New school junior cycle must get basics right

Parents’ Perspective

Not many parents actually enjoy the experience of their children sitting state exams. For some, it brings back memories of their own experiences of the Leaving Certificate. Held up as the ultimate finishing line on one’s educational journey, it is remembered with a mixture of the pride of endurance and a sense of relief that it’s a marathonsession that will never be repeated.

We all have our particular Leaving Certificate stories about how we forgot to turn the page and missed a vital question or how we hit the jackpot when the exact poets we studied appeared on the paper. Then, there are tales of the nightmare scenarios where some unfortunate student mixes up the exam times or comes down with a crippling tummy bug and isn’t fit for anything except hanging over a basin feeling absolutely miserable.

Last minute cramming

I often felt that there had to be a better way. Where was the joy of learning in all the worry, long hours of intense study and last minute cramming? What was the true educational value of learning off pages of notes on Hamlet or King Lear or ruminating on whether to study Yeats or Kavanagh, nervous that one final test could squash all one’s hopes and dreams?

Students, teachers and parents alike were aware that the system was flawed, but weren’t exactly sure how best to replace it. Now, in an attempt to improve teaching and learning, Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn is attempting to implement a major overhaul of the Junior Cycle in secondary schools. In his Framework for Junior Cycle he outlines his plans to focus on the needs of students as being at the very core of what is done to improve the quality of their learning experiences and outcomes.


The document on the proposed changes makes refreshing reading for any parent who feels that their child doesn’t thrive in a very examination-orientated system. A lot of the changes sound exciting and innovative with more emphasis on flexibility, self-directed learning and choice.

I like the idea of shorter courses which encompass a wide range of diverse subjects from Artistic Performance and Chinese to Programming/Coding and Digital Media Literacy. On-going classroom assessment and feedback take the pressure off the final exams and a new form of school-based certification will be based on not more than 10 full subjects or their equivalent. It all sounds wonderful and I believe most parents will welcome any positive steps towards improving the educational experience for their children. However, not all aspects of the new approach to junior cycle are being lauded and, on closer examination, I can understand some of the misgivings.

I spent quite a bit of time reading A Framework for Junior Cycle; I believe every parent whose child will be educated in the new system should have a look at it. It’s extremely ambitious in what it aims to achieve. The learning outcomes for the fully engaged student in the junior cycle programme is described in 24 statements of learning. On perusing them, it crossed my mind that quite a lot of adults would be happy to know, understand or achieve even half of what was contained in the extensive list of goals. Many adults are still working on “understanding the process of moral decision making” and quite a few of us are struggling to “make informed financial decisions” or “develop our entrepreneurial skills”.

Vibrant communities

These statements are described as “an important guide for students and their parents in relation to what they should expect from junior cycle”. As a parent and a mother, I feel that a lot of what Ruariri Quinn is hoping for is the work of good committed parents and families, vibrant communities and active involvement in activities that can’t be measured or assessed.

The eight principles for junior cycle education include well-being, engagement and participation, and inclusive education. The educational experience is to be “inclusive of all students and contribute to equality of opportunity, participation and outcomes for all”. Parents and those involved in education might question the level of equality and inclusion in the face of cuts to the education budget of vulnerable groups.

There has been a substantial reduction in measures designed to address deficits in education for Travellers. Since 2008, Traveller education initiatives have suffered an 86% cut. The 2013 OECD report Education at a Glance, found that investment in education as a proportion of public expenditure has declined dramatically since 2005. Many schools are struggling to meet the basic needs of their students, with large class sizes and the loss of guidance counsellors and support services. They welcome reform, but are concerned about how these reforms will be implemented.


A quotation attributed to Mark Twain was that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. A Catholic model of education doesn’t focus solely on outcomes and assessments at the expense of developing values and virtues.

I love the vision behind the new junior cycle framework, but it must be a vision based on getting the basics right first. If those who most need help are losing vital supports, if classrooms are overcrowded and teachers are struggling to give individualised attention, it makes sense to tackle these indignities so that inclusion and the access to a good education will be an option for all, even the poor, those with specific learning needs and the marginalised.