Framework for Junior Cycle Part 2 – Hedging Bets

In Part 1 of this series on the ‘Framework for Junior Cycle‘ I questioned the proposed ‘reform’ and presented some useful reading on this issue.  Over the next few posts I am going to examine the proposals contained with the Framework publication itself – taking each chapter in turn.  I will complete this series with my overall opinion and my suggestions for a way forward for education in Ireland, not just Junior Cycle.
I think it is important to set out at the beginning that I think education reform in Ireland is needed. Indeed I have made several suggestions in this regard before the NCCA published its Draft Findings on the consultation process in February 2011. Some of the things I sought are included in the Draft Framework published in October 2011. But then some of these suggestions were included on the Innovation and Identity publication dated February 2010 on the NCCA website and in the presentation of the same name released in October 2010!
I am not against reform nor resistant to change.  I was an early integrater of ICT in my teaching, have been (and still am) involved in delivering professional development courses for teachers and I have been involved with curriculum development including producing innovative Transition Units, including one for the NCCA. I much prefer to drive change than follow it, but follow it nonetheless. Change has never been a problem for me, nor I suggest most teachers.  The issue is the type of change; and attempts to paint resistance to supposed education reform as ‘teachers being afraid of change’ (because Virginia, ‘change is difficult’) is a last-chance saloon argument of those who can not think of better ideas than the misguided ones being proposed.
Chapter 1: Innovation and Identity – the Big Ideas about Change.
Let’s ignore for a moment the quality of writing (we are all human) in this chapter of the Framework and instead have a look at its content.
The Chapter opens up stating how difficult change has been to implement because no matter how it is done ‘on paper’ change has a habit of ‘resetting itself back to how things have always been done‘ (p3).  There are any number of lessons that can (and should) be taken from this. But for me it reads very simply – if this change doesn’t work, it’s because someone else is to blame. After all, the first sentence points out that change is easy on paper.  This of course points to the disconnect between those advocating this change and those whose daily reality of teaching informs what really works in schools. However, as someone jokingly suggested to me recently, ‘the sociologists have taken over the NCCA’. If one wants to be sure of change, one should ensure those implementing it are fully included in the design of the change.  I believe they have been materially excluded.  I will expand on this in my last post on this topic.
As part of the consultation process, the NCCA proposed a ‘Framework within which schools might organise Junior Cycle‘. In the consultation process ‘participants…were encouraged to position their ideas along a number of thematic pathways from small change to major reform‘. I guess one could say that kids were asked how much chocolate would they like. The use of the word ‘reform’ in a consultation is itself prejudicial since ‘reform’ is prima facie a good thing; however, equating reform with particular change prejudices the outcome. People will choose the particular change for to do otherwise would be to reject reform.  Who would do such a thing.  This is effectively borne out at the end of Page 3 and on to Page 4 where the Framework document draws a distinction between those suggesting the continued use of compulsory subjects as being in the ‘more of the same side‘ (i.e. not in favour of the particular change and hence being opposed to reform – boo!) and those at the opposite end of the continuum (suggesting that the NCCA suggestion that what lies there is the end of the continuum) who wanted to focus on ‘essential learning that would be common to all students, on the quality of their learning, on the need to make greater use of new technologies in the home and at school, on the right balance to be achieved between control from the centre and school autonomy, and on the future of the examination that had become a dress-rehearsal for the Leaving Certificate in stand of a support for learning in Junior Cycle’.
What is wrong with you…how could you not agree with this? Compulsory subjects, bad; NCCA ideas, good. Get over yourself! Never mind that the 10-year old ESRI (do you remember their pronouncements on the economy!) research backs up the NCCA. After all, if you believe the universe is made of egg and you find traces of shell you can ignore those rocky things that don’t fit in to your version of reality. It is not surprising there for that those on the ‘more of the same side’ of the NCCA continuum were beaten hands-down by the NCCA ‘essential-skills’ fetish. (yeah I know….)
