 15% of all school-based components for the subject will be selected and requested by the assessment support service from each school for the purposes of verification
  • The sample will include some components assessed by each teacher in the school and components at different levels of performance. It may also include components chosen by the school on which it would like an external opinion[23].
  • Schools will receive advice confirming their original assessments, or advising them to adjust the assessment as necessary. Amended assessment data will be collected from schools as required[24] 3.7  Schools will document and report to students and their parents on the outcomes achieved on the school-based components. Schools may initially report provisional outcomes to students and parents when the school-based assessment process is completed.[25] A standard template for this school report will be provided.
  • 3.8 Student appeals regarding the school-based components will be processed at school level[26] but the school authorities may seek the assistance of the independent assessment support service.


  • Examinations
    1. Externally set and marked examinations, normally of one-and-a-half hours duration[27], will complement school-based assessment of students’ achievements in a maximum of 10 subjects. Typically, the examination will represent a notional 60% of the documented learning for the subject. This will vary for the suite of technology subjects and other subjects where practical and performance components represent the major part of assessment.
    2. The examinations will be set, held and marked by the State Examinations Commission.
    3. The examinations will be held in the month of June in third year.
    4. The NCCA and the SEC will be requested to work in close collaboration to ensure that the examinations assess a broad range of knowledge, skills and competences, and that problematic prediction is avoided.[28]
    5. Student achievement on the examinations will be reported using a set of descriptors or grades.[29]
    6. Student appeals regarding the State certified examination will be processed as per the current appeals arrangements.[30]
  • Documenting students’ overall achievement
    1. Students will receive a Junior Cycle Student Profile of Achievement at the end of Junior Cycle.  This will document comprehensively the learning achievements of the student across all areas of learning.
    2. The Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement will document in a common, nationally-determined format:
      • The achievement of the student on each of the school-based components within the maximum of 10 subjects studied by the student, as reported by the school following independent external verification
      • The achievement of the student on the examinations as reported by the State Examinations Commission
      • The achievement of the student on short courses as reported by the school
      • The achievement of the student in other areas of learning, including Well-Being[31] and other learning activities engaged in by the student as reported by the school

5.3  The feasibility of aggregating the levels of performance from school-based components and levels of performance in State certified examinations into a single overall level of achievement for each subject would require further discussion and consideration.


  • Comprehensive continuing professional development for teachers
    1. To ensure the successful implementation of the revised Junior Cycle programme, a comprehensive programme of CPD will be provided to teachers by the Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT) support service. As previously announced, this will include subject-specific CPD and whole-school CPD. Subject specific CPD will be delivered across a number of years[32] in advance of and during the introduction of each subject.

6.2 In view of the urgency of supporting teachers in implementing the second year English course in the 2015/16 school year, immediate priority will be given to providing CPD for this subject as well as whole-school CPD for Junior Cycle.[33]


  • Resources

7.1 It is recognised that additional resources will be required in schools to support the implementation of the revised programme. Further detailed discussions, including discussions with all relevant parties in an industrial relations context, are required to reach agreement on these resource issues. Both parties to this agreement commit to engaging positively in these discussions which will commence as soon as possible. While the availability of resources is necessarily impacted on by a variety of factors, this agreement is predicated on an understanding that the resources identified and agreed as being necessary will be provided.



  • Creating the conditions for implementation

8.1  Acceptance of the way forward outlined in this document requires a number of actions by both sides.   These will provide a breathing space and help create the conditions necessary for implementation:

