Chapter 5 of the Framework for a New Junior Cycle outlines the qualifications which will attach to the new Framework.
The chapter opens with this rather wonderful line
“The new junior cycle qualification will be more than just examinations”.
The first bit of bad news here is that the NCCA suggests that the junior certificate (or whatever they will call it) is a ‘qualification’. The second bit of bad news is that it equates an examination (at least in part) with a qualification. The third bit of bad news is that the NCCA has decided to keep an examination despite all it wrote about the negative impact of the examination on learning.
In terms of the strict dictionary definition, the junior certificate could be regarded as a qualification. But in real life terms it is nothing of the sort. It has no value in terms of deciding progress to further learning (not that it should) nor in being sufficient with which to get employment.
The current mode of examination, while passing it may confer recognition of a qualification, does not necessarily suggest mastery of the material needed to achieve the qualification.
The ‘qualification’ will be ‘smaller in size” i.e. student will be examined in fewer subjects. This apparently will create ‘space for real choices schools can offer within their programme’. Yet the NCCA does not explain how reducing the number of examinations will provide for real choice in learning. Students will dedicate themselves to learning only those things they have to i.e. those that will be examined. Anything else will not be taken as seriously as a comparable learning experience by significant numbers of students. Indeed, some learning will become entertainment but not necessarily in the ‘fun’ sense of the word.
The chapter says a lot about flexibility but neglects the most obvious point, namely that schools at present don’t need to follow the junior cycle, yet most ‘spurn’ that flexibility in favour of the certainty and routine that the current programme brings.
The NCCA attempts to reassure by stating that the “qualifications will be underpinned by processes and procedures set out to assure their quality, in line with good international practice in countries such as Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and others”. International “best” practice seems to have disappeared, yet given the emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the Framework, it is perplexing why countries at the top of the PISA survey pyramid – Finland, China and South Korea – didn’t get a mention. Furthermore, it is poor effort to refer to ‘process and procedures’ without actually presenting what is meant by this.
(Update December 2014: two and half years on, there is still no clear ‘process and procedures’).
(Update March 2015: still not much progress).
There will be two qualifications – Level 2 and Level 3 of the National Framework of Qualifications. Level 2 qualification is for a small number of students with learning disabilities.
Level 3 will have common levels for all subjects except English, Irish and Mathematics. This immediately devalues the efforts of more able children. An examination with such a narrow range of grades won’t differentiate sufficiently between children of different abilities. But then, I would prefer that either the nature of the examination was changed or preferably, that the examination was completely abolished.
It is also looking increasingly like a carbon copy of No Child Left Behind where, once a teacher is satisfied a child has achieved a particular, stated outcome (there are 59 for English), the teacher’s input with that student will end because of the pressure to ensure all the other students achieve the minimum required for that outcome. So the education provided will be a lowest common denominator rather than one that ensures all children receive an education that matches their ability.
Students will study for examination 8 subjects or 7 subjects and 2 short courses or 6 subjects and 4 short courses. Only English, Irish and Mathematics will be compulsory. Subjects will be 200 hours instruction over 3 years and short courses will be 100 hours over 3 years. First year will not count towards the qualification even though it will consume a third of the instruction time. No alternative to this analysis is presented in the Framework so it isn’t clear what will happen to the difference in hours between the approximately 2800 hours of the current programme and the 1720 hours of the new programme. Clearly it won’t be spent in class contact. As a parent and a teacher, I find this diminution unacceptable and worrying.
The worst aspect of the new qualification is that teachers will be expected to assess for the purposes of qualification their own students. They will do this for portfolio work and short courses. There are many issues with this. Teachers should be advocates, not judges, of their students. Having teachers assess student for qualification purposes immediately puts teachers and students in opposing camps, negatively impacts on classroom relationships, creates imperatives for inappropriate influence from parents and school management on teachers day-to-day work and attacks the very culture we should be developing in schools to foster learning.
It is important to note the contradiction between the NCCA proposal to grant more autonomy to schools yet increase interference in the professional work of teachers by the imposition of a tick-the-boxstyle training approach to classroom learning.
The emphasis on key skills, while important, should not be at the expense of education in the true sense of that word. Children are not monkeys doing tricks for peanuts. Nor are they half-adults eagerly waiting to enter the workplace and satisfy the skills demands of multinational companies. If multinational companies came here because they liked our educated workforce, then it makes no sense to implement the kind of change proposed in the Framework.
Clearly there are some changes needed if such companies are to stay but creating an entirely new system to produce lever-pulling monkeys will only lessen the attractiveness of our workers. Indeed, there is no guarantee that just because ‘improvements’ on the PISA score will attract companies, they will stay once the true value of the new system becomes apparent. Far from improving the flexibility of our workforce, I believe the proposed changes will negatively affect it. The reduced teaching and learning time in class, the lesser examination and the use of continual assessment as a basis for qualification will not improve learning outcomes but worsen them.
Worst of all, if this idiocy goes ahead, we won’t know the full damage it will do for at least 10 years. This is enough to ruin the education of a generation and to give those responsible sufficient time to get off the hook…..and, most likely, blame teachers for it.