Teachers in Ireland are going on strike tomorrow.
This strike is a little different. It’s not for money. It’s not for smaller classes. It’s not for reduced workload.
The reason for the strike is the demand by the Department of Education in Ireland, on foot of old research conducted 15 years ago in 1999, that teachers should assess their own students for exam certification purposes as part of a reform of lower second level education in Ireland (more details here
Several commentators, many uniformed about assessment, education, and the realities of school, have weighed into the debate and made wildly generalised statements such as ‘in every other country in the world teachers assess their students’.
I can’t imagine they were thinking about this. Nor were they thinking about moves away from course work assessment (continuous assessment) here which saw boys’ scores improve in a return to terminal exams.
Not withstanding these, it ignores that what the rest of the world is doing is not necessarily good for Ireland.
So to point out an obvious subtlety it is important to recongise that the strike is notabout teachers assessing their own students. Teachers in Ireland already assess their students. The argument is about teachers assessing their own students for exam certification purposes. In addition to this, teachers are being asked to give grades for certification to students that are meant to be comparable across all schools eventhough all schools are being encouraged to have different programmes of study.
As they say in Ireland – pure mad!
The NCCA redesigned (and is still redesigning – the work is not complete yet because is being done piecemeal) the lower second level curriculum to include a minimum-standards based approach to teaching and learning. Think of it as an Irish version of No Child Left Behind (which encouraged schools to lower standards
As part of a cost saving measure
, the government in 2009 decided it would get teachers to assess students’ final exams instead of the State Examinations Commission.
Teacher Unions reacted. Teachers were largely excluded from what was a politically managed consultation
process on ‘reforms’. There is a clear distain for teachers in officialdom. They are being told how to teach even though they are trained professionals. And now they were being asked to assess for certification purposes their own students.
The current examination system, in which students are graded anonymously, where there is a strict adherence to the principles of validity and reliability, is the only area of Irish society recognised as being free of bias and undue influence.
Teacher unions asked for a stay on the introduction of further ‘reforms’ so they could be discussed with the government.
During the summer, the new Minister for Education appears to have been boxed into a corner by her officials when she jumped the gun and announced that the new programme would go ahead and talks would come later. The lack of positive regard was seen by many as further evidence of efforts to exclude teachers.
After a first strike day in December, the Minister made several statements that amounted to a effort to educate teacher unions in the process of negotiation. She cited that she has moved and now it was teachers turn. December last she said she moved more that half way by offering 40% in-school assessment and 60% examination
. However, these figures are exactly the same as those suggested in the original reform plans
dating from 2011!
So not really any movement.
Where she did move was to offer up to 15% external moderation. But this is not moving half way. And considering the longer term plan to have teachers assess for certification purposes 100% of student work, it doesn’t really amount to an offer.
After the first strike day, the government-financed National Parents Council
spectacularly got their wires crossed by siding with the Department while failing to recognise that this strike is about the welfare of their own children.
However, this may be a residual of successful efforts by government in the past to drive a wedge between parents and their children’s secondary care-givers – teachers. If the National Parents Council did their own research instead of blindly buying the government line, their support would have been inevitable and would have ensured the strike would not happen tomorrow.
To be sure, there are other issues beside assessment. No doubt there is an element of settling old scores on both sides. The increasing bureaucratisation of the profession, increasing workload, lack of investment, poor professional regard, large class sizes, and a general malaise with austerity which has had a disproportionate effect on public servants merely add fuel to the fire.
But teachers in Ireland advocate for their students. Judging them in an final exam for certification is anathema to them. By ensuring that certification standards across the country remain comparable and free of undue influence and bias, they are protecting the interests of Irish school children. Someone goofed up but this time it’s not the teacher unions.
The ball is now in the Minister’s court. Or more specifically, the Department of Education. How they get out of it will require a good deal of humble pie. The only question is who will have to eat it.