  • The union side will suspend all industrial action with immediate effect
  • The Minister will delay the implementation of the revised Science specifications to September 2016 in order to facilitate teachers’ full engagement in consultation on these specifications
  • The delivery of CPD to support the implementation of the revised Junior Cycle will recommence immediately. Priority will be given to an intensive programme to support and equip teachers of English in implementing the revised English specifications introduced in schools in September 2014, and to support whole-school preparation for junior cycle reform
  • T0 provide clarity and guidance for all concerned, the relevant elements of this agreement will be incorporated in a revised edition of Junior Cycle Framework, to be issued as soon as practicable by the Department of Education and Skills
  • Meaningful Junior Cycle Reform will require significant resources including provision of adequate teacher time. Representatives of the DES, school management authorities and the teacher unions will engage in detailed negotiations regarding the time and resources needed to support implementation of the revised Junior Cycle, the delivery of these resources and the other arrangements necessary.
  • Implementation of this agreement will be monitored by an implementation committee comprised of representatives of the parties involved and an independent chair
  • Curriculum Development
    1. In the first instance, curriculum reform and development are a matter for the NCCA, the statutory agency tasked with that function. Since its establishment, the Council has achieved considerable progress through its partnership approach. The current talks have of necessity brought the reform of the Junior Cycle temporarily into a different forum. It would be desirable that the focus in curriculum matters revert to the NCCA as soon as possible and that any lessons arising from the current dispute should be learned.


[1] Where does the phrase “the learning experience” come from, and what does it mean? Are we going through all this to make school more pleasurable, regardless of losses or improvements to educational outcomes?

[2] It is insulting to teachers to imply that our objections amount to a sulk over detioration in pay and conditions. “Alienation” suggests we’re a bunch of wayward teens who will appreciate in time that decisions are being made for our good.

[3] In AfL terms this is a star for nice expression and a wish that we’d shut up because our point is invalid.

[4] Give a man wandering naked through the Sahara a fig-leaf. It offers “some protection”.

[5] How is this possible? This is flowery, progressive rhetoric. Nothing more.

[6] What’s a “competence”?

[7] “21st century learner” has a nice ring to it, but it might be prudent to avoid reforming na education system around a catchphrase. The notion is thoroughly debunked in Christodoulou’s “Seven Myths about Education”.

[8] “the quality of learning” is a meaningless phrase.

[9] Say this sentence out loud. Yep.

[10] Consistency and equality are best retained by subjecting all students to the same assessment and marking them to the same standard. Or is that not fair?

[11] Should read “teaching” or at least “classroom instruction”.

[12] Of course they will replace traditional subjects. How else are they going to fit on the timetable?

[13] Is CSPE to be stripped of its worthwhile elements of knowledge of the parliamentary and judicial systems?

[14] Students who opt to study additional subjects will no longer be allowed to sit the exam in them. A purely cost-cutting measure that affects our brightest students.

[15] “Support and document” is a major re-definition of “assess”.

[16] The first time I heard the phrase “suite of subjects”, I laughed. Not any more.

[17] The English specification does not specify anything resembling knowledge. There is no syllabus.

[18] The impossibility of objectively assessing oral components has been cited by Ofqual as a major reason the UK are moving away from this type of certification.

[19] Is teaching seen as so superfluous that we can spend contact time assessing various components with no loss of learning opportunity for the 30+ other students in the class?

[20] Vague

[21] We’ll give them a few hand-outs to read. It’ll be grand.

[22] Is this to happen in Croke Park hours?

[23] If I make such a request, does that facilitate gaming the system? It will if included in the 15%.

[24] Not wanting to disrespect my profession but no-one could have confidence in this system.

[25] If they’ve any sense they won’t. Sharing your “provisional” verdict is inviting an appeal before the assessment is even completed.

[26] Does this mean if a student is unhappy with a grade from Teacher A, she can seek a second opinion from his colleague, Teacher B?

[27] One and a half hours in entirely inadequate to assess the depth and breadth of knowledge students should have acquired by the end of three years of study, at least in English.

[28] This should be done by carefully randomising exam questions across the subject domain, not throwing capricious curveballs.

[29] Well, which is it?

[30] If I want to appeal the grade given to me by a disinterested, anonymous party, then I have recourse to the SEC, but I have no such recourse should I feel I have been unfairly assessed by some-one I know?

[31] How will “performance in well-being” be assessed?

[32] How big is “a number”? Will some students have finished the course before their teachers have finished the CPD necessary to deliver the course?

[33] Either CPD for English teachers is a priority or it isn’t. If it’s on a par with whole-school CPD then it’s not a priority.