Thursday, 19 September 2013

All Aboard the LE Junior Cycle


There were so many metaphors in the keynote speech delivered by Dr. Mark Fennell at Monday's JMB Educational Conference that by the end of it I could feel my head spinning. Metaphorically, of course, not like Linda Blair's.

We learned that it was okay to be at Ground Zero and that no-one has a monopoly on wisdom. We sailed through uncharted waters, in a craft powered by the engine of reform towards a land where working-class boys will be re-engaged with learning using the tools to turn the keys that will unlock their core learning priorities. The nautical theme continued with the Junior Cycle being refitted in the dry dock, before sailing on serenely as there will be no Big Bang.

Dr. Fennell's speech did indeed mark a key note, as for the rest of the day I heard about one-stop shops, the need to rebuild and how change cannot be achieved through spin. I'm sure there was a paradigm shift in there somewhere as well.

English is the first subject that will go through the transformation from Junior Cert subject to clump of learning objectives. I've taught and examined Junior Cert English for a few years now (not telling) and there a lot of scope there for reform. The course is poorly defined and the lack of prescribed texts makes standardised examination difficult. The exam layout favours speed-readers and those who can handwrite at breakneck pace. The amount of class-time spent on Shakespeare and novels - and the depth of knowledge and understanding that students can gain from this study -  is not reflected in the marking scheme. Lots wrong; but lots right as well. Teachers have autonomy; and while the open nature of the course and the subjectivity inherent in reading creative and personal writing make standardisation difficult, the SEC do their best to ensure each candidate's work is fairly assessed and rewarded. Most crucially, students have the privilege of having their work assessed by some-one who knows neither their name, their colour, their creed nor their reputation.

So in some respects reform is welcome, but just wait until you see what they have in mind.  English is no longer so much as subject of study as a vehicle for the Key Skills of Managing Myself, Being Creative, Staying Safe, Communicating and Working with Others.

Does it make sense to start this experimental process with what I once described in a HDip essay as the  "keystone subject"? That's debatable but I know for one thing that reading the Draft Specifications that were released in May found me groaning in frustration and foreboding. The margins of my copy of this NCCA document (the basis for the syllabus published today) are liberally ornamented with WTFs, FFSs and a few instances of "Duh!".  

The envisaged  syllabus is much more prescriptive than the old because the standardising element of the state examination will be largely done away with. It now counts for only 60% of a student's grade, not that they'll get grades anymore, only piano-exam descriptors like "achieved with higher merit". No-one has explained why As, Bs,  and Cs are being abolished but I suspect the work of my nemesis: mental health. 40% of the marks come from coursework.  The idea of teachers correcting children's homework and pretending it's some kind of qualification is some kind of joke.  In reality, the Junior Cert will be abolished and instead the third year summer report will be distinguished just by being printed on nicer paper. As long as the nice paper doesn't cost too much.


Because, in reality, junior cycle reform will constitute a major saving for the Department of Education. This is the rationale behind the move towards coursework and the abolition of State exams in all subjects except for English, Irish and Maths in the short-term, and all subjects in the long-term. Ruairi Quinn might claim that the changes are based on "compelling evidence from other countries" but neither I, nor any of my colleagues, have been informed of the whereabouts of this evidence.


I'll leave you now with a link to the specification, one to the One Stop Shop in which our young people's education is being sold to appease the proponents of austerity and short-term thinking.

 Note: Thanks to the commenter who pointed out that I'd stumbled on the 1989 syllabus, which is still on the NCCA website as "a draft" and mistakenly thought my fears for next year's first years were unfounded. An embarrassing error, which I can only blame on my raging head cold. I've reposted, leaving out the error and will post again on the specification. Apologies.


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