Interestingly, the NCCA’s commissioned research discovered that First Year is dominated by students trying to settle in to (a new) second level school, Third Year is dominated by the (Junior Certificate) examination and Second Year is when students switch off. I would have charged less to tell the NCCA this. The NCCA states that the second year switch off deepens overtime and affects senior cycle.  This is true…as it is for switch off at any point in the school cycle. They also state that this switch off  is more pronounced in boys and in disadvantaged areas.  The Framework document doesn’t examine this closely. It is assumed to be a component of schools rather than, say, a reflection of hormonal change in teenagers in the first instance and societal investment in education and community programmes in the second.
The ‘evidence’ section goes on to quote that teachers felt that they were the ones ‘doing the hard work in schools‘. Again, little analysis is offered.  There is no mention that the focus on the teacher teaching, rather than what I call ‘child-centred learning’ is the result on under-investment in education.  When the Junior Cycle was first introduced it was supposed to usher in a new era of active methodologies in teaching and learning.  It never did because the government did not invest in providing the day-to-day resources needed for this. We’re talking about simple things here – pens, card, paper, laminating equipment and even properly expensed photocopiers.  All teachers had to help children learn was a black board and a book. There seems to be NO acknowledgement of the fantastic job Irish teachers have done in this context. Instead, we are subjected to regular public bullying by the media and politicians.
The ‘evidence’ section also refers to the ‘findings’ from Ireland’s performance on the PISA assessment. It refers to the deterioration over the last decade. As a justification for any kind of change, this is spurious nonsense at best and downright ignorant and manipulative at worst.  The last decade saw a huge influx of migrants to Ireland such that they now constitute 10% of our population. Pro rata, this means that 10% of the school population do not have English as their first language. Add in the budget cuts, the loss of SNAs and other supports including those for Travellers and it is no wonder our Literacy and Numeracy performance on PISA suffered.  Yet no mention was made of our improved performance in Science.  We were 15th in 2006 and 15th in 2009. This represents a nominal increase because China entered for the first time in 2009 and bumped everyone down. We stayed were we were. How could this be if we were performing so badly in Literacy and Maths?
While we do need to improve our literacy and numeracy, we should be very clear about who and what is responsible for this.  It is not teachers. Still, we must help get politicians off the hook on this so we will. But PISA should not be used as a justification for wholesale Junior Cycle change. Indeed, according to Professor Svein Sjoberg, PISA should not be used of policy formulation.
(first 8 minutes)
The last statement in the ‘evidence’ section on P.4 is one I agree with.  The ‘Junior Cycle is falling short of what students need‘. I would argue that the proposals contained in the  Framework document worsens he situation rather than fix it.
The NCCA complains that when the new Junior Cycle curriculum was introduced, there was a ‘mismatch’ between the curriculum and this resulted in the secondary system ‘resetting’ itself back to the status quo.  This happened, it says, because the assessment reforms were not delivered.  However, part of the assessment ‘reforms’ suggested then involved teachers assessing their own students for qualification purposes. With the exception that it saves money, I have yet to hear one valid and constructive argument as to why teachers assessing their own students is a good idea. It was a bad idea then, it is a bad idea now. That said, the assessment procedure has to change because it would be nice, as a teacher, not to have to spend so much of Third Year focusing on certain types of preparation for the Junior Certificate examination.
This section ends with some rhetoric about rhetoric with which I do not agree. But one thing is clear; the change that is being proposed will bring change – but I do not believe it will be the sort the NCCA seeks.
‘Local Flexibility’
Loaded with contradictions, this section of the chapter suggests that unless schools lead the change, meaningful change will not find its way in to the classroom. This is clearly nonsense. Change can be effected quiet easily by properly resourcing classrooms and by having sensible pupil-teacher ratios. However, the NCCA does point out that allowing schools the flexibility as to how to introduce change could lead to polarisation in the school system. The word ‘could’ could have been replaced with the word ‘will’.
While the section recognizes that some school might not want to introduce the changes, that is too bad. Flexibility but only the flexibility we like. So, all schools will be expected to introduce changes simultaneously. Or not. Overall, the Framework is extremely vague about what will happen and how. It’s is more like a blueprint for a blueprint for change or something. Sort of.
