Junior Cycle Framework Part 3 – The View from Above

Vision, Values and Principles
Chapter 2 of the Framework presents the ‘Vision, Values and Principles’ upon which the Junior Cycle will be based. It states :
Junior cycle education places students at the centre of the educational experience, enabling them to actively participate in their communities and in society and to be resourceful and confident learners in all aspects and stages of their lives.‘ P.9.
In interview with DublinCityFM Ruairí Quinn stated that when people go for an interview after students leave university (my emphasis) the employer asks about what else the student did – were they involved in sports, did they display leadership qualities, or star in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The Minister goes on to say “What were are trying to do is to allay, align that kind of labour market interviewing thresholds with what happens in the school and what a number of employers have said to the universities and we have heard this from Captains of Industry that people coming out of the present education system on paper may have a wonderful set of qualifications but in reality they don’t have the necessary additional skills or complementary skills to enable them to communicate their learning, to engage in dialog with other people, to make presentations, to work collectively with other people..‘ and so the government in trying to implement in the junior cycle these combined skills. Of course this ignores that many schools do cater for this and that there are many opportunities for this in Transition Year also. The bigger point should be what are the universities doing to ensure graduates leave university with these skills.
Now while I am happy for the government to pay teachers to deliver extra-curricular activities I do not think making ‘drama club’ a school subject will result in improved outcomes. The Minister did not answer the original question put, namely, would the cast member get a lower grade than the lead. This question has to be answered by the NCCA (though it will probably bat it off to the SEC as their problem) if there is to be recognizable and uniform standards in Junior Cycle education so that there is true equality of opportunity for all children.
The Minister laments that the Junior Cycle has become a dress rehearsal for the Leaving Certificate but doesn’t acknowledge that this is because the Junior Certificate examination has NO value as a qualification. I do not agree with his statement that students have been straight-jacketed in to this system by the examination. Instead, the driver of this has been the points system. So it is this that should be changed.
The Minster suggests that schools will develop what they do best and that parents can decide to send their children to that school. But moving will not be an option for many parents and so they will be ‘stuck’ with their local (under-resourced) school. This has been the experience in the UK. Poor people must make do with what they are given; the wealthier can move to localities with better schools. What is even scarier, is that embedded in this notion is the privatization-by-stealth of the education system.  The world and its granny knows what a shambles that became in the UK and we should resist it here. By privatisation, I don;t mean that all schools will become private schools, but that schools will be given a budget with which to pay for the entirety of their operational costs, included teacher salaries.  Ultimately however, it will produce what will seem to be a raft of ‘failing schools’ when the real culprit will, as it has always been, underfunding.
Asked if greater school autonomy would result in some schools being better than others, the Minister questions whether it matters so long as it draws out the best in students. But if a local schools has not developed a ‘good enough’ Junior Cycle programme, the students is stuck in their under-performing niche.  Having a standardized curriculum ensures all students at least get a minimum quality standard education equally.  To enable schools to go further merely requires extra funding.  This is borne out by the experience of fee-charging/Private schools schools. Students in these schools get exactly the same teachers and largely the same classroom experience as other secondary schools except that these schools can use the fee income to purchase additional resources and invest in better extra-curricular activities. So Private Schools are in a better position to help develop the ‘whole person’ that is the student.
I’ve included the DublinCityFM podcast below. The CEO of the NCCA, Dr. Anne Looney’s comments are funny. They speak for themselves and need no comment.
So there is the vision statement as given on page 9 of the Framework but then there is the additional view from the policy makers – namely that we need more training in Junior Cycle to that when students leave university they can pass a job interview. One has to question what will be the impact of this emphasis on  training at second level at the expense of education.
Chapter 2 outlines a set of values which are admirable. Hopefully these will become totally ingrained in the personality of each student as this country badly needs people with these values such has been their absence in social and political discourse over the last 14 years (and beyond).
The chapter also presents Principles that ‘inform the school’s thinking about the intended curriculum (what we want students to learn), the enacted curriculum (how teachers teach and students engage with the intended curriculum), and the experienced curriculum (how individual students experience the curriculum).
These principles are presented in a table here. They are all laudable;
  • Quality
  • Wellbeing
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Choice and Flexibility
  • Engagement, Relevance and Enjoyment
  • Inclusive Education
  • Continuity
  • Lifelong Learning
I will comment another time on choice and flexibility but it is worth noting that their is no mention of ‘appropriateness‘. There is no suggestion that the Framework will allow for an education appropriate to the needs of a particular child. This in not a component of ‘inclusive education’ which, in the Framework means, ‘The educational experience is inclusive of all students and contributes to equality of opportunity, participation and outcome for all.‘ We have this already in schools.  Except if a child is autistic. Or a Traveller. Or to some extent in need of an Special Needs Assistant. Or Gifted. Education that is truly inclusive is also appropriate to the abilities of the child.
In schools there are 2 curricula. There is the one that children are directly taught, and there is the ‘hidden curriculum’. I would argue that there are two policies for Junior Cycle Reform. There is the express policy, contained in the Framework. And there is the ‘Hidden Policy’. This is the policy that pays lip-service to recognising the educational needs of the child. These needs include some of the demands society places on individuals – that they be socialised and to some extent, civic minded. No society would tolerate an education system that mass-produces anarchists! The hidden policy looks at a slightly different picture – the political and economic requirements of and the international status of the education system.
The international status is determined by the success in meeting the economic requirements of the system. As the world becomes more globalized, the competition for Foreign Direct Investment requires countries to produce worker-bees suitable to such investment. This is ok. I understand this. But there is more to education that producing worker-bees. And not everyone wants to (or should) become a worker-bee for an MNC.  And we should not develop educational policy on this basis. Consequently, policy driven by PISA scores is likely to backfire. Standardised testing in the USA has lessened the quality of education there and led to appeals for waivers from it.
The political requirements of the education system are many and complex. They include a need by politicians to satisfy (what is often a media created) the image of the education system. If the media say the system in broken, then politicians, who even by their own admission are not the experts, must be seen to do something about it. This of course is dangerous. When an organisation comes into being, it first goal is survival. This is equally dangerous when it come to education policy formulation.
More striking in its absence from the vision and the list of values and principles is any reference to standardized testing. It is lurking furtively in the background but perhaps someone thought it best not to include the specifics in the Framework.
A key principle of the proposed ‘reforms’ is that students should achieve certain levels of proficiency in Maths and literacy.  This is acceptable but it should be between teachers and their schools and not driven by increased testing from the Department.  It is clear that part of the purpose of increased standardized tests to better ‘train’ students for the PISA assessments – as if these are the only educational goals worth achieving. But it is equally clear that these tests will become de facto league tables for schools.  The Minister in his address to the NCCA congratulated them on the secrecy with which they have developed their plans. Clearly Ireland is a place of leaks and it is only a matter of time before test scores find their way into the public domain. No doubt some people will think this is a good idea.  Would it be such a good idea to label a child as a 5 when they are 7 years of age? How about when they are 13?
Coming up in Part 4 One step forward, 3 steps back; when is the Group Cert not the Group Cert. and how to completely kill off a love of literature.

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