It’d be nice to think that educational reform is based on research and consultation. It would be nice to think reform has little to do with politics, and is impervious to squabbles between grown adults.
It would be nice.
This week, long-awaited reforms were announced for Leaving Cert students. There are some positives but overall, they’re disappointing. They don’t go far enough in addressing the gross inequalities in our system. They ignore the primary source of anxiety, the points race, and they show a fundamental lack of understanding of our curriculum.
On top of all that, if Junior Cycle reforms are anything to go by, the conversation is likely to get darker.
This week, I chatted with Dr Emma Farrell who, alongside Dr Áine Mahon, recently published a brilliant paper on wellbeing and Junior Cycle reform.
In 2011, when the Junior Cycle reforms were first announced, they aimed to reduce the ‘heat’ of terminal exams.Students would be assessed by teachers on an ongoing basis. ‘Wellbeing’ was mentioned only 4 times in the overall NCCA document. All 42 pages of it. By 2014, these reforms were unrecognisable. Following threats of strike action by ASTI, it was agreed that teachers wouldn’t mark any graded work. Terminal exams would remain. ‘Heat’ would be alleviated by 400 hours of ‘wellbeing’ instead.
“The years of careful planning, research and consultation that went into the original proposals to reform the Junior Cycle were upturned in a matter of months by a handful of negotiators.” The inclusion of 400 hours of wellness, 20% of the curriculum, came from a spat between unions and the state.
The paper goes on to argue that by making ‘wellbeing’ a curricular focus in schools, deeply meaningful relationships between students and teachers, the true source of wellbeing, were overlooked. Plainly speaking, because of political pressure, initial Junior Cycle reforms became something else entirely – rushed, and arguably, fundamentally flawed.
Will the same happen with Senior Cycle? Is it already happening?
I first heard about Norma Foley’s announcement this week via Whatsapp. My friends were celebrating. It’s finally happening! Brilliant, excellent changes! I sighed with relief thinking of Leaving Cert students!
My response was less ecstatic.
The fundamental problem with the Leaving Cert is the points race and the CAO system. Secondary school teachers currently work for universities, filtering students through an inhumanely rigid system so that universities don’t have to sort students into courses themselves. Technically, the CAO has nothing to do with secondary level. The CAO is a private company owned by universities. However, until Norma Foley and Simon Harris sit down and change it, reforms will be shallow and dishonest.
That said, I welcome some of the changes. I’ve always called for more choice in assessment. Sadly, I doubt the unions will agree. The move to 40% continuous assessment is a good thing. But will it even happen? Unions may very well refuse to mark the work again, given the pressures heaped on them by the CAO system.
There is also an effort in the reforms to provide more flexibility in pathways. Leaving Cert Applied students will now gain access to some courses in the Leaving Cert Established course. The LCVP programme is set to improve. There’s more provision for students with additional needs to progress through school meaningfully.
Zoom in on the particulars however, and there’s an alarming lack of understanding of the curriculum. For example, in the name of reducing stress, Foley is moving paper one in English to the end of fifth year. Paper One is where students write creatively. These skills develop over time and are at their peak by the end of sixth year. Paper one, the language paper, helps to balance out the denser paper two, the literature paper. By separating these papers, we limit the creativity of students whilst adding more pressure to them in sixth year, not less.
There is no way teachers and students were behind this decision.
Foley also announced the inclusion of two new subjects: Drama, Film and Theatre studies sounds promising but Climate Action and Sustainable Development is already taught across subjects as varied as Geography, and Politics and Society.
Increased choice in subjects and pathways but will require more funding, staffing and resources. Will we get them? Will more students now get the opportunity to study LCA for example, or parts of it?
A dismantling of the CAO system and a far greater focus on numerous practical pathways through increased funding and availability is what’s really needed. And although flawed, even flimsy in places, I wonder how these initial reforms will look in a few years’ time.
JENNIFER HORGAN. APRIL 01, 2022
ORIGINALLY POSTED IN “THE IRISH EXAMINER”