The section suggests that system-wide change has to begin with the examination yet we know that this has already be rolled back on and that the new programme will be introduced first. Just to clarify – a new examination can not be introduced until a new syllabus has been introduced and in-serviced. The section is incorrect when it states ‘real change across the junior cycle will begin by changing what happens at the end of the junior cycle’. In fact real change will only happen when what happens at the end of Senior Cycle changes (and a few other things but more later).
The section advocates greater parental involvement.  I am all for this.  Parents should not only be partners in their children’s education, they should be pro-active in it and indeed be held accountable for it.  It is a pity that the Framework document as a whole does not outline ANY vision for how this could happen.
This section suggests that changing the name of the qualification is important and not just cosmetic.  It suggests that ‘Junior Cert’ will the ‘National Certificate of Junior Cycle Education’ – or as the students will call it in a few years the ‘Nat Cert’.
Figure 1 at the end of the chapter summarizes the New Junior Cycle.
  • The focus will be on students ‘making a greater connection with learning’, improving the quality of learning, on better literacy and numeracy ‘outcomes’, and emphasis on ‘key skills’.
  • There are 24 ‘Statements of Learning’ which is the minimum that a student will learn (my emphasis) and literacy and numeracy and the key skills will feature strongly.
  • Subjects will still be there and there will be short courses – but these will only be important to the extent that they inform he 24 Statements of Learning (my emphasis).
  • Assessment will be a feature of classroom practice over the three years of the union Cycle, students will be more responsible having evidence of learning and teachers will provide feedback on that evidence and will report on student progress.
  • There will be two ‘Nat Certs’ – one mostly at common level to replace the Junior Cycle and one more suited to SEN pupils.
Chapter 1 effectively attempts to paint a rationale for change and that much of this is based around the assessment of the Junior Cycle in Year Three. The NCCA believes that to change the examination they must also radically change the curriculum.  This is nonsense.  But then the State Examinations Commission, which from a pedagogical perspective should have been part of the same organization as the NCCA, did not make a submission to the NCCA. ( The functions of both organizations were originally carried out by the Curriculum and Examinations Board which was dissolved just before the introduction of the Junior Cycle in 1990).
The NCCA believes that the new Junior Cycle programme should be a implemented by schools according to their own desires  – a sort of Mongolian Barbecue where you can have what you want.  All of this seems to be in aid of giving students a better experience of schools (sort of) – more in keeping with what they want.  The NCCA bases it work on the research carried out among 900 students (out of 54000 at Junior Cycle) in 12 schools (out of about 850) in which they asked them various questions (can’t locate them anywhere but some of those on the videos are leading). The NCCA seems to have taken at face value qualitative research.
The Framework document suggests that all the conditions necessary for change are lining up. They’re not. School is school. It doesn’t change because new curricula are developed. Curricula in our 2000 year-old Greek model of education have changed multiple times in multiple places but the fact remains. School does not change by curricula alone. It changes only when the entire education system – all of its inputs, processes and outputs change their mindsets and adopts new values and attitudes. The NCCA introduced a new (vastly overloaded) Primary Curriculum, has produced the Junior Cycle Framework and is changing the Leaving Certificate Curriculum and Examination.  This piecemeal change of only 3 components of the system will not a better education system make. Holistic change can only come from a holistic plan.  There isn’t one.
Having bound itself up in issues of ‘identity’ – as in, ‘poor little Junior Cycle doesn’t know what it is’ – the NCCA proposes a name change for the qualification.  They somehow have missed the point – that no matter what the new curriculum/cycle is called, the ‘National Certificate of Junior Cycle Education‘ still has ‘Junior Cycle’ in it. On one level it doesn’t matter. Most student just get on with it and it is never as big a deal to them as it seems to adults (teenagers are more preoccupied with thoughts other than what the school cycle is called). But on another level, who are we really changing for again?
Worst of all, there is no attempt to present a pedagogical or applied psychological rationale for the changes proposed. The NCCA Framework does not refer to any educational theorist or theory on which they have built their plans.
Coming up – The Joys of Standardised Testing, when ‘change’ means ‘money’ and those tick-the-box assessment procedures that are all the rage in the England.

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