PMB Junior Cycle reform


Dáil Éireann 21 January 2015



Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion.


It is over a quarter of a century since the current Junior Certificate was established, at a time when for many students it was their last formal exam. Now, thankfully, only about ten percent of children leave formal education at this stage, so our focus must be on the learning process and the skills learned rather than the outcome of an exam.


I think we all agree that those leaving school in 1989 faced very different challenges to those leaving school in 2015 and beyond.  Educational theory has moved on significantly in that time, the emphasis now is on teaching children life skills, as opposed by learning by rote.


When the proposals for overhauling the Junior Cycle were initially mooted, there was real fear expressed by students, parents and teachers about the fairness of students’ own teachers marking their work. However, in the intervening period, much has been done to allay these fears. For example, the current proposal is that final exams in third year would account for 60% of the Junior Cycle marks and these exams would be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission.  I think that that fact has allayed the fears of many in respect of this reform.



What remains is 40% of the marks and recent years have seen increased emphasis on portfolio and project work, group work and orals and it is only sensible that these be assessed on a continual assessment basis, with appropriate external checks to ensure fairness.


Much of the focus has been on the marking structure of the exam and I believe that the 40% continuous assessment element reflects best practice and this is reflected by the acceptance of continuous assessment and non-exam based assessment in countries across Europe. Rather than focusing on the exam, our focus should be on what the children are learning during this important three-year period and I particularly welcome the focus on health and well-being, in particular PE, SPHE and CSPE. This followed consultations with young people, who wanted to see greater emphasis placed on social and life skills.


The change to the Junior Cert is not about saving money, rather it is about using the knowledge gained about best practice in teenage learning in the past two to three decades and putting that into place in Irish classrooms, ensuring that students are learning skills that will be of value during their lives, rather than sitting in silence learning off long tracts of information.


The Minister, I believe, has taken on board in a very even-handed manner, the very real concerns of teachers and this is reflected in the reduced level of school-based assessment.  However, Ireland is already out of step in terms of the European experience in embracing the importance of on-going assessment and a move away from reliance on end of year written exams.


Dáil na nÓg, when consulted about the Junior Cycle reform, stated that the Junior Cert as it currently stands, is essentially a memory test, and they found that to be a negative form of assessment, which led to undue stress for many.


The voice of those sitting the exams is important, education now is a collaborative affair between students and teachers and it is only right that their views are taken on board.


I believe that necessary safeguards can be put in place to ensure fairness of the overall result, both the written exam and the school-based assessment and once new structures are agreed to by all parties, we can move forward with a junior cycle that reflects best practice internationally and one that rewards real learning as opposed to rote learning and properly equips students for life in 21st century Ireland.